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Jefferson, Thomas

Thomas Jefferson
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

3rd President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809
Vice President Aaron Burr (1801–1805),
George Clinton (1805–1809)
Preceded by John Adams
Succeeded by James Madison

2nd Vice President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801
President John Adams
Preceded by John Adams
Succeeded by Aaron Burr

1st United States Secretary of State
In office
March 22, 1790 – December 31, 1793
President George Washington
Preceded by John Jay
(as Secretary of Foreign Affairs)
Succeeded by Edmund Randolph

United States Ambassador to France
In office
Appointed by Congress of the Confederation
Preceded by Benjamin Franklin
Succeeded by William Short

Delegate from Virginia to The Congress of the Confederation
In office
November 1, 1783 – May 7, 1784
Preceded by James Madison
Succeeded by Richard Henry Lee

2nd Governor of Virginia
In office
June 1, 1779 – June 3, 1781
Preceded by Patrick Henry
Succeeded by William Fleming

Representative from Albemarle County to Virginia House of Delegates
In office

Delegate from Virginia to The Second Continental Congress
In office

Representative from Albemarle County to House of Burgesses[1]
In office

Born April 13 [O.S. April 2] 1743
Shadwell, Virginia
Died July 4, 1826(1826-07-04) (aged 83)
Charlottesville, Virginia
Political party Democratic-Republican
Spouse(s) Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
Children Martha Washington Jefferson
Jane Randolph Jefferson
Mary Wayles Jefferson
Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson I
Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson II
Alma mater The College of William & Mary
Occupation planter
Religion see below
Signature "Th: Jefferson"
Classic engraving of Jefferson on Louisiana Purchase Exposition issue of 1904.

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826)[2] was the third President of the United States (1801–1809) and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776). Jefferson was one of the most influential Founding Fathers, known for his promotion of the ideals of republicanism in the United States. Jefferson envisioned America as the force behind a great "Empire of Liberty"[3] that would promote republicanism and counter the imperialism of the British Empire.

Major events during his presidency include the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), as well as escalating tensions with both Britain and France that led to war with Britain in 1812, after he left office.

As a political philosopher, Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment and knew many intellectual leaders in Britain and France. He idealized the independent yeoman farmer as exemplar of republican virtues, distrusted cities and financiers, and favored states' rights and a strictly limited federal government. Jefferson supported the separation of church and state[4] and was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779, 1786). He was the eponym of Jeffersonian democracy and the cofounder and leader of the Democratic-Republican Party, which dominated American politics for 25 years. Jefferson served as the wartime Governor of Virginia (1779–1781), first United States Secretary of State (1789–1793), and second Vice President of the United States (1797–1801).

A polymath, Jefferson achieved distinction as, among other things, a horticulturist, political leader, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, musician, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia. When President John F. Kennedy welcomed 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."[5] To date, Jefferson is the only president to serve two full terms in office without vetoing a single bill of Congress. Jefferson has been consistently ranked by scholars as one of the greatest of U.S. presidents.


Early life and education


Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 [2] into a family closely related to some of the most prominent individuals in Virginia, the third of ten children. Two died in childhood.[6] His mother was Jane Randolph, daughter of Isham Randolph of Dungeness, a ship's captain and sometime planter, first cousin to Peyton Randolph, and granddaughter of wealthy English and Scottish gentry. Jefferson's father was Peter Jefferson, a planter and surveyor in Albemarle County (Shadwell, then Edge Hill, Virginia.) He was of possible Welsh descent, although this remains unclear.[7] When Colonel William Randolph, an old friend of Peter Jefferson, died in 1745, Peter assumed executorship and personal charge of William Randolph's estate in Tuckahoe as well as his infant son, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. That year the Jeffersons relocated to Tuckahoe where they would remain for the next seven years before returning to their home in Albemarle. Peter Jefferson was then appointed to the Colonelcy of the county, an important position at the time.[8]


In 1752, Jefferson began attending a local school run by a local Scottish Presbyterian minister. At the age of nine, Jefferson began studying Latin, Greek, and French; he learned to ride, and began to appreciate the study of nature. In 1757, when he was 14 years old, his father died. Jefferson inherited about 5,000 acres (20 km²) of land and dozens of slaves. He built his home there, which eventually became known as Monticello. After his father's death, he was taught at the school of the learned minister James Maury from 1758 to 1760. The school was in Fredericksville Parish near Gordonsville, Virginia, twelve miles (19 km) from Shadwell, and Jefferson boarded with Maury's family. There he received a classical education and studied history and science.[9]

