Biography of Thomas Jefferson
Written by: Borden, Morton Posted on: 03/18/2003
Jefferson was born at Shadwell in what is now Albemarle
County, Va., on Apr. 13, 1743. He treated his pedigree
lightly, but his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, came from
one of the first families of Virginia; his father, Peter
Jefferson, was a well-to-do landowner, although not in the
class of the wealthiest plan- ters. Jefferson attended
(1760-62) the College of William and Mary and then studied law
with George Wythe. In 1769 he began six years of service as a
representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. The
following year he began building Monticello on land inherited
from his father. The mansion, which he designed in every
detail, took years to complete, but part of it was ready for
occupancy when he married Martha Wayles Skelton on Jan. 1,
1772. They had six children, two of whom survived into
Jefferson's reputation began to reach beyond Virginia in 1774,
when he wrote a political pamphlet, A Summary View of the
Rights of British America. Arguing on the basis of natural
rights theory, Jefferson claimed that colonial allegiance to
the king was voluntary. "The God who gave us life," he wrote,
"gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may
destroy, but cannot disjoin them."
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Elected to the Second Continental Congress, meeting in
Philadelphia, Jefferson was appointed on June 11, 1776, to
head a committee of five in preparing the Declaration of
Independence. He was its primary author, although his initial
draft was amended after consultation with Benjamin Franklin
and John Adams and altered both stylistically and
substantively by Congress. Jefferson's reference to the
voluntary allegiance of colonists to the crown was struck;
also deleted was a clause that censured the monarchy for
imposing slavery upon America.
Based upon the same natural rights theory contained in A
Summary View, to which it bears a strong resemblance, the
Declaration of Independence made Jefferson internationally
famous. Years later that fame evoked the jealousy of John
Adams, who complained that the declaration's ideas were
"hackneyed." Jefferson agreed; he wrote of the declaration,
"Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor
yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was
intended to be an expression of the American mind."
Returning to Virginia late in 1776, Jefferson served until
1779 in the House of Delegates, one of the two houses of the
General Assembly of Virginia--es- tablished in 1776 by the
state's new constitution. While the American Revolution
continued, Jefferson sought to liberalize Virginia's laws.
Joined by his old law teacher, George Wythe, and by James
Madison and George Mason, Jefferson intro- duced a number of
bills that were resisted fiercely by those representing the
conservative planter class. In 1776 he succeeded in obtaining
the abolition of entail; his proposal to abolish primogeniture
became law in 1785. Jefferson proudly noted that "these laws,
drawn by myself, laid the ax to the foot of
Jefferson was also instrumental in devising a major revision
of the criminal code, although it was not enacted until 1796.
His bill to create a free system of tax-supported elementary
education for all except slaves was defeated as were his bills
to create a public library and to modernize the curriculum of
the College of William and Mary.
In June 1779 the introduction of Jefferson's bill on religious
liberty touched off a quarrel that caused turmoil in Virginia
for 8 years. The bill was sig- nificant as no other
state--indeed, no other nation--provided for complete
religious liberty at that time. Jefferson's bill stated "that
all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain,
their opinions on matters of religion, and that the same shall
in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil
capacities." Many Virginians regarded the bill as an attack
upon Chris- tianity. It did not pass until 1786, and then
mainly through the perseverance of James Madison. Jefferson,
by then in France, congratulated Madison, adding that "it is
honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who
had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be
trusted with the formation of his own opinions."
WARTIME GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA
In June 1779, Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia. His
political enemies criticized his performance as war governor
mercilessly. He was charged with failure to provide for the
adequate defense of Richmond in 1780-81, although he knew a
British invasion was imminent, and of cowardice and
"pusillanimous conduct" when he fled the capital during the
moment of crisis. In June 1781 he retired from the
governorship. The Virginia assembly subsequently voted that
"an inquiry be made into the conduct of the executive of this
state." Jefferson was exonerated: in fact, the assembly
unanimously voted a resolution of appreciation of his conduct.
The episode left Jefferson bitter, however, about the rewards
of public service.
MONEY AND THE ORDINANCE OF 1784
The death of his wife, on Sept. 6, 1782, added to Jefferson's
problems, but by the following year he was again seated in
Congress. There he made two contribu- tions of enduring
importance to the nation. In April 1784 he submitted Notes on
the Establishment of a Money Unit and of a Coinage for the
United States in which he advised the use of a decimal system.
This report led to the adoption (1792) of the dollar, rather
than the pound, as the basic monetary unit in the United
As chairman of the committee dealing with the government of
western lands, Jefferson submitted proposals so liberal and
farsighted as to constitute, when enacted, the most
progressive colonial policy of any nation in modern history.
