President Thomas Jefferson

Early Life & Education

Thomas Jefferson was born and spent his childhood in the Piedmont region of Virginia, where he roamed the woods and developed an early habit as a voracious reader.

Born in 1743 at his father’s Shadwell plantation, Jefferson, who had seven siblings, spent the first half-decade of his life roaming the woods and reading.

Jefferson’s formal education began at the tender age of nine, and during this time, Jefferson spent nine months out of the year living with a minister/teacher. He continued this boarding education until the age of 16 when he enrolled at the College of William and Mary.

While attending college, he studied science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Jefferson fell under Professor William Small’s spell, a Scottish man who brought enlightenment thinking from Europe to rural Virginia.

Beginning in 1862, Jefferson started studying law under eminent professor George Wythe who also taught Henry Clay and John Marshall during his tenure. After five years of school, the Miller Center notes that Jefferson was perhaps the nation’s best-read lawyer upon his admission to the Virginia bar in 1767.

Thomas Jefferson’s father Peter had left Thomas and his siblings with over 7,00 acres of land in Western Virginia at the time of his early death in 1757.

It was very hard on young Thomas, who was 14 at the time of his father’s death. This, in turn, caused him to turn to his teachers and professors as fatherly figures, which he did through his long adult life.

Early Career- Journey’s as a Lawyer/Entering Politics

As a country lawyer Thomas Jefferson was tasked with following the colonial court as it traveled through Virginia’s districts. While performing this circuitous task, Jefferson met and fell in love with Martha Wayles Skelton, the wealthy daughter of a prominent Virginia landowner and lawyer. On January 1, 1772, the couple married and moved into a small brick house on Jefferson’s plantation, which he called “Monticello.”

By the time of his death, Jefferson transformed Monticello into an architectural gem designed and built largely by Jefferson’s many slaves.

During this time period, Thomas Jefferson entered state politics, becoming a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. He was a member from 1769 to 1774 where it is reported that Jefferson played an active role in organizing the Virginia Committee of Correspondence.

The committee involved opposing British domination of the colonies which echoed the times and the growing resentment that many colonists felt towards Great Britain and its policies immediately before the Revolutionary War.

Jefferson entered the public spotlight with his publication of “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which came out in 1774. This piece proved that Jefferson had the skills and ability to articulate the American colonial position for independence from the British empire.

The Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson found himself and four others tasked with the immense task of drafting and completing a declaration of Independence during the second continental congress of 1776 held in Philadelphia.

Jefferson was given carte blanche by the other four committee members who were immensely talented in their own right- Ben Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, due to his writing abilities and the fact that he represented the all-important colony of Virginia which was needed to provide a united front against the British.

Jefferson wrote and articulated his draft at the conference; stylistically, it comprised a series of principles and a list of grievances that set forth the “common sense” means for independence. After making some corrections and removing bits and pieces, congress, three days after its initial submission, approved “The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America” on July 4th, 1776.

His authorship of this pivotal document which in many ways served as the bedrock of the fledgling nation boosted his patriotic status into the sphere of others like George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.

Revolutionary War Period

From 1776 to 1779, Jefferson was a member of the Virginia House of Representatives. He successfully abolished long-held legal devices that preserved land estates and exclusively passed them on to the eldest sons, regardless of circumstance upon the father of the family’s death.

During this time, he also struck a blow for religious freedom when he authored the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom which was passed into law thanks largely to his patriotic friend James Madison.

During this same time period, Jefferson advocated a free public education system. Jefferson asserted that the only barrier to a student’s admittance to the university should be his own intellectual limits.

During the revolutionary war, Jefferson served as the governor of Virginia for two years. The British overran much of the state of Virginia, and Jefferson himself barely escaped capture by the British.

Concerned about his wife’s health and embarrassed about being labeled a coward for retreating from the British to save his life, he retired to Monticello. Sadly Martha Jefferson died during childbirth on November 6, 1782. Her death brought about a period of depression and seclusion.

During this period, Jefferson published his only book “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Despite stating his opposition to the institution of slavery, in “notes,” Jefferson states his incorrect belief that

“the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites in endowments both of body and mind.”

Jefferson helped to establish the decimal system as the country’s standard of measurement in 1783. In 1784, he helped draft an ordinance dealing with the United States’ western territories that eventually became the basic framework of the federal government’s land policy.

Ambassador to France

Starting in 1785, Jefferson served a four-year term as minister (today’s ambassador) to France. While in his post, Jefferson dealt primarily with commercial treaties between the United States and France.

Jefferson was also able to observe the chaos and buildup to the French Revolution, which helped him upon his return to America. Jefferson embraced his life in France, where he lived with his two daughters Martha and Mary. The intellectual salons and french enlightenment thought impressed him greatly.

Keeping abreast of news in the United States primarily through his correspondence with James Madison, Jefferson supported the constitution’s ratification while strongly emphasizing the need for a bill of rights and the ability for amendments to be made.

Secretary of State

Upon George Washington’s nomination to serve as the nation’s first president in 1790, Jefferson agreed to become the nation’s first secretary of state. Operating with a shoe-string budget and just a handful of employees, Jefferson efficiently organized government business.

In terms of policy, Jefferson supported France in its war against Brittain, though Washington ultimately decided to act neutrally, effectively siding with the British.

During his tenure as Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson found himself being thwarted by Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, who was able to sway Washington on many issues, including the issue of a strong centralized government to which Jefferson was opposed.

