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Student voices: Why Thomas Jefferson should matter today

Student voices: Why Thomas Jefferson should matter today

May 1st, 2018 in Opinion

Our community on Monday celebrated its first Thomas Jefferson Day, which was co-sponsored by the News Tribune.

As part of the celebration honoring our third president — and the one we named our city after — an essay contest asked local middle and high school students: "Why Thomas Jefferson should matter today."

The middle school essay winners were Thomas Jefferson Middle School students Maggie Hilty and Kourtney Highfill. Madalynn Berkey from Helias High School and Rani Patel from Simonsen 9th Grade Center won the high school category. Helias High School student Ben Stumpe won the multimedia presentation category.

During Monday's celebration, each was presented a $275 prize and busts of Thomas Jefferson.

What follows are each of the four winning written essays.

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By Maggie Hilty, Thomas Jefferson Middle School

Thomas Jefferson is one of those figures we look up to in America. If you tell a child his name, they'll probably recognize it. However, as a society, we tend to overlook some of the more 'uncomfortable' facts of his life.

In this essay, I'd like to convince you that, yes, Thomas Jefferson is an important historical figure, and we should speak about him in our country. I'd also like to address his good deeds and his flaws. I believe it's time America starts acknowledging the important achievements as well as the faults of historical figures, and one of our founding fathers would be an excellent place to start.

Let's begin by talking about the good things that Jefferson accomplished and some of his most notable achievements because they're an important part of our history, too. One of his most famous accomplishments was authoring the Declaration of Independence, the document that America stood behind on its way to becoming a free country. The Declaration was a product of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, which Jefferson attended at just 33 years old. He was chosen to create the first draft of the Declaration, along with a small group of editors, because of his interest in language, his expansive collection of books and his knack for writing. He spent only 17 days in total, from June 11-28, writing this document that we still cherish today. Later on, he even became a leader in the country he helped to create.

Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States, as well as vice president to John Adams, his predecessor. Jefferson was president for two terms, 1801-09. During his first term in office, America's debt decreased by a third, even though he purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, effectively doubling the nation's size for the price of $15 million.

Afterwards, he sent out the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the new land, which is a route still remembered and marked today. During his second term, he was particularly focused on keeping America out of the Napoleonic Wars. However his solution, an embargo on trade with Europe, crashed the economy and was very unpopular.

Even before his presidency, Jefferson accomplished some impressive achievements. A strong advocate for the separation of church and state and religious liberties, he wrote a statement called the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This writing addressed why government and religion should be kept separate, and why people should be able to practice whatever religion they choose. It is considered the predecessor to the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty in the United States Constitution. The Virginia General Assembly passed the statement on Jan. 16, 1786. Jefferson even advocated for the import of slaves to cease, a lifetime effort that never quite succeeded. However, there was a flip-side to his seemingly progressive argument.

Thomas Jefferson always argued against the morality of slavery; however, over the course of his life, he owned more than 600 slaves, inheriting about 175 slaves from his father and father-in-law.

Joseph J. Ellis wrote, "The huge gap between his lyrical expression of liberal ideals and the more attenuated reality of his own life has transformed Jefferson into America's most problematic and paradoxical hero."

Jefferson wrote that black people were inferior to white people in his Notes on the State of Virginia. He believed that the two would never be able to co-exist in society. Slaves brought in a huge amount of money for Jefferson, and even though he advocated against slavery, he freed only a few upon his death, and sold the rest, arguing that releasing someone who had been a slave their whole life would be like abandoning a child.

We need to be careful in praising Jefferson as an abolitionist against slavery, because in reality, the very person who wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence also wrote that people of a certain skin color were inferior to another.

My goal in writing this essay is to inform people about both sides of Thomas Jefferson. I believe we should look at him for who he was: a scholar, lawyer, governor and president, but also a plantation and slave owner.

He was a product of the time he lived in. He accomplished quite a lot in his life, from the clearing of the Rivanna River, something he considered a great achievement, to writing the iconic Declaration of Independence. However, he also upheld the racist ideologies of his day.

To conclude, I think that we should continue teaching children about Thomas Jefferson as a historical figure, but we also need to teach them about the things we sometimes gloss over, because he wasn't perfect.

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By Kourtney Highfill, Thomas Jefferson Middle School

Many students may wonder why they should have to study Thomas Jefferson and other patriots when they lived so long ago. What they do not realize is how much they changed the face of their country and created a revolution that changed the world.

Thomas Jefferson matters today because he fought for freedom, he fought for equality, and what he did as president still affects what America is today.

