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Thomas Jefferson Biography: Third President of the United States

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I am a retired engineer and small business owner who has authored over 60 books on history and various topics.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Who Was Thomas Jefferson?

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents, an accomplished writer, architect, naturalist, inventor, diplomat, and educator. He helped draft the document that transformed his home state of Virginia from a British Colony to one of the original thirteen states that would form the new nation of the United States. In his later years, he founded the University of Virginia, working on every detail to establish it as an institute of higher education accessible to the common man. In service to his country, he was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and also served as a diplomat, secretary of state, vice president, and president. He worked tirelessly for America’s most important ideal of liberty, asserting that human beings are born with natural rights, rather than rights given to them by a sovereign.

Early Years

Thomas Jefferson was born on his family’s plantation in what is now Albemarle County in Virginia on April 13, 1743. He was the third of ten children in a wealthy family. Both his mother and father were from prominent families in the area. When he was only 14 years old in 1757, Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, died. The estate was divided up, and each of the children received an inheritance. Thomas received five thousand acres of land, which was the family homestead. However, he would not receive full authority over the property until he reached the age of 21. The death of his father left Jefferson his own master, as he later wrote in a letter, “At fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself were thrown on myself entirely, without a relative or a friend qualified to advise or guide me.”

His wealth allowed young Thomas to attend the College of William and Mary, one of the oldest colleges in the United States, founded in 1693. In 1762, at age 19, he graduated from the college. After college he went on to study law under a prominent lawyer, George Wythe. After studying under Wythe, Jefferson was able to pass the bar exam in 1767. At that point he became a lawyer in rural Virginia. Then he entered into politics when he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgess, which during the colonial period was equivalent to a state legislature today.

In 1770, he started work on the house he inherited from his father, situated on a 5,000-acre tobacco plantation run by slave labor. He would call the home Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian. His house became an architectural marvel and would take most of Jefferson’s life to complete.

In 1772, he married a twenty-three-year-old wealthy widow, Martha Skelton. During their time together, they had six children but only two would survive to adulthood. A year into their marriage, Martha’s father died, leaving the couple 11,000 additional acres of land, 135 slaves, and the estate’s debt.

Martha Jefferson.

Martha Jefferson.

Political Life Begins

The shots fired at Lexington and Concord were the opening salvo of what would become the American Revolutionary War. Jefferson was loyal to the colonies and opposed British control at every opportunity. Jefferson was chosen as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and traveled to Philadelphia to begin his role in the Continental Congress, a body that would shape a new nation.

Jefferson was never known for his skills as an orator; rather, he excelled in the written word. In 1776, he was appointed with four other men, including Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert R. Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to draft for the colonies a declaration of independence from Great Britain. After several drafts of the document, Congress finally approved the Unanimous Declaration of Thirteen Unified States of America on July 4,1776. Today, we know this document as the Declaration of Independence.

After serving in the Continental Congress, Jefferson returned to Virginia and was elected governor where he served two one-year terms starting in 1779. During his brief time as governor, he introduced measures for education, religious freedom, and revisions to inheritance laws. As the fighting from the Revolutionary War spread to the southern states, Jefferson was forced to abandon the capital of Richmond to escape the advancing British. His decision to abandon the city rather than stand and fight cast a shadow of cowardice over him that would follow him the rest of his political career.

After his term as governor was finished, Thomas and Martha returned to Monticello. In the spring of 1782, Martha delivered her last child. She never fully recovered from the pregnancy and after a long summer of illness, she passed away in the fall. In a letter, Jefferson wrote of his grief, “A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I have had not the sprits to fill up.”

The Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence.

Minister to France

Following a peace treaty with Great Britain, the new United States formed the Congress of the Confederation, to which Jefferson was appointed as Virginia’s representative in 1783. During his short tenure in Congress, he was involved in setting up the new government. The next year, he was appointed as minister to Europe. In the summer of 1784, Jefferson departed for France with his daughter, Martha, and two servants. Congress had appointed him to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in France to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with 16 European states and the Barbary powers.
In the summer of 1787, Jefferson sent for his young daughter Mary (known in her youth as Polly and later as Maria) to join him in France. Accompanying Polly on the journey across the Atlantic was an enslaved 14-year-old girl name Sally Hemings. Only five years older than Polly, Sally was of little help on the voyage. Realizing the problem, the captain of the ship took charge of the young girls and saw that they arrived in London safely. Since there were few ships that traveled from Virginia to France directly, the ship docked in London. Jefferson was unable to meet Polly and Sally in London when they arrived and asked Abigail Adams, the wife of the U.S. minister to England John Adams, to watch over her until he could retrieve her.
In France, Polly attended the Pentemont Abbey convent school with her older sister Martha. After Martha expressed a desire to convert to Catholicism, Jefferson quickly withdrew both the girls from the school, choosing to have them tutored at home instead.

Artist’s rendition of Sally Hemings.

Artist’s rendition of Sally Hemings.

Relationship with Sally Hemings

During his time in France, he developed a relationship with Sally Hemings, his wife’s half-sister and a slave in his household. By the time Jefferson and his entourage returned to the United States in 1789, Sally was pregnant with Jefferson’s child. Between 1790 and 1808, Sally Hemings gave birth to seven children while living at Monticello. Evidence indicates that Jefferson was the father of at least some of her children.