The proposed ordinance of 1784 reflected Jefferson's belief
that the western territories should be self-governing and,
when they reached a certain stage of growth, should be
admitted to the Union as full partners with the original 13
states. Jefferson also proposed that slavery should be
excluded from all of the American western territories after
1800. Although he himself was a slaveowner, he believed that
slavery was an evil that should not be permitted to spread. In
1784 the provision banning slavery was narrowly defeated. Had
one representative (John Beatty of New Jersey), sick and
confined to his lodging, been present, the vote would have
been different. "Thus," Jefferson later reflected, "we see the
fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and
heaven was silent in that awful moment." Although Congress
approved the proposed ordinance of 1784, it was never put into
effect; its main features were incorporated, how- ever, in the
Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory.
Moreover, slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory.
MINISTER TO FRANCE
>From 1784 to 1789, Jefferson lived outside the United States.
He was sent to Paris initially as a commissioner to help
negotiate commercial treaties; then in 1785 he succeeded
Benjamin Franklin as minister to France. Most European
countries, however, were indifferent to American economic
overtures. "They seemed, in fact," Jefferson wrote, "to know
little about us...They were ignorant of our commerce, and of
the exchange of articles it might offer advantageously to both
parties." Only one country, Prussia, signed a pact based on a
model treaty drafted by Jefferson.
During these years Jefferson followed events in the United
States with under- standable interest. He advised against any
harsh punishment of those responsible for Shays's Rebellion
(1786-87) in Massachusetts. He worried particularly that the
new Constitution of the United States lacked a bill of rights
and failed to limit the number of terms for the presidency. In
France he witnessed the begin- ning of the French Revolution,
but he doubted whether the French people could duplicate the
American example of republican government. His advice, more
con- servative than might be anticipated, was that France
emulate the British system of constitutional monarchy.
SECRETARY OF STATE
When Jefferson left Paris on Sept. 26, 1789, he expected to
return to his post. On that date and unknown to him, however,
Congress confirmed his appointment as secretary of state in
the first administration of George Washington. Jefferson
accepted the position with some reluctance and largely because
of Washington's insistence. He immediately expressed his alarm
at the regal forms and ceremonies that marked the executive
office, but his fears were tempered somewhat by his confidence
in the character of Washington.
Jefferson, however, distrusted both the proposals and the
motives of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. He
thought Hamilton's financial programs both unwise and
unconstitutional, flowing "from principles adverse to
liberty." On the issue of federal assumption of state debts,
Jefferson struck a bargain with Hamilton permitting assumption
to pass--a concession that he later regret- ted. He attempted,
unsuccessfully, to persuade Washington to veto the bill
incorporating a Bank of the United States--recommended by
Jefferson suspected Hamilton and others in the emerging
Federalist Party of a secret design to implant monarchist
ideals and institutions in the government. The disagreements
spilled over into foreign affairs. Hamilton was pro-British,
and Jefferson was by inclination pro-French, although he
directed the office of secretary of state with notable
objectivity. The more Washington sided with Hamilton, the more
Jefferson became dissatisfied with his minority position
within the cabinet. Finally, after being twice dissuaded from
resigning, Jefferson did so on Dec. 31, 1793.
At home for the next three years, Jefferson devoted himself to
farm and family. He experimented with a new plow and other
ingenious inventions, built a nail factory, commenced the
rebuilding of Monticello, set out a thousand peach trees,
received distinguished guests from abroad, and welcomed the
visits of his grand- children. But he also followed national
and international developments with a mounting sense of
foreboding. "From the moment of my retiring from the adminis-
tration," he later wrote, "the Federalists got unchecked hold
on General Wash- ington." Jefferson thought Washington's
expedition to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion (1794) an
unnecessary use of military force. He deplored Washington's
denunciation of the Democratic societies and considered Jay's
Treaty (1794) with Britain a "monument of folly and venality."
Thus Jefferson welcomed Washington's decision not to run for a
third term in 1796. Jefferson became the reluctant
presidential candidate of the Democratic- Republican party,
and he seemed genuinely relieved when the Federalist can-
didate, John Adams, gained a narrow electoral college victory
(71 to 68). As the runner-up, however, Jefferson became
vice-president under the system then in effect.
Jefferson hoped that he could work with Adams, as of old,
especially since both men shared an anti-Hamilton bias. But
those hopes were soon dashed. Relations with France
deteriorated. In 1798, in the wake of the XYZ Affair, the
so-called Quasi-War began. New taxes were imposed and the
Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) threatened the freedom of
Americans. Jefferson, laboring to check the authorit- arian
drift of the national government, secretly authored the
Kentucky Resolu- tion. More important, he provided his party
with principles and strategy, aiming to win the election of
Jefferson's triumph was delayed temporarily as a result of a
tie in electoral ballots with his running mate, Aaron Burr,
which shifted the election to the House of Representatives.
There Hamilton's influence helped Jefferson to pre- vail,
although most Federalists supported Burr as the lesser evil.
In his inaugural speech Jefferson held out an olive branch to
his political enemies, inviting them to bury the partisanship
of the past decade, to unite now as Americans.