Thomas Jefferson fought for our country's freedom. He made his voice heard against the tyranny that the British soldiers were placing on the colonists. He never wanted to have a public life, but he was passionate about his beliefs and was willing to leave his comfort zone to make his voice heard. People can learn that their voice is worth fighting for. They can learn that standing up for what they believe in will always be worth it, even if they have to leave their comfort zone to do it. Jefferson also taught students how vital a good education is in order to become someone that changes the world. Jefferson was well-educated. He was taught several languages as a child, including Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian. His knowledge and ability to write helped him to be chosen to write the Declaration of Independence, which is arguably the most important document in this nation's history. This document led us to become an independent nation, free from Britain's oppression.

Thomas Jefferson fought for all Americans to have equal opportunities and rights.

Jefferson said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

When Jefferson was the secretary of Foreign Affairs, he fought with Alexander Hamilton, then the secretary of Treasury, about the equality of all Americans. Hamilton wanted to accommodate merchants more than farmers even though the majority of the colonists were farmers, but Jefferson wanted to keep individual liberty with all Americans. Jefferson believed that everyone was worth the same in the eyes of God and because of this that no one man should be held higher than another.

Thomas Jefferson did many things as president that still affect what our country is today. Jefferson was the third president of the United States. Jefferson was a part of a different political party than George Washington and John Adams (first and second presidents of the United States). There was a peaceful transition

between these parties. This teaches us that despite our disagreements and different views, we are all part of one country and one nation. United we stand, divided we fall. During his time as president, he had to withstand a lot of incrimination from people who did not like him. Even though all of this was occurring, he made some life-changing decisions for the country.

Jefferson wanted to listen to the people and do what was in the best interest of the people. He reduced taxes and got rid of acts that the people hated. One of the pivotal decisions in the development of America was the decision to buy the Louisiana Territory from the French. Jefferson wanted to buy New Orleans from Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France, so that America could have possession of the New Orleans port in order to better protect American trade. Bonaparte however was in need of money for the war the French were fighting and didn't want to lose the territory to his enemies, so he sold the entire Louisiana Territory to Jefferson for $15 million. People should know about this purchase because without it much of the land that many Americans call home might not be part of America today.

In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson matters today because he fought for freedom, he fought for equality and what he did as president still affects what America is today.

Thomas Jefferson was a true American who deserves to be remembered for what he did. He was a man of true humility who only wanted to be remembered for the freedom he helped this country get from Britain by writing the Declaration of Independence, his fight for religious freedom, and the work he did with free education and the founding of the University of Virginia. Jefferson was a man who wanted everyone to realize that they are equal and they have equal rights.

Imagine a society where students didn't know who some of the founders of their country were, who helped set them free from Britain's tyranny, who fought for equality for all citizens, who fought for their human rights and free education. It is almost impossible to picture a generation of American citizens who are clueless to the history of their country and how they got the rights they have as an American citizen.

A generation that doesn't learn the many lessons that Thomas Jefferson can teach us is a generation that would be very turbulent. This would be a very fearful time to live in.

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By Madalynn Berkey, Helias Catholic High School

Thomas Jefferson is undoubtedly a historical figure of great significance. His name appears frequently in history textbooks, detailing the many great things that he accomplished during his time as the third president of the United States and as a founding father: buying the Louisiana Purchase, penning the Declaration of Independence and writing the "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom," among many other notable things.

Even today, Thomas Jefferson is revered as one of the greatest presidents our country has ever known. Along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, he is honored as one of the four presidents whose faces adorn Mount Rushmore, an iconic tourist destination in South Dakota. In addition, he is one of only four presidents to have a state capital as their namesake; James Madison (Madison, Wisconsin), Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln, Nebraska), and Andrew Jackson (Jackson, Mississippi) also share this honor.

As 46 of the 50 states in our country are not named after presidents, I feel blessed to live in a city that not only is named after a president, but is named after one of our greatest presidents. Thomas Jefferson's accomplishments in and out of office have truly shaped our country and the laws that govern it. Without him, the Declaration of Independence would not have been written as it was, and our country would have never gained the many freedoms and liberties we are gifted with in our everyday lives.

However, Thomas Jefferson's legacy transcends beyond his accomplishments. He was also a hard worker, a loving father and grandfather and an avid reader. In fact, when the Library of Congress burned down in 1815, Jefferson sold his entire personal collection, which encompassed a remarkable 6,487 books, to replace them. He was such a scholar that on his tombstone, his presidency was not even mentioned. Instead, it reads:

"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia."

I find this quote very inspiring not only in its words, but in its contextual meaning. It depicts a very modest president, not focused on gaining power, but instead focused on gaining knowledge and then sharing that knowledge with other people.

Jefferson's love of knowledge also made him a strong supporter of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, in which Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were tasked with exploring the Louisiana Purchase, a 530 million-acre piece of land that Jefferson had bought from France at a bargain $15 million.

