Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743–July 4, 1826) was a leading Founding Father of the United States, the author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and he served as the third President of the US (1801–1809). Jefferson was a committed Republican – arguing passionately for liberty, democracy and devolved power. Jefferson also wrote the Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777 – it was adopted by the state of Virginia in 1786. Jefferson was also a noted polymath with wide-ranging interests from architecture to gardening, philosophy, literature and education. Although a slave owner himself, Jefferson sought to introduce a bill (1800) to end slavery in all Western territories. As President, he signed a bill to ban the importation of slaves into the US (1807).
Jefferson was born to a materially prosperous family in Shadwell, Goochland County, Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a land and slave owner in Virginia. When his father later died in 1745, Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres, including Monticello. As a young child, Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic student often spending up to 15 hours a day studying. He was to retain a lifelong interest in reading. He had both a keen intellect and also a wide range of interests. His interests ranged from philosophy and architecture to the natural sciences. At the age of 16, he entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, and two years later he graduated with the highest honours. After leaving college, he became a lawyer and then served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. One of his earliest political writings of significance was A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774). This expressed a thoughtful overview of a way America could make a settlement with Britain. It played an important role in shaping opinions in the lead-up to the War of Independence.
“Still less let it be proposed that our properties within our own territories shall be taxed or regulated by any power on earth but our own. The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them. This, sire, is our last, our determined resolution;”
Thomas Jefferson – A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774). (Wikisource)
Thomas Jefferson and The Declaration of Independence (1776)
Thomas Jefferson was the primary author in drafting the American Declaration of Independence. The act was adopted on July 4th, 1776 and was a symbolic statement of the aims of the American Revolution.
“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 these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…”
– Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776. Jefferson received suggestions from others such as James Madison. He was also influenced by the writings of the British Empiricists, in particular, John Locke and Thomas Paine. The importance of the Declaration of Independence was summed up in The Gettysburg address of Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
However, Jefferson was disappointed that a reference to the evil of slavery was removed at the request of delegates from the South. From 1785 to 1789 Jefferson served as minister to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin. In France, Jefferson became immersed in Paris society. He was a noted host and came into contact with many of the great thinkers of the age. Jefferson also saw the social and political turmoil which resulted in the French Revolution. On 26 August 1789, the French Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was directly influenced by Jefferson’s US Declaration of Independence. On his return to America Jefferson served under George Washington as first Secretary of State. Here he began debating with the Hamilton factions over the size of government spending. Jefferson was an advocate of minimal government. At the end of his term 1783, he retired temporarily to Monticello, where he spent time amongst his gardens and with his family.
Jefferson – President in 1800
In 1796 Jefferson stood for President but lost narrowly to John Adams; however, under the terms of the constitution, this was sufficient for him to become Vice President. In the run-up to the next election of 1800 Jefferson fought a bitter campaign. In particular, the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 led to the imprisonment of many newspaper editors who supported Jefferson and were critical of the existing government. However, Jefferson was narrowly elected and this allowed him to promote open and representative government. On being elected, he offered a hand of friendship to his former political enemies. He also allowed the Sedition Act to expire and promoted the practical existence of free speech. The Presidency of Jefferson was eventful, but importantly he was able to preside over a period of relative stability and generally kept America out of conflict.
“I love peace, and am anxious that we should give the world still another useful lesson, by showing to them other modes of punishing injuries than by war, which is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer.”
At the time American neutrality was imperilled by the British-French wars, which raged around Canada. In 1803 Jefferson was able to double the size of the US, through the Louisiana Purchase, which gave America many states to the west. He also commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which crossed America seeking to explore and create friendships with the Native American populations.
Jefferson’s Retirement in Monticello
In 1808 Jefferson was able to retire from politics. In retirement, he spent much of his time in his beloved Monticello and also working on the foundation of the University of Virginia. Jefferson was a man of considerable talents and interests. He was fascinated by both the sciences and various arts. He was also interested in architecture and was instrumental in bringing the neo-palladian style into America from Britain. At the time, this architectural style was associated with republicanism and civic virtue.
Thomas Jefferson’s Personal Life
Thomas Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772. Together they had six children, including one stillborn son. Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772–1836), Jane Randolph (1774–1775), a stillborn or unnamed son (1777), Mary Wayles (1778–1804), Lucy Elizabeth (1780–1781), and Lucy Elizabeth (1782–1785). Martha died only 10 years later. Thomas Jefferson remained single for the rest of his life. It was alleged that Jefferson fathered some of Sally Hemings’ daughters. Jefferson never denied it in public, but he did deny it private correspondence. There has never been any conclusive proof that this occurred.
Jefferson was over 6’2″; this was very tall for his age. He didn’t relish public speaking, he preferred to express his opinions through his writings. His friends and family remarked on Jefferson’s many fine qualities. He was sympathetic and engaging in conversation. Never bored, he always found different avenues of interest to explore. Thomas Jefferson left a profound mark on America, through his influential shaping of the American constitution and political practices. Jefferson died at the age of 84 on the afternoon of July 4; it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. A few hours later on the same day, his longtime friend and follow Founding Father John Adams also passed away. On his tombstone, Jefferson had inscribed three achievements he was proudest of:
HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.
Thomas Jefferson: A Life
Thomas Jefferson: A Life at Amazon
Light and Liberty – Quotes of Thomas Jefferson
- Thomas Jefferson – Achievements
- Thomas Jefferson – minor accomplishments
- Thomas Jefferson’s views on religion
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