Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson is one of the most profound and important figures in
American History. Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United
States of America, a diplomat, statesman, architect, scientist, and
philosopher. No leader in this period of American History was as articulate,
wise, or aware of the problems and consequences of a free society as Thomas
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, a tobacco
plantation in Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was an extremely smart
man, not to mention a self-made success, all despite the fact he was formally
uneducated. His mother, Jane Randolph was a member of one of the most
distinguished families in Virginia. Peter Jefferson died when Thomas was
14, leaving him many valuable properties and lands. As a result of being
formally uneducated himself he demanded his son Thomas be schooled. He
studied with Reverend Mr. Maury, a classical scholar, for two years, and in
1760 he attended William and Mary College. After graduating from William
and Mary in 1762, Jefferson studied law for five years under George Wythe.
In January of 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton and made himself a
home in Monticello to raise a family. When he and Martha moved to
Monticello, only a small one room building was completed for them to stay
Jefferson was thirty years old when he first began his political career.
He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgess in 1769, where his first
action was an unsuccessful bill allowing owners to free their slaves.
The continuing problem in British-Colonial relations overshadowed
routine action of legislature. In 1774, the first of the Intolerable Acts closed
the port of Boston until Massachusetts paid for the Boston Tea Party, of the
preceding year. Jefferson and other younger members of the Virginia
Assembly ordained a day of fasting and prayer to demonstrate their sympathy
with Massachusetts. As a result, Virginia’s Royal Governor Dunmore once
again dissolved the assembly (Koch and Peden 20). The members met and
planned to call together an inter-colonial congress.. Jefferson began writing
resolutions which were more radical and better written than those from other
counties and colonies. Although his resolutions were considered too
revolutionary, and not adopted, they were printed and widely circulated.
Because of these resolutions all important writing assignments were entrusted
When Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia in June, 1775, as a Virginia
delegate to the Second Continental Congress, he already possessed, as John
Adams remarked, ?a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of
composition? (Koch and Peden 21).
When he retired in 1776, he was appointed to a five-man committee,
including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, which was given the most
momentous assignment ever given in the history of America: the drafting of a
formal declaration of independence from Great Britain (Daugherty 109).
Jefferson was responsible for preparing the draft. The document, was finally
approved by Congress on July 4, 1776. Cut and occasionally altered by
Adams or Franklin, or the Congress itself, the declaration is almost
completely Jefferson’s, and is the triumph and culmination of his early
career. At this time, had he wanted to be a political leader, he could have
easily attained a position in government. Instead, he chose to return to
Monticello and give his public service to Virginia. Returning to the Virginia
House of Delegates in October 1776, Jefferson set to work on reforming the
laws of Virginia. He also proposed a rational plan of statewide education
and attempted to write religious toleration into the laws of Virginia by
separating Church and State by writing the ?Bill for Establishing Religious
In June of 1779, Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia. He
continued his career as a public executive, confident of his abilities, of the
respect, and the affection of his common wealth. However, he took up his
duties at a time when the British were raiding Virginia. General George
Washington did not have resources available to send to Virginia. Jefferson,
during one of the raids, narrowly escaped capture at the hands of the British
Troops, and the legislatures were forced to flee from their new capital city of
Richmond. Jefferson, as head of state, was singled out for criticism and
abuse. At the end of his second term, he announced his retirement. General
Washington’s approval of Jefferson’s actions as Governor made in contrast to
the charges of betraying his duty, made by certain members in legislature.
After Washington’s approval, the legislature passed a resolution officially
clearing Jefferson of all charges (Smith 134, 135).
Jefferson returned home to Monticello in 1781, and buried himself in
writing about Virginia. The pages of text turned into a manuscript later
known as the Notes of Virginia. This book went into great detail about the
beauty of external nature as in its clarification of moral, political, and social
issues, was read by scientist of two continents for years to come (Smith 142).
His wife, ill since the birth of their last daughter, died in September
1782. In sorrow for his wife, Jefferson decided to turn down numerous
appointments. In June 1783, he was elected as a delegate to the
Confederation Congress where he headed important committees and drafted
many reports and official papers. He preferred the necessity of stronger
international commercial relations, and in 1784, wrote instructions for
ministers negotiating commercial treaties with European nations. In May
1784, he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary of the united States to assist
Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, both of whom had preceded him to
Europe to arrange commercial agreements (Koch and Peden 24). He traveled
throughout Europe and every place he went, he was not only an American
diplomat, but a student of the useful sciences. He took notes on making
wine, cheese, planting and harvesting crops, and raising livestock. He sent
home to America information on the different cultures, the actual seeds of a
variety of grasses not native to America, olive plants, and Italian rice. He
remained in Paris until late 1789 (Smith 170). When he got back from
Europe President Washington asked Jefferson to be Secretary of State.
