To parents Jane Randolph and Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson entered the world, the third of eight children, on April 13, 1743 in Virginia. Jefferson's father worked as a surveyor, figuring the boundaries between Virginia and North Carolina and producing Virginia's first precise, reliable map. He also served in his local community as a county lieutenant. Young Jefferson respected his father's accomplishments, which may have influenced his own desires to draw and explore.
Another man, Rev. William Douglas, also affected Jefferson at an early age. Douglas introduced him to Latin, Greek, and French, thus shaping Jefferson for the rest of his life. However, in 1757 his father died and Jefferson, fourteen years old, boarded with a minister in a neighboring town. With the Rev. James Maury, Jefferson furthered his classical education and learned much in the way of history and science as well. Jefferson then attended the College of William and Mary. He studied philosophy, math, metaphysics, French, Greek, and practiced his violin, graduating with the highest of honors. Williamsburg, the seat of the provincial government, afforded Jefferson many opportunities to witness history being made and to see the mechanics of politics.
Such an opportunity arose in 1765. As a student of law under George Wythe, Jefferson saw Patrick Henry give a fiery yet eloquent argument against the Stamp Act and in favor of the Virginia Stamp Act resolutions, which basically openly defied Britain. Perhaps witnessing such fervor inspired Jefferson as he later would set similar sentiments against the aristocracy to writing.
Jefferson then earned admittance to the Virginia bar and started practicing law in 1769. Although he often mumbled while speaking and didn't like court proceedings, Jefferson flourished as a lawyer. Even when he no longer practiced because of holding public offices, Jefferson's writings often reflected his legal train of thought.
That same year he began a six-year stint representing Virginia in the House of Burgesses. Here, too, he experienced the workings of revolutionary politics. His ability to write convincingly well put him in good stead with the anti-British group around him. Jefferson helped pen the resolutions forming the Virginia Committee of Correspondence and wrote a paper called A Summary View of the Rights of British America. This explained terms by which Americans would reach a settlement with Britain, but it was considered too forward thinking and radical by many and never reached adoption. His thoughts, though, gave proponents of American independence much on which to base their own arguments. Published as a pamphlet, Jefferson's paper was distributed throughout the colonies and over into England.
In his private life at age twenty-nine, Jefferson married Martha Skelton, a widow. She brought six children into the world during their ten years of marriage, yet only two girls survived into adulthood. The couple lived in the pavilion at Monticello as Jefferson planned the architecture and design for the rest of their home. Having inherited land from his father, Jefferson's holdings increased with land from the estate of his wife's father. Yet with it also came a tremendous debt that followed Jefferson his entire life.
After being a Virginia representative, Jefferson moved on to Congress. Chosen originally as an alternate to the Continental Congress, Jefferson later replaced Payton Randolph when Randolph was called away. A committee was selected to write a declaration of independence, and that committee unanimously agreed that Jefferson should be its author. Though still young and only thirty-three years old, Jefferson's masterful use of his pen had made a deep impression on people. Somewhat resembling the paper A Summary View and with alterations made at the insistence of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Congress, the Declaration of Independence went forth to become adopted on July 4, 1776.
Needed then at home, Jefferson left the Congress because his wife and two children were sick. He also wanted to work developing Virginia's state government. Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates and took over a progressive leadership position formerly held by Patrick Henry. In three years Jefferson helped write 126 bills, about 100 of which were partially or fully enacted. Though not his own idea, Jefferson endorsed the idea of moving the capitol to Richmond and designed the bill to carry it out. This bill also included Jefferson's suggestions for stately public buildings. Other bills attempted to update the state's laws, abolish the exclusive right of a eldest son's inheritance, promote freedom of religion, separate church and state, and make the judicial system more efficient. Very interested in education reform, Jefferson drafted "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge." Another bill, "Establishing Religious Freedom," stated that religion couldn't stand in the way of civil rights and that a person's opinions weren't the affairs of the government. This charter is one success that Jefferson had engraved on his headstone after his death.