In 1760, at the age of 16, Jefferson entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. For two years he studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy under Professor William Small, who introduced the enthusiastic Jefferson to the writings of the British Empiricists, including John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton (Jefferson called them the "three greatest men the world had ever produced").[10] He also perfected his French, carried his Greek grammar book wherever he went, practiced the violin, and read Tacitus and Homer. A keen and diligent student, Jefferson displayed an avid curiosity in all fields and, according to the family tradition, frequently studied fifteen hours a day. His closest college friend, John Page of Rosewell, reported that Jefferson "could tear himself away from his dearest friends to fly to his studies." He lodged and boarded at the College in the building known today as the Sir Christopher Wren Building, attending communal meals in the Great Hall, and morning and evening prayers in the Wren Chapel. Jefferson often attended the lavish parties of royal governor Francis Fauquier, where he played his violin and developed an early love for wines.[11] After graduating in 1762 with highest honors, he read law with William & Mary law professor George Wythe and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767.[12]

After college

On October 1, 1765, Jefferson's oldest sister Jane died at the age of 25.[13] Jefferson fell into a period of deep mourning, as he was already saddened by the absence of his sisters Mary, who had been married several years to Thomas Bolling, and Martha, who had wed earlier in July to Dabney Carr.[13] Both had moved to their husbands' residences, leaving younger siblings Elizabeth, Lucy, and the two toddlers as his companions. Jefferson was not comforted by the presence of Elizabeth or Lucy as they did not provide him with the same intellectual stimulation as his older siblings had.[13]

Jefferson would go on to handle many cases as a lawyer in colonial Virginia, managing more than a hundred cases each year between 1768 and 1773 in General Court alone, while acting as counsel in hundreds of cases.[14] Jefferson's client list included members of the Virginia's elite families, including members of his mother's family, the Randolphs.[14]


Jefferson's Home Monticello
On April 13th of 1956 the U.S. Post Office issued a postage stamp honoring Montecello.[15]

In 1768 Thomas Jefferson started the construction of Monticello, a neoclassical mansion. Starting in childhood, Jefferson had always wanted to build a beautiful mountaintop home within sight of Shadwell.[16][17] Jefferson went greatly in debt on Monticello by spending lavishly to create a neoclassical environment, based on his study of the architect Andrea Palladio and The Orders. [18]

Monticello was also Thomas Jefferson's slave plantation. Throughout a period lasting seventy years, Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 slaves. Many of the slaves at the Monticello plantation intermarried amongst each other and produced children. Jefferson only paid a few of his trusted slaves in important positions for work done or for performing difficult tasks like cleaning chimneys or privies. Fragmentary records indicate a rich spiritual life at Monticello slave quarters, incorporating both Christian and African traditions. Although there is no record that Jefferson instructed slaves in grammar education, several enslaved men at Monticello could read and write.[19]

Toward revolution

Besides practicing law, Jefferson represented Albemarle County in the Virginia House of Burgesses beginning in 1769. Following the passage of the Coercive Acts by the British Parliament in 1774, he wrote a set of resolutions against the acts, which were expanded into A Summary View of the Rights of British America, his first published work. Previous criticism of the Coercive Acts had focused on legal and constitutional issues, but Jefferson offered the radical notion that the colonists had the natural right to govern themselves.[20] Jefferson also argued that Parliament was the legislature of Great Britain only, and had no legislative authority in the colonies.[20] The paper was intended to serve as instructions for the Virginia delegation of the First Continental Congress, but Jefferson's ideas proved to be too radical for that body.[20]

Drafting a declaration

Jefferson served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress beginning in June 1775, soon after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. When Congress began considering a resolution of independence in June 1776, Jefferson was appointed to a five-man committee to prepare a declaration to accompany the resolution. The committee selected Jefferson to write the first draft probably because of his reputation as a writer. The assignment was considered routine; no one at the time thought that it was a major responsibility.[21] Jefferson completed a draft in consultation with other committee members, drawing on his own proposed draft of the Virginia Constitution, George Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and other sources.[22]

Political career from 1774 to 1800

Rudolph Evans' statue of Jefferson with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence to the right
Rudolph Evans' statue of Jefferson with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence to the right

Jefferson showed his draft to the committee, which made some final revisions, and then presented it to Congress on June 28, 1776. After voting in favor of the resolution of independence on July 2, Congress turned its attention to the declaration. Over several days of debate, Congress made a few changes in wording and deleted nearly a fourth of the text, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade, changes that Jefferson resented.[23] On July 4, 1776, the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved. The Declaration would eventually become Jefferson's major claim to fame, and his eloquent preamble became an enduring statement of human rights.[23]

State legislator

About 50 men, most of them seated, are in a large meeting room. Most are focused on the five men standing in the center of the room. The tallest of the five is laying a document on a table.
In John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence, the five-man drafting committee is presenting its work to the Continental Congress. Jefferson is the tall figure in the center laying the Declaration on the desk.