Secretary of State

Upon his return from France, he was appointed by President George Washington to be the first secretary of state. Jefferson’s ideology on the scope of the government was very different from that of the secretary of treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the two men clashed on many occasions. Jefferson was a proponent of a small government with limited powers while Hamilton promoted a strong central government. Jefferson grew frustrated with President Washington’s reliance on Hamilton and resigned the position in 1794 and returned to Monticello.

The pillars of our prosperity are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.

— Thomas Jefferson

Vice President of the United States

George Washington declined to run for a third term and Jefferson and John Adams campaigned for the position. In a close race, Adams came out the victor and became the second president of the United States. Before the twelfth amendment was added to the Constitution, the candidate with the lesser number of electoral votes became the vice president. As vice president, Jefferson was the presiding officer of the Senate. Having studied parliamentary law and procedures, in 1800, he published his notes on Senate procedure as A Manual of Parliamentary Practice.

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From 1797 to 1801, Jefferson served as vice president under John Adams. This didn’t really work out that well, because Jefferson was from the opposing political party, resulting in animosity between the two.

President of the United States

Adams turned out to be an unpopular president, and Jefferson and Aaron Burr opposed him in the election of 1800. The election exposed one of the flaws in the Electoral College, which allowed a tie between Jefferson and Burr, throwing the contest into the House of Representatives. In 1801, Jefferson became president of the United States after thirty-six votes in the House of Representatives. Historian Joyce Appleby said the election of 1800 was “one of the most acrimonious in the annals of American history.”

One of his first acts was to send the navy to the Mediterranean Sea to fight the Barbary pirates. When America would send a ship of commerce near the coast of northern Africa, the pirates would attack the ship, take it over, steal the contents of the ship, and imprison or enslave the crew. To resolve the issue, Jefferson built up the navy and sent ships to the region to quell the pirates. This led to the formation of the Marines and was America’s first foray into international affairs.

An oil painting of Lt. Stephen Decatur boarding a Tripolitan gunboat during the bombardment of Tripoli, Aug. 3, 1804.

An oil painting of Lt. Stephen Decatur boarding a Tripolitan gunboat during the bombardment of Tripoli, Aug. 3, 1804.

Louisiana Purchase

In 1803, the government of France, led by Napoleon, needed money to finance its war with Great Britain. To raise much needed funds, France offered 15 million acres to the United States government. The land was west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. Jefferson, with approval from Congress, bought that land for about four cents an acre. It was a good deal for the growing nation and doubled the size of the United States.

Once in possession of this vast new land, Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803 to explore and chart this expansive wilderness. The expedition was a party of twenty-five that traveled to the Pacific Ocean and the Northwest territory and back to report their findings. The expedition, which lasted from May 1804 to September 1806, obtained a treasure trove of scientific and geographical knowledge of the region and established relationships with the indigenous tribes.

In 1804, Jefferson was elected to a second term as president by a wide margin. His second term in office turned out to be more troubling than his first. In the last few days of his presidency, Congress replaced the Embargo Act of 1807 with the almost unenforceable Non-Intercourse Act of March 1809. This act lifted all embargoes on American shipping except for those bound for British or French ports. The Embargo Act of 1807, directed at both France and Great Britain, triggered economic chaos in the United States and was strongly criticized at the time. Following the tradition set by George Washington, Jefferson did not seek a third term in office and retired to his plantation in Virginia.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase.

Life After the Presidency

After years of public service, Jefferson retired to Monticello to manage his plantation, write, experiment, and pursue his intellectual activities. By 1815, Jefferson was growing short on money and the years of public service didn’t come with an old age pension. To raise funds, he sold his 6,700 volumes of books to Congress. This formed the basis of the Library of Congress that we have today. In addition to selling his library, he used his slaves as collateral for loans.

During his later years, Jefferson became very active in the establishment of the University of Virginia. Jefferson’s vision for the university was for it to be free of church influence, where students could specialize in different areas of study not offered at other colleges. He helped design the building, selected the faculty, raised funds, chose the curriculum, and nurtured the fledgling school to become a reality.

Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He also died on the same day as and within just a few hours of John Adams, the second president of the United States—quite a strange coincidence in history. Jefferson’s remains were buried at Monticello, with an epitaph on his tombstone of his own words, which read: “HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON, AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.” Though Jefferson didn’t list his two terms as president as one of his accomplishments on his tombstone, historians now rank Thomas Jefferson as one of the top five most effective presidents of the United States.

Ranking as President

In the ranking of presidents as listed in the book by Brian Lamb et al, historians rank Thomas Jefferson near the top of the list at seventh place. He was placed behind Harry S. Truman and ahead of John F. Kennedy. Jefferson ranked high in the area of vision/setting an agenda and relations with Congress. He ranked lowest in his pursuit of equal justice for all.

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.

References

  • Lamb, Brian, Susan Swain, and C-SPAN. The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best – and Worst – Chief Executives. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.
  • Matuz, Roger. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President from George Washington to Barack Obama. Revised and Updated Edition. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.
  • Merwin, Henry C. Thomas Jefferson. The Riverside Biographical Services. Number 5. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. 1901.
  • West, Doug. Thomas Jefferson - A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Doug West

Comments

J Zod from Nairobi on September 18, 2019:

Hi Doug,

This a very interesting read. Thomas Jefferson was a great American president, author and philosopher. Thank you for sharing.

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