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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Third President • 1801-9
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

As author of the Declaration of Independence, political theorist, cofounder of the Democratic-Republican Party, Virginia legislator and Governor, distinguished diplomat, first U.S. Secretary of State, second Vice President, and third President, Jefferson has left an indelible impression on our governmental system and philosophy. Graced with a wide-ranging and probing mind that was interested in most fields of human endeavor, he ranked among the most outstanding men of his or any other time. During his Presidential administration, he more than doubled the size of the United States, laid the basis for its westward expansion, and maintained neutrality toward France and Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.

The eldest of two sons in a family of 10, Jefferson was born in 1743 at Shadwell, a frontier plantation in Goochland (present Albemarle) County, Va. But 2 years later his father, Peter, a self-made surveyor-magistrate-planter who had married into the distinguished Randolphs, moved his family eastward to Tuckahoe plantation, near Richmond. His reason for doing so was a promise he had made to his wife's newly deceased cousin, William Randolph, to act as guardian of his son. Young Jefferson passed most of his boyhood in the Randolph home, beginning his elementary education with private tutors.

In 1752, when Jefferson was about 9 years old, the family returned to Shadwell. His father died 5 years later and bequeathed him almost 3,000 acres; he became head of the family. In 1760, at the age of 17, he matriculated at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg. An incidental benefit was the chance to observe the operation of practical politics in the colonial capital. He graduated in 1762, studied law locally under the noted teacher George Wythe, and in 1767 was admitted to the bar.

At Shadwell, Jefferson assumed the civic responsibilities and prominence his father had enjoyed. In 1770, when fire consumed the structure, he moved to his nearby estate, Monticello, where he had already begun building a home. Two years later, he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow. During their decade of life together, she was to bear six children, one son and five daughters, but only two of the latter reached maturity.

Thomas Jefferson (left) and political rival Alexander Hamilton (center) confer with President George Washington. (Oil mural, 1870-73, by Constantino Brumidi, in the Senate Reception Room U.S. Capitol, Architect of the Capitol.)

Meanwhile, in 1769 at the age of 26, Jefferson had been elected to the House of Burgesses, in Williamsburg. He was a member continuously until 1775, and alined himself with the anti-British group. Unlike his smooth-tongued confreres Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson concentrated his efforts in committee work rather than in debate. A literary stylist, he drafted many of the Revolutionary documents adopted by the House of Burgesses.

Jefferson utilized the same methods in the Continental Congress (1775-76), where his decisiveness in committee contrasted markedly with his silence on the floor. His colleagues, however, rejected several of his drafts the first year because of their extreme anti-British tone. But, by the time he returned the following May, after spending the winter in Virginia, the temper of Congress had changed drastically. The very next month, though only 33 years old, he was assigned to the five-man committee chosen to write the Declaration of Independence, a task his associates assigned to him.

Thomas Jefferson and the National Capitol

A notable career in the Virginia House of Delegates (1776-79), the lower house of the legislature, followed. Jefferson took over leadership of the "progressive" party from Patrick Henry, who relinquished it to become Governor. Highlights of this service included revision of the State laws (1776-79), in which Jefferson collaborated with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton; and authorship of a bill for the establishment of religious freedom in Virginia, introduced in 1779 but not passed until 7 years later.

Although hampered as Governor (1779-81) by wartime conditions and constitutional limitations, Jefferson proved to be a weak executive, even in emergencies hesitating to wield his authority. When the British pressed their invasion of the State in 1781, he recommended the combining of civil and military agencies under Gen. Thomas Nelson, Jr., and virtually abdicated office. Although he was later formally vindicated, the action fostered a conservative takeover of the government and his reputation remained clouded for some time.

Martha Jefferson
Martha Jefferson

Jefferson stayed out of the limelight for 2 years, during which time his wife died. In 1783 he reentered Congress, where he sponsored and drafted the Ordinance of 1784, forerunner of the Ordinance of 1787 (Northwest Ordinance). In 1784 he was sent to Paris to aid Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in their attempts to negotiate commercial treaties with European nations. During his 5-year stay, Jefferson succeeded Franklin as Minister to France (1785-89), gained various economic concessions from and strengthened relations with the French, visited England and Italy, absorbed European culture, and observed the beginnings of the French Revolution.

newspaper article
Newspaper account of Jefferson's first inauguration. (Aurora General Advertiser, Philadelphia, Mar. 6, 1801, Library of Congress.)

Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789. In the years that followed interspersed with pleasant interludes and political exile at Monticello, he filled the highest offices in the land. Ever averse to political strife, he occupied these positions as much out of a sense of civic and party duty as personal ambition.

Aggravating normal burdens and pressures were Jefferson's feuds with Alexander Hamilton on most aspects of national policy, as well as the vindictiveness of Federalist attacks. These clashes originated while Jefferson was Secretary of State (1790-93) in Washington's Cabinet. Unlike Hamilton, Jefferson sympathized with the French Revolution. He favored States rights and opposed a strong central Government. He also envisioned an agricultural America, peopled by well educated and politically astute yeomen farmers. Hamilton took the opposite position.

These political and philosophical conflicts resulted in time in the forming of the Federalist Party and Democratic-Republican Party, which Jefferson cofounded with James Madison. In 1793, because of his disagreements with Hamilton and Washington's growing reliance on Hamilton for advice in foreign affairs, Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State. For the next 3 years, he remained in semiretirement at Monticello.

In 1796 Jefferson lost the Presidential election to Federalist John Adams by only three electoral votes and, because the Constitution did not then provide separate tickets for the President and Vice President, became Vice President (1797-1801), though a member of the opposing party. In 1800 the same sort of deficiency, soon remedied by the 12th amendment, again became apparent when Democratic-Republican electors, in trying to select both a President and Vice President from their party, cast an equal vote for Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. Only after a tie-settling election in the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives that rended both parties did Jefferson capture the Presidency; Burr became Vice President.

Jefferson, who was the first Chief Executive to be inaugurated at the Capitol, called his victory a "revolution." Indeed, it did bring a new tone and philosophy to the White House, where an aura of democratic informality was to prevail. And, despite the interparty acrimony of the time, the transition of power was smooth and peaceful, and Jefferson continued many Federalist policies. Because the crisis with France had terminated, he slashed Army and Navy funds. He also substantially reduced the governmental budget. Although he believed in an agrarian America, he encouraged commerce.

State of the Union message
First page of Jefferson's first annual message to Congress, December 8, 1801, in his own handwriting. (Library of Congress.)

In 1801-5 Jefferson deployed naval forces to the Mediterranean to subdue the Barbary pirates, who were harassing American vessels. During his term, to counter English and French interference with neutral American shipping during the Napoleonic Wars, he applied an embargo on foreign trade, for the purpose of avoiding involvement. But this measure proved to be unworkable and unpopular.

Jefferson's greatest achievements were in the realm of westward expansion, of which he was the architect. Foreseeing the continental destiny of the Nation, he sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-6) to the Pacific, though he knew it had to cross territory claimed by foreign powers. While that project was being organized, Jefferson's diplomats at Paris had consummated the Louisiana Purchase (1803), which doubled the size of the United States and extended its boundaries far beyond the Mississippi.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
Poplar Forest
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Independence National Historical Park

In 1809 Jefferson retired for the final time to Monticello. He continued to pursue his varied interests and corresponded with and entertained statesmen, politicians, scientists, explorers, scholars, and Indian chiefs. When the pace of life grew too hectic, he found haven at Poplar Forest, his retreat near Lynchburg. His pet project during most of his last decade was founding the University of Virginia (1819), in Charlottesville, but he also took pride in the realization that two of his disciples, Madison and Monroe, had followed him into the White House.

Painfully distressing to Jefferson, however, was the woeful state of his finances. His small salary in public office, the attendant neglect of his fortune and estate, general economic conditions, and debts he inherited from his wife had taken a heavy toll. When a friend defaulted on a note for a large sum, Jefferson fell hopelessly into debt and was forced to sell his library to the Government. It became the nucleus of the Library of Congress.

Jefferson died only a few hours before John Adams at the age of 83 on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004