at, statesman, architect, scientist, and philosopher, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most eminent figures in American history. No leader in the period of the American Enlightenment was as articulate, wise, or conscious of the implications and consequences of a free society as Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, a tobacco plantation in Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a self-made success, and although uneducated he was a very intelligent man. His mother, Jane Randolph was a member of one of the most distinguished families in Virginia . Peter Jefferson died when Thomas was 14 and left him valuable lands and property. Denied a formal education himself, he directed that his son be given complete classical training. 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 established a residence at Monticello. When they moved to Monticello, only a small one room building was completed. Jefferson was thirty when he 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 impending crisis in British-Colonial relations overshadowed routine affairs 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. Thereupon, 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 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 and subsequently all important writing assignments were entrusted to Jefferson.
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 returned in 1776, he was appointed to the five-man committee, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, which was charged with 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 Freedom.”
In June of 1779, Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia. He commenced his career as a public executive, confident of his abilities, assured of the respect and almost the affection of his commonwealth. 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 legislators were forced to flee from their new capital city of Richmond. Jefferson, as head of the 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 is in marked contrast to the heated charges of dereliction of duty made by certain members of the 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 on Virginia. This book, rich in its minute analysis of the details of external nature as in its clarification of moral political, and social issues, was read by scientists 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 declined 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 advocated the necessity of more favorable international commercial relations, and in 1784, compiled 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 and 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 1789 (Smith 170).
Upon his return President Washington asked Jefferson to be Secretary of State. Jefferson accepted the post and found himself at odds with the Secretary 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 post in which he was constantly pitted against Hamilton, the most power-hungry man in the capital. After negotiating the country’s foreign affairs, Jefferson once again retired to Monticello. During retirement, Jefferson supervised the farming of his estates and designed a plow which revolutionized agriculture; he tended his 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 and liberal, propagandists and agitators, and the Sedition Act, to curb the press. The Sedition Act empowered the Administration to fine, imprison, and prosecute any opposition writer and thus the Republicans were muzzled in the remaining years of Adams’ Administration (Randall 523, 528). In 1800, Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran for office. The electoral vote, in marked contrast to the popular vote, resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr. The Federalists 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 momentous problem of his career. Spain transferred to France its rights to the port of New Orleans, and the stretch of land constituting 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 essential that America acquire the Louisiana territory, either through peaceful negotiation or by war. When French dictator Napoleon, suddenly offered to sell for $15,000,000 not only the port of New Orleans but the entire fabulous slice of 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 tremendous strain, Jefferson authorized the purchase (Smith 266). Thus his first term closed in a blaze of glory when the people, united in their national good fortune, 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 racked with defections and desertions. When his term expired on March 3, 1809, he was thrilled to be leaving politics and returning to Monticello (Mclaughlin 376).
Jefferson’s daughter Martha said that in retirement her father never abandon 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 correspondence but he could not resist an intellectual challenge or turn down an appeal for his opinion, advice, or help, and continued to discuss with frankness and a brilliant clarity such diverse 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 a means to an end, but an end in itself. He felt education was the key to virtue 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 abroad an agent to select the faculty, he chose the 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 intrusion on his time and thought which caused Jefferson endless embarrassment. His finances, always shaky, finally collapsed. Jefferson had frequently advanced money to friends who fancied themselves more hard-pressed than he, and occasionally had been forced to make good on their notes when they found it impossible to do so. He had 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 $16,000 to aid the leader who had devoted his industry and resourcefulness to all America for half 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.
On our family vacation last fall to Virginia, my wife and I toured Jefferson’s Monticello home and also viewed his grave site. We both found it very interesting that of all the accomplishments that Jefferson listed on his headstone he apparently did not think it important enough to mention that he had been twice elected and served as president of the United States.
Daugherty, Sonia. Thomas Jefferson: Fighter for Freedom and Human Rights. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1961.
Koch, Adrienne, and William Peden. The Life and Selected Writings Of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Random House Publishers, 1993.
McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello The Biography Of A Builder. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt and Company Publishers, 1988.
Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson A Life. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt and Company Publishers, 1993.
Smith, Page. Jefferson A Revealing Biography. New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, 1976.