In September 1776, Jefferson returned to Virginia and was elected to the new Virginia House of Delegates. During his term in the House, Jefferson set out to reform and update Virginia's system of laws to reflect its new status as a democratic state. He drafted 126 bills in three years, including laws to abolish primogeniture, establish freedom of religion, and streamline the judicial system. In 1778, Jefferson's "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" and subsequent efforts to reduce clerical control led to some small changes at William and Mary College.[24] While in the state legislature Jefferson proposed a bill to eliminate capital punishment for all crimes except murder and treason. His effort to end the death penalty law was defeated.[25]

Governor of Virginia

Jefferson served as governor of Virginia from 1779–1781. As governor, he oversaw the transfer of the state capital from Williamsburg to the more central location of Richmond in 1780. He continued to advocate educational reforms at the College of William and Mary, including the nation's first student-policed honor code. In 1779, at Jefferson's behest, William and Mary appointed George Wythe to be the first professor of law in an American university. Dissatisfied with the rate of changes he wanted to push through, he later became the founder of the University of Virginia, which was the first university in the United States at which higher education was completely separate from religious doctrine.

Virginia was invaded twice by the British led first by Benedict Arnold and then by Lord Cornwallis during Jefferson's term as governor. He, along with Patrick Henry and other leaders of Virginia, were but ten minutes away from being captured by Banastre Tarleton, a British colonel leading a cavalry column that was raiding the area in June 1781.[26] Public disapproval of his performance delayed his future political prospects, and he was never again elected to office in Virginia.[27] He was, however, appointed by the state legislature to Congress in 1783.

Member of Congress

The Virginia state legislature appointed Jefferson to the Congress of the Confederation on 6 June 1783, his term beginning on 1 November. He was a member of the committee formed to set foreign exchange rates, and in that capacity he recommended that the American currency be based on the decimal system.

Jefferson also recommended setting up the Committee of the States, to function as the executive arm of Congress when Congress was not in session.

He left Congress when he was elected a minister plenipotentiary on 7 May 1784. He became Minister to France in 1785.

Minister to France

Memorial plaque on the Champs-Élysées, Paris, France, marking where Jefferson lived while he was Minister to France. The plaque was erected after World War I to commemorate the centenary of Jefferson's founding of the University of Virginia.
Memorial plaque on the Champs-Élysées, Paris, France, marking where Jefferson lived while he was Minister to France. The plaque was erected after World War I to commemorate the centenary of Jefferson's founding of the University of Virginia.

Because Jefferson served as minister to France from 1785 to 1789, he was not able to attend the Philadelphia Convention. He generally supported the new constitution despite the lack of a bill of rights and was kept informed by his correspondence with James Madison.

While in Paris, he lived in a home on the Champs-Élysées. He spent much of his time exploring the architectural sites of the city, as well as enjoying the fine arts that Paris had to offer. He became a favorite in the salon culture and was a frequent dinner guest of many of the city's most prominent people. In addition, he frequently entertained others from French and European society. He and his daughters were accompanied by two slaves of the Hemings family from Monticello. Jefferson paid for James Hemings to be trained as a French chef (Hemings later accompanied Jefferson as chef when he was in Philadelphia). Sally Hemings, James' sister, had accompanied Jefferson's younger daughter overseas. Some historians speculate that Jefferson begun a long-term relationship with Sally Hemings while in Paris.[28] Both the Hemings learned French during their time in the city.[29]

From 1784 to 1785, Jefferson was one of the architects of trade relations between the United States and Prussia. The Prussian ambassador Friedrich Wilhelm von Thulemeyer and John Adams, both living in the Hague, and Benjamin Franklin in Paris, were also involved.[30]

Despite his numerous friendships with the social and noble elite, when the French Revolution began in 1789, Jefferson sided with the revolutionaries.

Secretary of State

After returning from France, Jefferson served as the first Secretary of State under George Washington (1790–1793). Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton began sparring over national fiscal policy, especially the funding of the debts of the war, with Hamilton believing that the debts should be equally shared, and Jefferson believing that each state should be responsible for its own debt (Virginia had not accumulated much debt during the Revolution). In further sparring with the Federalists, Jefferson came to equate Hamilton and the rest of the Federalists with Tories and monarchists who threatened to undermine republicanism. He equated Federalism with "Royalism," and made a point to state that "Hamiltonians were panting after...and itching for crowns, coronets and mitres."[31] Jefferson and James Madison founded and led the Democratic-Republican Party. He worked with Madison and his campaign manager John J. Beckley to build a nationwide network of Republican allies to combat Federalists across the country.

