President Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson.  Portrait by Rembrandt Peale.  Used with permission from the New York Historical Society

Thomas Jefferson, the man who became the third president of the fledgling United States of America, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia, was born to Peter Jefferson, a citizen of Welsh origins who wielded a large amount of influence in Albemarle County, Virginia, and his wife Jane Randolph on 2 April 1743. Thomas was the third of ten children.

When his father died in 1757, he left "orders" that Thomas complete his education. Thomas, heeding the words of his father, entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in 1760. Jefferson would later credit one of his math professors, a man by the name of Dr. Small, as being one of his biggest inspirations to excel in school. Peter Jefferson had also encouraged his children to pursue musical studies. Thomas was a talented violinist who played often at the weekly parties hosted by the Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier. It was through his interaction with Fauquier that Jefferson learned about the social, political, and parliamentary life of Europe which heavily influenced that in America.

After graduating from William and Mary, Jefferson studied law and in April 1764, after his 21st birthday, Jefferson assumed the management of his fathers estate and extensive lands. He was also named vestryman and a justice of the peace, positions he more or less inherited from his father. At this time, Jefferson developed his zeal for farming; an obsession that he would sustain for the rest of his life. Jefferson always believed that the United States should build its economy on agriculture, and not on industry. He simultaneously continued his studies of the law, which lead him to the writings of Lord Coke, a respected Whig party member who espoused the idea of religious freedom. Lord Coke's writings inspired Jefferson to reject Nathan Hale's assertion that Christianity was an inherent part of the laws in England, which inspired him in later years to write the Statute for Religions Freedom.

Patrick Henry also heavily influenced Jefferson's opinions and decision to enter politics. Jefferson was present at the Virginia House of Burgess meetings when Henry called for equal rights for British citizens living in America, emphasizing the entitlement to representation if the colonists would be paying the King's taxes.

In 1767, Jefferson was admitted to the bar of Virginia, and in 1769, construction on Monticello, Jefferson's "autobiographical masterpiece" began. On 11 May 1769, Jefferson joined the Virginia House of Burgesses; five days later then-Governor Boutetourt dissolved the house which was developing the resolutions to demand representation in the English government. The house reconvened at a tavern and passed the resolution anyway.

On 1 Jan 1772, Jefferson married Martha Skelton. That year, Jefferson designed and initially planted the gardens at Monticello and began inventing. He concurrently operated his law practice, which was greatly supported by the many family friends that turned to him for his legal assistance. He practiced law for 8 years before stopping to participate in the American Revolution in June of 1775.

Virginia had prepared to fight in the war, beginning in March, when Patrick Henry declared "We must fight!" a declaration which came 27 days before the first shots of the war were fired at Lexington. Jefferson left Charlottesville in June to go to Philadelphia, where he assumed George Washington's seat on Congress when Washington left to serve as a General for the revolutionaries. In May 1776, Jefferson learned that the delegates in Virginia voted unanimously for independence and on 10 June 1776, Jefferson, known for his elegant writing more than his oratory skills, began drafting the Declaration of Independence with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingstone, and Roger Sherman. After Congress signed the Declaration on 4 July 1776, Jefferson resigned from the Continental Congress and returned to Virginia to rejoin the state Legislature to which he was recently re-elected, and to be nearer to his wife, who had now given birth to several children.

On 8 October 1776, Jefferson the country again called on Jefferson to serve in its name, nominating him as the U.S. Representative to Paris. Jefferson declined the appointment to stay in Virginia to continue his service in the legislature. The continuing war destroyed many valuable tobacco crops which Jefferson cultivated, causing huge financial losses for him. Jefferson stepped down from his position, believing that the government should have someone with military experience in charge while engaged in a war, and General Thomas Nelson assumed his office. In 1779, Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia, during which time he composed the bill which would become the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. The bill did not become law in 1786. In 1782, Jefferson's wife Martha died, leaving him with four daughters.

In 1783, Jefferson was elected to the new national congress and he went to Annapolis to assume his office. During this term, Jefferson created the decimal system for currency that is still in use. On 5 July 1784 Jefferson became plenipotentiary to France as an assistant to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in their negotiations for commercial treaties with the French. He succeeded Franklin as the sole plenipotentiary to France in May of 1785, a position in which he served for three years. Jefferson returned from Europe in 1788, at which time he returned to Virginia to spend some time with his three remaining daughters. His youngest, Lucy, had died during his stay in France. Shortly afterwards, in 1789, George Washington, the new president appointed Jefferson to serve as his Secretary of State. His service was heavily criticized by opponents led by Alexander Hamilton, and Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1794. He then announced his retirement from public life.

In 1796, however, the country again turned to Jefferson for leadership, nominating him to run for President. Jefferson lost by three electoral votes, which under the law of the time awarded him the office of vice president to vanquishing opponent, John Adams. Jefferson had originally agreed to return to public life because of his opposition to the Jay Treaty of 1795. The treaty negotiated commercial rights between the United States and Britain, but caused an uproar in the United States, which felt that John Jay had made too many concessions to the crown. Jefferson felt that without the treaty, the United States could have secured recognition of the neutral rights for itself.

In 1801, the electoral college voted Jefferson president. During his first term, Jefferson doubled the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He contributed to the worldwide scientific community through the Lewis and Clark expedition which began with preparations after congressional approval in 1802, and ended upon the return of the Corps of Discovery in 1806. Jefferson eliminated the whiskey tax, reduced the national deficit, and defeated the Barbary Pirates who were harassing American commercial ships in the Mediterranean. Jefferson was re-elected in 1804 and spent most of his second term protecting the neutral rights of American merchants from the British and French. He attempted to prevent the U.S. involvement in the Napoleonic Wars by imposing an embargo on American shipping. The embargo was unpopular and did not work very well. Jefferson left office in 1809, succeeded by his Secretary of State, James Madison.

Jefferson officially retired from public life in extreme debt. He went back to Monticello to live out the rest of the days, during which time he designed and oversaw the construction of the University of Virginia, beginning in 1819. The University opened in 1825. He obtained money through the assistance of friends who still held official positions. They organized fundraisers for the former president and lobbied to his creditors to forgive his debts. Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, exactly 50 years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Ironically enough, John Adams died later the same day, and his last words were "Thomas Jefferson still lives." Jefferson is buried at Monticello, marked by a gravestone displaying the inscription: "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. Born April 2 1743 Died July 4 1826."

*Most information from Wilson, James Grant, Ed. "Thomas Jefferson." Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888. pp. 415-23.

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