Jefferson's purchase doubled the size of the United States of America and was a massive step toward making our country into the familiar shape we all know and love today.

Without the Louisiana Purchase, there would be no "Jefferson City." In fact, there would be no Midwest. None of us would live in the land of the free today without Jefferson's historical purchase.

Everything our country is and stands for can be directly linked to Thomas Jefferson. In addition to adding the entire Midwest onto the United States map, Jefferson also helped write both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which are without a doubt the two most important documents ever written in our country.

Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, a document that announced the United States' secession from England. His writings stated, for the first time ever, that the U.S. was no longer a colony; it was a free and independent country. In addition to his groundbreaking Declaration of Independence, he also helped write the United States Constitution, which is the foundation for all of the laws and freedoms we possess in our country.

His superb writings allowed for a constitution that is relevant even in today's society, and continues to be the basis for the justices and rights given to the American people. The Constitution is the beating heart of the United States, and it serves as the moral compass for people in the United States even hundreds of years later.

In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson is not just another name in a textbook — he is a true inspiration to all Americans. Without him, our country might not exist at all, and would instead still be a colony of Britain. He matters so much to this country, not as just a Founding Father, but as a true icon of the American people.

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By Rani Patel, Simonsen 9th Grade Center

While almost every student growing up in America has learned about Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, I have gotten the privilege to grow up around him.

Well not exactly. You see, I live in a city named "Jefferson City," attended a middle school called "Thomas Jefferson Middle School" and currently attend a high school named wait for it "Jefferson City High School."

In order to understand why Thomas Jefferson is so popular, it is crucial to unearth how he made such an extraordinary impact on America.

So why name the capital of Missouri and many schools inside the city limits after a man who died 192 years ago?

Jefferson bought land from France that doubled the size of the U.S. This was known as the Louisiana Purchase. He later sent out Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (surprise, Lewis and Clark is also the name of a middle school in Jefferson City) to explore this new land.

Missouri happened to be part of the land he bought so the only reason Missouri exists, is because of Thomas Jefferson.

The reason many schools in Jefferson City are named after Thomas Jefferson is due to his love for education.

"Throughout his long life, Jefferson strongly held the belief that humanity, if not actually perfectible, could vastly improve its lot through education and learning." We hold these truths to be self evident because many argue the power that comes from knowledge makes even the largest weapons seem insignificant. Jefferson believed that a majority of knowledge comes from books. Moreover, "He sold his library of 6,500 volumes to the Library of Congress after the British destroyed what was there. 'I cannot live without books,' he told John Adams." After his presidency, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia.

"Despite his many later accomplishments, including being elected as the nation's third president in 1800 and serving two terms, Jefferson's principal legacy to the United States arguably remains the Declaration of Independence." ("Writing of the Declaration of Independence").

Thomas Jefferson's advocacy for religious freedom and the idea behind a separate church and state, a brand new concept at the time, shaped the lives of many Americans of his time and our time alike. All men are

created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. One of the most common rights includes the First Amendment. This includes the freedom of religion. This meant "that religious liberty and political equality would not be exclusively Christian. For Jefferson asserted in his autobiography that his original legislative intent had been 'to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan (Muslim), the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination'" (Spellberg, Denise A.).

Thomas Jefferson was human. This meant he had flaws and despite all the good he did for our country, such as religious freedom and writing the Declaration of Independence, he made mistakes.

Thomas Jefferson had many beliefs that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. "Yet the contradiction between Jefferson's words and his own actions — he owned more than 600 slaves over his lifetime — sits at the heart of his complex and controversial legacy" (Cunningham, Lillian).

Jefferson had a negative view (common to wealthy white men of the time) that he expressed about African Americans during his lifetime. "Meanwhile, recent DNA evidence seems to support much-disputed claims that Jefferson had a longstanding intimate relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and that the couple had several children together. Given these circumstances, Jefferson's legacy as history's most eloquent proponent of human freedom and equality — justly earned by his words in the Declaration of Independence — remains complicated by the inconsistencies of his life as a slave owner" ("Writing of Declaration of Independence").

While this isn't what most people would like to hear, nor is it what people should focus on, it shows that nobody's perfect (I gotta work it, again and again, 'til I get it right) and we all have flaws.

July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was the date Jefferson died. That same day, Jefferson's friend, former presidential rival and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, died.

While Thomas Jefferson may be long gone, his legacy will always be remembered, and although there was hypocrisy between his words and actions, the Declaration of Independence did exactly what it was supposed to do. It declared independence and changed the course of history forever.

The freedom we allow our citizens, thanks to Thomas Jefferson, is unique and draws millions of people from the other side of the globe. Thomas Jefferson has truly defined American culture as it is known today.