In foreign policy Jefferson was repeatedly out-maneuvered by Hamilton, who had Washington's ear. The French minister reported to Paris in 1793 that Jefferson told him, "Senator Morris and Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton, attached to the interests of England, had the greatest influence over the President's mind, and that it was only with difficulty that he [Jefferson] counterbalanced their efforts."[32] Jefferson strongly supported France against Britain when war broke out between those nations in 1793. Historian Lawrence S. Kaplan notes Jefferson's "visceral support for the French cause," while agreeing with Washington that the nation should not get involved in the fighting.[33] The arrival in 1793 of an aggressive new French minister, Edmond-Charles Genêt, caused a crisis for the Secretary of State, as he watched Genêt try to violate American neutrality, manipulate public opinion, and even go over Washington's head in appealing to the people; projects that Jefferson helped to thwart. According to Schachner, Jefferson believed that political success at home depended on the success of the French army in Europe:[34]

Aquatint of Thomas Jefferson in profile by Tadeusz Kościuszko
Thomas Jefferson, aquatint by Tadeusz Kościuszko
Jefferson still clung to his sympathies with France and hoped for the success of her arms abroad and a cordial compact with her at home. He was afraid that any French reverses on the European battlefields would give "wonderful vigor to our monocrats, and unquestionably affect the tone of administering our government. Indeed, I fear that if this summer should prove disastrous to the French, it will damp that energy of republicanism in our new Congress, from which I had hoped so much reformation."

Break from office

Jefferson at the end of 1793 retired to Monticello where he continued to orchestrate opposition to Hamilton and Washington. However, the Jay Treaty of 1794, orchestrated by Hamilton, brought peace and trade with Britain – while Madison, with strong support from Jefferson, wanted, Miller says, "to strangle the former mother country" without going to war. "It became an article of faith among Republicans that 'commercial weapons' would suffice to bring Great Britain to any terms the United States chose to dictate." Jefferson, in retirement, strongly encouraged Madison.[35]

Election of 1796 and Vice Presidency

As the Democratic-Republican candidate in 1796 he lost to John Adams, but had enough electoral votes to become Vice President (1797–1801). He wrote a manual of parliamentary procedure, but otherwise avoided the Senate.

With the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war with France, underway, the Federalists under John Adams started a navy, built up the army, levied new taxes, readied for war, and enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Jefferson interpreted the Alien and Sedition Acts as an effort to suppress Democratic-Republicans rather than dangerous enemy aliens and, in fact, they were used to attack his party, with the most notable attacks coming from Matthew Lyon, a representative from Vermont. Jefferson and Madison rallied support by anonymously writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which declared that the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it by the states. The Resolutions meant that, should the federal government assume such powers, its acts under them could be voided by a state. The Resolutions presented the first statements of the states' rights theory, that later led to the concepts of nullification and interposition.

Election of 1800

Working closely with Aaron Burr of New York, Jefferson rallied his party, attacking the new taxes especially, and ran for the Presidency in 1800. Consistent with the traditions of the times, he did not formally campaign for the position. Before the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, a problem with the new union's electoral system arose. He tied with Burr for first place in the electoral college, leaving the House of Representatives (where the Federalists still had some power) to decide the election.

After lengthy debate within the Federalist-controlled House, Hamilton convinced his party that Jefferson would be a lesser political evil than Burr and that such scandal within the electoral process would undermine the still-young regime. The issue was resolved by the House, on February 17, 1801, after thirty-six ballots, when Jefferson was elected President and Burr Vice President. Burr's refusal to remove himself from consideration created ill will with Jefferson, who dropped Burr from the ticket in 1804 after Burr killed Hamilton in a duel.

However, Jefferson's win over the Federalist John Adams in the general election was derided in its time for how the electoral college was set up under the three-fifths compromise at the Constitutional convention. Jefferson owed part of his election to the South's inflated number of Electors due to slave-holdings, which meant that twelve of Jefferson's electoral votes—his margin of victory—were derived from citizenry who were denied the vote and their full humanity.[36][37] After his election in 1800, Jefferson was derided as the "Negro President", with critics like the Mercury and New-England Palladium of Boston writing on January 20, 1801, that Jefferson had the gall to celebrate his election as a victory for democracy when he won "the temple of Liberty on the shoulders of slaves."[37][38]

Presidency 1801–1809

First Jefferson stamp
~ Issue of 1856 ~

During Jefferson's presidency many federal taxes were repealed, and he sought to rely mainly on customs revenue. He pardoned people who had been imprisoned under the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in John Adams' term, which Jefferson believed to be unconstitutional. He repealed the Judici

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