Federalist leaders remained adamantly opposed to Jefferson,
but the people approved his policies. Internal taxes were
reduced; the military budget was cut; the Alien and Sedition
Acts were permitted to lapse; and plans were made to
extinguish the public debt. Simplicity and frugality became
the hallmarks of Jefferson's administration. The Louisiana
Purchase (1803) capped his achieve- ments. Ironically,
Jefferson had to overcome constitutional scruples in order to
take over the vast new territory without authorization by
constitutional amend- ment. In this instance it was his
Federalist critics who became the constitu- tional purists.
Nonetheless, the purchase was received with popular
enthusiasm. In the election of 1804, Jefferson swept every
state except two--Connecticut and Delaware.
Jefferson's second administration began with a minor
success--the favorable settlement concluding the Tripolitan
War (1801-05), in which the newly created U.S. Navy fought its
first engagements. The following year the Lewis and Clark
Expedition, which the president had dispatched to explore the
Louisiana Ter- ritory, returned triumphantly after crossing
the continent. The West was also a source of trouble, however.
The disaffected Aaron Burr engaged in a conspiracy, the
details of which are still obscure, either to establish an
independent republic in the Louisiana Territory or to launch
an invasion of Spanish-held Mexico. Jefferson acted swiftly to
arrest Burr early in 1807 and bring him to trial for treason.
Burr was acquitted, however.
Jefferson's main concern in his second administration was
foreign affairs, in which he experienced a notable failure. In
the course of the Napoleonic Wars Britain and France
repeatedly violated American sovereignty in incidents such as
the Chesapeake affair (1807). Jefferson attempted to avoid a
policy of either appeasement or war by the use of economic
The Embargo Act (Dec. 22, 1807), which prohibited virtually
all exports and most imports and was supplemented by enforcing
legislation, was designed to coerce British and French
recognition of American rights. Although it failed, it did
rouse many northerners, who suffered economically, to a state
of defiance of national authority. The Federalist party
experienced a rebirth of popularity. In 1809, shortly before
he retired from the presidency, Jefferson signed the act
repealing the embargo, which had been in effect for 15 months.
In the final 17 years of his life, Jefferson's major
accomplishment was the founding (1819) of the University of
Virginia at Charlottesville. He conceived it, planned it,
designed it, and supervised both its construction and the
hiring of faculty.
The university was the last of three contributions by which
Jefferson wished to be remembered; they constituted a trilogy
of interrelated causes: freedom from Britain, freedom of
conscience, and freedom maintained through education. On July
4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of
Independence, Jefferson died at Monticello. MORTON BORDEN
Boyd, Julian P., et al., eds.- THE PAPERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON,
19 vols. (1950-) Brodie, Fawn - THOMAS JEFFERSON: AN INTIMATE
HISTORY (1974) Dabney, Virginius - THE JEFFERSON SCANDAL: A
REBUTTAL (1981) Levy, Leonard - JEFFERSON AND CIVIL LIBERTIES
(1972) McDonald, Forrest - THE PRESIDENCY OF THOMAS JEFFERSON
(1976) Malone, Dumas - JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME, 6 vols.
(1948-81) Mayo, Bernard - THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS UNKNOWN
BROTHERS (1981) Miller, John C. - THE WOLF BY THE EARS: THOMAS
JEFFERSON AND SLAVERY (1980) Peterson, Merrill D. - THOMAS
JEFFERSON AND THE NEW NATION (1970) Wills, Garry - INVENTING
AMERICA: JEFFERSON'S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (1978).
3d President of the United States (1801-09)
Nickname: "Man of the People"; "Sage of Monticello"
Born: Apr. 13, 1743, Shadwell plantation, Goochland (now in Albemarle) Co., Va.
Education: College of William and Mary (graduated 1762)
Profession: Lawyer, Planter
Religious Affiliation: None
Marriage: Jan. 1, 1772, to Martha Wayles Skelton (1748-82)
Children: Martha Washington Jefferson (1772-1836)
Jane Randolph Jefferson (1774-75)
infant son (1777)
Mary Jefferson (1778-1804)
Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1780-81)
Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1782-84)
Political Affiliation: Democratic-Republican
Writings: WRITINGS (10 vols. 1892-99), ed. by Paul L. Ford
THE PAPERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON (1950- )
ed. by Julian P. Boyd, et al.
NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA 1781 (1955), ed. by William Peden
AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1959), ed. by Dumas Malone
Died: July 4, 1826, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Va.
Buried: Monticello, near Charlottesville, Va.
Vice-President: Aaron Burr (1801-05)
George Clinton (1805-09)
Secretary of State: James Madison
Secretary of the Treasury: Samuel Dexter (1801)
Albert Gallatin (1801-09)
Secretary of War: Henry Dearborn
Attorney General: Levi Lincoln (1801-04)
John Breckinridge (1805-06)
Caesar A. Rodney (1807-09)
Secretary of the Navy: Benjamin Stoddert (1801)
Robert Smith (1801-09)
'Copyright 1987, Grolier Inc, Academic American Encyclopedia,
USED BY PERMISSION, granted January 9, 1988
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