Formation of the Democratic-Republican Party- Bids For the Presidency

In the mid-1790s, Jefferson became the informal leader of the nation’s first oppositional party, which was interestingly named the Democratic-Republicans.

Opposing John Adam’s bid for the presidency, Jefferson allowed himself to enter the fray in 1796. The election essentially came down to the Mid-Atlantic states (New York, New Jersey, Deleware, Pennsylvania) as John Adams, a lifelong New Englander, would carry those states and Jefferson would take Virginia and the nation’s other southern states.

In an extremely close, murky election Adams defeated Jefferson in the electoral college by a slim margin of 71 votes to Jefferson’s 68. At the time, the candidate who received the second-highest vote total became Vice President under his opponent in the election.

As Vice President, a largely ceremonial position, Jefferson fulfilled his duties and responsibilities, which included acting as the presiding officer of the Senate.

Election of 1800

Public favor had turned against Adams during his presidency, the result of unpopular acts including the Alien and Sedition Acts, a direct tax placed on the populace in 1798, and the use of federal troops to crush a minor rebellion in Pennsylvania.

Understanding the importance of winning New York, Jefferson brought on Aaron Burr to be his Vice President. The election of 1880 is noted for its animosity and personal attacks upon both candidates.

Jefferson was portrayed as a god-less heathen who would bring terror to the country while Adams was attacked by Jefferson’s proponents and from a faction within his own Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton.

Adams was portrayed as a hypocrite and a tyrant who planned to create a dynasty by marrying one of his sons with one of King George III of England’s daughters.

When the results came in, both Jefferson and Burr had received 73 votes apiece. There was no clause in the constitution differentiating votes between a President and Vice President.

An additional vote was required to determine the presidency where Alexander Hamilton, who hated and would be eventually killed by Burr, swayed the vote for Jefferson, making him president of the United States.

Election of 1804

Thomas Jefferson easily won reelection in 1804 on the back of a relatively peaceful first term. At the first official nominating caucus in U.S. history, Jefferson and George Clinton of New York state were given the Presidential and Vice Presidential nominations.

The federalist party was badly wounded and placed Charles C. Pickney and senator Rufus King as his opponents. Jefferson dominated the voting receiving 162 electoral votes to Pickney’s paltry 14.

Presidency- Domestic and Foreign Affairs

*For this article’s purposes, both Jefferson’s first and second terms will be condensed into one section.

Domestic Affairs

Thomas Jefferson believed that a government should respect the authority of individual states’ rights, operate with a small budget avoiding debt, and that instead of a standing army, a “disciplined militia” would do.

He also believed strongly in the encouragement and propagation of agriculture.

Jefferson started by cutting the Army into just two regiments. With similar Navy reductions, the national debt fell by $23 Million from $80 Million to $57 Million during Jefferson’s first two years.

Jefferson spent a great deal of time busting up the convoluted, self-rewarding, Federalist Judiciary system that Adams had raced to put in place before Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801.

In 1802 the Republican-dominated congress removed many of Adam’s so-called “midnight appointees” by repealing the Judiciary act of 1801.

The supreme court remained controlled by Federalist judges who were appointed for life, though Jefferson was able to bring two staunchly federalist judges to an impeachment trial. Justice John Pickering was impeached while the effort to impeach Justice Samuel Chase failed.

Foreign Affairs

Jefferson’s most notable act as president, The Louisiana Purchase from France, doubled America’s size, expanding the frontier and setting the stage for today’s current boundaries.

Napoleon needed funds to finance his wars in Europe, in this case, another war with England. He offered to sell the president the land from the mighty Mississippi River all the way to the high craggy Rocky Mountains for the price of $15 Million, an astonishing deal that amounted to a price of 4 cents an acre.

With the purchase, the United States added 828,000 square miles of territory. Shortly after Congress approved the purchase five months after Jefferson’s initial deal, he sent out a 25 man expedition team to explore and survey the new lands. Merriwether Lewis and William Clark led the journey through the west, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Due to the war between France and England, the United State’s export numbers skyrocketed from $66 Million to over $100 Million. In comparison, re-exports jumped from $13 Million to over $58 Million.

However, the trade boon was short-lived as both France and England began banning all American commerce for their opponents.

Soon, the British Navy began seizing American ships and cargo and pressing American sailors into service in the Royal Navy. After several notable incidents, including several deaths, Jefferson acted by banning all British Ships from U.S. ports and suspending all trade with European nations.

Unfortunately, the Embargo Act of 1808 backfired and devastated the U.S. economy. After economic depression settled over the country, Jefferson was forced to repeal the Embargo Act and replace it with the Non-Intercourse Act, which only banned trade with England and France. The trade war with England would lead to the War of 1812.

Post Presidency- Later Life

Following his eight years in the highest office of the land, Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello, where he continued his lifelong love of learning through experimentation, research, and invention, especially in science and Natural History.

He acted as the president of the American Philosophical Society until 1815. His biggest pet project at the end of his life was the design and establishment of the University of Virginia.

Jefferson was involved extensively in designing the campus and its buildings, setting up its curriculum, and selecting the faculty.

Thomas Jefferson sold much of his humongous private library to the federal government to replace the books burned by the British during the occupation of D.C. during the War of 1812.

Sick with an enlarged prostate and rheumatism Thomas Jefferson fittingly passed away on July 4th, 1826, along with his long-time rival and fellow patriot John Adams, the 50th anniversary of the initial signing of the declaration of independence.

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