How do you briefly describe a life when the life is that of Thomas Jefferson? In his 83 years Jefferson succeeded in leaving an indelible impression on the nation he helped create. To begin to list his accomplishments is to invite omission.
Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions regarding the monument to be erected over his grave. In this document Jefferson supplied a sketch of the shape of the marker and the epitaph with which he wanted it to be inscribed:
“…on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:
‘Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia’
Because by these,” he explained, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”
Jefferson either forgot — which was unlikely — or simply didn’t consider it important enough to mention that he also happened to be the third President of the United States.
The grave marker and accompanying marble epitaph were originally erected at Monticello, seven years after Jefferson’s death in 1826. But in 1883, Jefferson’s descendants donated the tombstone to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri.
To this day the reason for the choice is not entirely clear, but it’s not entirely random either. Missouri was the first university founded within the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase during Jefferson’s tenure as president. The school’s design was even inspired by the founding father’s plans for the University of Virginia, of which he was so proud.