Again following in Patrick Henry's footsteps, Jefferson won election to Virginia's governorship. A thinker and a planner, he wasn't quick to utilize his authority. Jefferson lacked power because of limitations to the state constitution and the dwindling state funds. Moreover, he wouldn't employ even somewhat shady legal tactics even during a crisis. Though he managed to squeak by and become reelected for another year, Jefferson's second year was unheroic. The United States was still at war with the British and the southern colonies were besieged. When the British invaded Virginia, Jefferson fled to Monticello and resigned his post. The British raided his home, but Jefferson and the legislators with him escaped unharmed. On this dismal note, Jefferson's governorship ended. Later, it was deemed that he acted not of cowardice but of caution and practicality. He'd depended upon a military that was unprepared for an invasion, leaving him only so many choices. Jefferson himself suggested that Virginia needed a military man in charge, so he declined a further reelection and allowed General Nelson to take over. Virginians dismayed at Jefferson's performance neglected to ever again elect him to a state public office.
In 1781 Jefferson returned to Monticello and his family, his farms, and his books. After falling from his horse, Jefferson needed time to recover and relax. Part of that time he spent penning Notes of the State of Virginia based on the information he'd gathered over the years regarding geography, politics, and social life. Jefferson added and revised his work and eventually it was published in 1786. Yet before his writing was through, Jefferson's wife passed away, leaving him morose and deeply depressed.
Perhaps needing time away from Monticello, Jefferson agreed to act as a representative of peace and negotiate with Britain. But, before he could leave the United States, peace arrangements were made, and Jefferson wasn't needed. He turned again to politics and served in Congress where he helped draft thirty-one papers. In his Notes on the Establishment of a Money Unit, Jefferson recommended that the use of the dollar be adopted as well as currency units broken into tenths and hundredths.
In another paper he proposed the creation of the Northwest Territory which meant expansion westward by admitting new states instead of expanding states already there. Jefferson even offered names for the new states, and Michigan, Illinois, and Washington eventually were used. Jefferson also suggested banning slavery for the incoming states. Although his paper didn't pass, it set the precedence for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, a measure held up in importance to the Declaration of Independence because of its far-reaching impact.
Next Jefferson wrote a report about treaties of commerce and was appointed to go to France to forward the negotiations. In his forty-second year of life, Jefferson took over the position of minister to France from Benjamin Franklin and lived there until 1789. Because he was still useful, Jefferson seemed satisfied to be overshadowed by both Franklin and Lafayette, a French military officer who played a dominant role in both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. During his stay Jefferson negotiated a treaty of commerce with Prussia, helped work on a treaty with Morocco, loosened French taxation on American imports, and spoke out against the tobacco monopoly within France. As well as serving as minister, Jefferson also studied the French culture.
Wherever he went in Europe, Jefferson searched for fascinating information to share with others at home in the United States. He studied inventions, bought books, took rice seed samples from Italy to test their growth in South Carolina and Georgia, researched the olive tree, and worked out a design for a new state capitol based on his viewings of the Maison Carree.
Though charmed by French manners and enthralled by their cuisine and wines, Jefferson worried about the boundaries of French inequalities. His views of royalty and religious figures further diminished as he witnessed the French Revolution firsthand, where a revolt against the king started by the nobility and continued by the working class and peasants ended in a full blown revolution for improved social, religious, and economic conditions. Though he disdained the violence, Jefferson believed that the Revolution was necessary in order to give more power to the people. He believed in the tremendous opportunities mankind held and thought that ultimately man would live with freedoms, though he wasn't sure the French could replicate America's republican form of government.
Finding it necessary to leave France to resolve private matters, Jefferson sailed home with his two daughters who'd been with him during part of his stay in Europe. Upon arriving in the United States, Jefferson found that he'd been selected to be President George Washington's Secretary of State. This position under another title had been held by John Jay. Now, it was Jefferson's turn, and under the Constitution he became the first Secretary of State.
