Thomas Jefferson, Renaissance Man


Thomas Jefferson has often been called a "Renaissance man," someone who is talented in many areas. The term is often used to describe the Italian painter Leonardo Da Vinci, who not only painted the Mona Lisa, but who also made important contributions to sculpture, astronomy, physiology, architecture, and many other fields. Jefferson is well known for his contributions to American politics and government; this lesson allows students to explore some of his other talents.



  1. Ask the class: Who is the most talented person you know? Why? What are this person’s talents? Can you name talented people in history? What were their talents?
  2. Next, have students write the name of a person from the past or the present whom they feel is especially talented in each of the following fields:
  • Mathematics
  • Music
  • Invention
  • Architecture
  • Astronomy
  • Law
  • Governmental leadership
  • Gardening
  • Philosophy
  • Writing
  • Poetry
  1. Ask students: Name a person who excels in all or many of those areas. What do we call someone who is accomplished in so many areas?
  2. Distribute the documents to the class. Have them answer the questions pertaining to each one.

Document I

Thomas Jefferson’s library catalog

  1. What information is presented in this catalog?
  2. What can be deduced about Jefferson’s interests?

Document II

Thomas Jefferson’s architectural drawing of the Rotunda of the University of Virginia

  1. What skills are demonstrated by this drawing?
  2. Where did Jefferson get his ideas for this style of architecture?

Document III

Thomas Jefferson wrote the epitaph for his own tombstone found in the family cemetery at Monticello. It reads (original sketch attached above):

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of Independence
Of the Statue of Virginia for
Religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia

  1. In your opinion, what is missing from this epitaph?
  2. What would be a more accurate epitaph?
  3. To what extent does Jefferson reflect the qualities of a Renaissance man?

Document IV

"A gentleman of thirty-two who could calculate an eclipse, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin." – James Parten, 1874

  1. According to this quote, in what fields is Jefferson considered accomplished?

Homework Assignment

Choose one of the following assignments.

  1. Historian David McCullough wrote, "Jefferson is forever interesting because he was interested in everything." Write an essay that either supports or refutes this assertion.
  2. Write an obituary for Thomas Jefferson, the American Renaissance Man.