Jefferson accepted the post and found himself disagreeing with the
Seceratary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson thought that all of
Hamilton’s acts were dominated by one purpose: to establish government by
and for a privileged few. Jefferson repeatedly thought of retiring from the
cabinet position in which he was constantly arguing against Hamilton, the
power-hungry man in the capitol. After negotiating the country’s foreign
problems, Jefferson once again retired to Monticello. During retirement,
Jefferson supervised the farming of his many lands and designed a plow
which revolutionized agriculture; he tended library like a garden. he changed
the architectural plans for Monticello, and supervised the construction. After
three rather active years of ?retirement?, Jefferson accepted the Republican
Party’s nomination in 1796 for president. He lost by three votes, which
under the prevailing system meant he was elected Vice President and the
Federalist, John Adams, was elected president. The Federalist
Administration turned upon its political opponents by passing the Alien Act,
to deport foreign radicals, liberal propagandists, and agitators, also the
Sedition Act, to hold the press. The Sedition Act gave the Administration the
power to fine, imprison, and prosecute any opposing writer, so therefore the
Republicans were kept quiet in the remaining years of Adam’s
Administration (Randall 523, 528).
In 1800, Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran for office. The electoral vote,
in contrast to the popular vote, resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr.
The Federalist threatened Jefferson to bargain with them or they would elect
Burr. Jefferson, however, stood firm and made no promises, until the
Federalists gave up. As president, Jefferson’s first project was to remove the
bias which had recently infected America. His policy of general
reconciliation and reform, and his success in freeing the victims of the Alien
and Sedition laws were generally supported by a favorable Congress (Randall
549). His popularity during his first term was greater than at any time during
his career. In this term he was confronted with the most important problem
of his career. Spain transferred to France its rights to the port of new
Orleans, and the section of land controlling the province of Louisiana.
Louisiana in the strong hands of the French rather than the weak hands of
Spain placed an almost overwhelming obstacle in the path of American
growth and prosperity. It was extremely important that America control the
Louisiana territory, either through peaceful negotiation or by war. When
French dictator Napoleon, suddenly offered to sell for fifteen million dollars,
not only the port of New Orleans, but also the entire piece of French owned
land from the Mississippi to the Rockies, Jefferson was faced with the
problem of taking the offer or wait for a Constitutional amendment
authorizing such an act. After much thinking, Jefferson authorized the
purchase (Smith 266). Therefore his first term ended in a blaze of glory. The
people, happy with the good fortune of their nation, almost unanimously sent
Jefferson back for a second term. Busy as he was during these years,
Jefferson had found time to follow his favorite intellectual pursuits. He had
not only aided in establishing a National Library, but had made many
valuable additions to his own private collection.
His second term was full of difficulties. To avoid war, Jefferson
promoted the Non-Intercourse Act of 1806 and the Embargo of 1807. The
Embargo was heavily criticized and had not been effective. To make matters
worse, the domestic front was full of defections and desertions. When his
term expired on march 3, 1809, he was thrilled to be leaving politics and
returned to Monticello (McLaughlin 376).
Jefferson’s daughter Martha said that in retirement her father never
abandoned a friend or principle. he and John Adams, their earlier political
differences reconciled, wrote many letters. Jefferson frequently complained
about the time consumed in maintaining his ever increasing friendship, but
could not resist an intellectual challenge, or turn down an appeal for his
opinion, advice, or help. He continued to discuss with quick thinking and a
brilliant clarity such divers subjects as anthropology and political theory,
religion, and zoology (Koch and Peden 40).
Jefferson’s major concern during his last years was education and
educational philosophy. He considered knowledge not only as a means to an
end, but an end in itself. He felt education was the key to life as it was to
happiness. He reopened his campaign for a system of general education in
Virginia. Through his efforts, the University of Virginia, the first American
University to be free of official church connection, was established and was
Jefferson’s daily concern during his last seven years (Koch and Peden 39).
He sent out an agent to select the faculty, he chose books for the library, drew
up the curriculum, designed the buildings, and supervised their construction.
The University finally opened in 1825, the winter before his death. Despite
his preoccupation with the University, he continued to pursue a multitude of
other tasks. In his eightieth year, for example, he wrote on politics, sending
President Monroe long expositions later known to the world in Monroe’s
version as the Monroe Doctrine (Daugherty 326).
Among all his interests, there was one flaw on his time and thought
which caused Jefferson endless embarrassment. His finances, always shaky,
finally collapsed. Jefferson had frequently advanced money to friends who
cared much more for possessions than he, and occasionally had been forced
to make good on their notes when they found it impossible to do so. He
spent money lavishly on his libraries and the arts, on Monticello, and on his
children’s education. His passion for architecture cost him a small fortune.
At the final stage of his financial distress, Jefferson petitioned the Virginia
legislature to grant him permission to dispose of Monticello and its farms by
lottery. The almost immediate response of private citizens, in New York,
Philadelphia, and Baltimore, on hearing this news was to donate a sum of
over sixteen thousand dollars to aid the leader who had devoted his industry
and resourcefulness to all America for half of a century (Smith 304).
On July 4, 1826, Jefferson died at Monticello. He was buried on the
hillside beside his wife. He had written the script for his headstone himself:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
and father of the University of Virginia.
With absolute brilliance and an unbelievable sense of what was best
for the American people Thomas Jefferson established himself as one of the
best and most contributive leaders in American history.