Somewhat dismayed by all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the executive office, Jefferson nevertheless had tremendous faith in his president. He believed in a strong federal government and approved the Constitution, though he lamented the lack of a bill of rights. Jefferson's worries were regarding Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who he thought leaned too closely to monarchists. This may have been somewhat exaggerated, but it led Jefferson and James Madison to form a party as a counterbalance. Those in opposition to Hamilton and the Federalists were called the Republicans. Having enjoyed monarchial France, Jefferson felt uncomfortable around such notions in the United States. He feared that Hamilton would take them on that course.
For President Washington, it was inconvenient at times to have his Treasury Secretary in defiance of and meddling in the affairs of his Secretary of State. It is agreed that Hamilton stepped on Jefferson's toes on numerous occasions, but Washington kept Jefferson on his staff and benefited from both of his intelligent and gifted secretaries. Washington needed Jefferson's input as the French Revolution followed its course. Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton all agreed that America should remain neutral in the affair, though Jefferson also maintained that America shouldn't oppose the principles on which the French Revolution were founded. Throughout his time in office, though, whenever Hamilton caused Jefferson grief, Jefferson's lack of assertiveness showed. He disliked controversy and preferred to work behind the scenes, and thus was unwilling to personally make a stand in his own defense. He often relied on his friends to defend his actions. Jefferson left his office at the end of 1793 and returned home to Monticello in hopes of retiring yet again.
At Monticello Jefferson took great interest in agriculture. He rotated his crops to renew the land, tested mechanical machinery, constructed a gristmill, planted peach trees, entertained many visitors, and began a nail factory on his property. Jefferson's love for his holdings led him to long hours away from reading and writing as he tried to bring Monticello to profitability. Unfortunately, as was the case for many Virginians, Jefferson's assets didn't do much to alleviate his debt in interest to British creditors. Yet he continued giving as much as possible to help friends that he believed were worse off than he.
When backed by his party to run for the presidency, Jefferson agreed yet failed to win overall by three electoral votes. Thus he assumed the vice-presidency under John Adams, a man he'd come to dislike. Not completely problematic, the vice-presidency offered Jefferson an income and an opportunity to spend time at Monticello. Also during this time as the leader of the Senate, Jefferson wrote a Manual of Parliamentary Practice and tried to stay out of the workings of the administration of which he sorely disapproved. Yet he could not stay aloof when the Federalists initiated the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The Alien and Sedition Acts enacted by the Federalists were devised to hinder the Republican party by reducing the immigrant population, many of whom were voting Republican, and by silencing the press's freedom of speech, thereby quieting Republican objections to Federalist policies. In response, Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolution and James Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution, protesting the Alien and Sedition Acts primarily because they gave too much power to the federal government and limited states rights. As a result, the Republican party became more united for the 1800 election in which Jefferson, aged fifty-seven, won the presidency.
Jefferson's win came, ironically, from Hamilton's support in the House of Representatives. Aaron Burr had tied with Jefferson in the voting, and Hamilton thought Jefferson to be the lesser of two evils, thus throwing his support to his opponent. Burr, then became Vice-President. As President, Jefferson extended his hand to the Federalists, trying to bring civility to the government. He asked them to unite with the Republicans as Americans rather than fight as political parties. Though some Federalists still detested Jefferson, the public benefited from his policies and supported their president. Jefferson cut taxes, allowed the Alien and Sedition Acts to become void, made plans to reduce the debt, and promoted his belief that the federal government should concern itself with issues abroad and let the states decide local matters on their own. Working best by utilizing the people around him, Jefferson encouraged them to do their best to achieve common goals in the best interest of the country.
Extremely frugal with government money and very adamant about following the law, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory sorely tested Jefferson. When Spain gave Louisiana back to France, Jefferson wrote to the minister to France Robert R. Livingston and sent over James Monroe to purchase the entire area. Their acquisition provided both a diplomatic and a public success. Yet, Jefferson worried. He'd just increased the federal debt rather than lowering it, and he didn't believe that the Constitution gave him the power to buy land. He was afraid of a later abusive and tyrannical federal government. Though he had expanded his country, Jefferson didn't view this as one of his lasting achievements.
For Jefferson the one highlight regarding the Louisiana Purchase was the interest sparked about the Pacific Northwest. The expedition of Captain Meriwether Lewis, formerly a private secretary to Jefferson, and William Clark was proposed by Jefferson. He asked Congress to help fund the journey and marveled at the information brought back. Impressed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson wrote a biography of Lewis entitled History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark.
Another issue raised its head at the end of the first term. Burr, Jefferson's vice-president, offended by comments voiced by Hamilton, challenged him to a duel. Burr survived and mortally wounded Hamilton, leaving the Federalist party in disarray. Later charges of murder were either dismissed or resulted in a requital, though Burr's political career ended. Jefferson distanced himself from Burr and didn't ask him to continue as Vice-President.
With public support for his actions in his first term, Jefferson was reelected. Highlighting his second term were the return of Lewis and Clark, laden with specimens and revelations, and the settlement of the Tripolitan war. However, Jefferson's emphasis on foreign policy proved problematic. Both Britain and France infringed on American rights during the Napoleonic Wars, so in response, rather than war, Jefferson issued an embargo against the countries. This backfired and considerably hurt Americans financially. Jefferson's approval plummeted in the north, and he was forced to repeal the embargo before the end of his presidency.
When Burr came back into the picture, he caused more discomfort for Jefferson. Burr had traveled westward and, with details uncertain unto this day, had committed treason. Appalled, Jefferson pushed for a conviction but ran into resistance from Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall defined treason in such a way that Burr was again acquitted, and Jefferson supporters were left wondering at his intense pressure to punish Burr when he had so fully advocated individual freedoms. His reasoning remains uncertain. Jefferson's actions gave journalists much to report or misinterpret. Even though Jefferson had defended freedom of the press, many journalists worked hard to discredit him and attacked him viciously throughout his time in office. All this discontent left Jefferson disillusioned and tired, and his presidency came to an unhappy ending.
Finally truly retiring from public office in his sixty-sixth year, Jefferson returned to Monticello. There he entertained friends and wrote long letters to people he knew. Yet, the education in Virginia bothered him. He felt compelled to further advance higher learning.
For many years he had planned the founding of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. A persistent advocate of the separation of church and state, Jefferson said that religion pertained to man's relationship with God and wasn't the business of the government. Specific in all aspects of his designs, Jefferson wanted no church influence, with the school focusing on the library. A chapel wasn't even in his initial plans. A Christian deist in faith, Jefferson believed in God's creation of the world but doubted that He concerned Himself with its workings. Perhaps Jefferson thought that if God wasn't in charge, he wasn't going to promote one, single powerful human leader either. He had seen firsthand in both England and France how too much power in either government or church hands limited individual freedoms. This contradicted his vision of how American government should work. A complex individual, Jefferson distrusted rulers but had immense faith in the common man. He further insisted that anyone could attend college as long as he could prove himself able in his studies. Hence, founded in 1819 and opened in 1825, the University of Virginia offered many elective courses so students could broaden their horizons and major in areas other universities didn't offer. Always a generous host, Jefferson opened his home to faculty and students, including Edgar Allen Poe.
Living to see his eighty-third birthday, Jefferson then passed away on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He had sold his entire library to the Unites States government after the British had burned the Library of Congress, thus allowing future generations to retain pieces of history. Yet, Jefferson died very much in debt, with his family ultimately losing Monticello. Jefferson wanted to be remembered on his tombstone for three things—penning the Declaration of Independence, drafting and seeing adopted the Virginia statue for religious freedom, and founding the University of Virginia. An architect of buildings, an architect of freedoms, and an architect of reform, Jefferson is remembered for his many contributions to American life. In memorial are the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., his portrait on the two dollar bill and the nickel, as well as his image engraved in stone at Mount Rushmore.
Did you find this review helpful?