Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), author of the Declaration of Independence and the third U.S. president, was a leading figure in America’s early development. During the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), Jefferson served in the Virginia legislature and the Continental Congress and was governor of Virginia. He later served as U.S. minister to France and U.S. secretary of state and was vice president under John Adams (1735-1826).
Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican who thought the national government should have a limited role in citizens’ lives, was elected president in 1800. During his two terms in office (1801-1809), the U.S. purchased the Louisiana Territory and Lewis and Clark explored the vast new acquisition. Although Jefferson promoted individual liberty, he also enslaved over six hundred people throughout his life. After leaving office, he retired to his Virginia plantation, Monticello, and helped found the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson’s Early Years
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, a plantation on a large tract of land near present-day Charlottesville, Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson (1707/08-57), was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson (1720-76), came from a prominent Virginia family. Thomas was their third child and eldest son; he had six sisters and one surviving brother.
In 1762, Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he reportedly enjoyed studying for 15 hours, then practicing violin for several more hours on a daily basis. He went on to study law under the tutelage of respected Virginia attorney George Wythe (there were no official law schools in America at the time, and Wythe’s other pupils included future Chief Justice John Marshall and statesman Henry Clay).
Jefferson began working as a lawyer in 1767. As a member of colonial Virginia’s House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1775, Jefferson, who was known for his reserved manner, gained recognition for penning a pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), which declared that the British Parliament had no right to exercise authority over the American colonies.
Marriage and Monticello
After his father died when Jefferson was a teen, the future president inherited the Shadwell property. In 1768, Jefferson began clearing a mountaintop on the land in preparation for the elegant brick mansion he would construct there called Monticello (“little mountain” in Italian). Jefferson, who had a keen interest in architecture and gardening, designed the home and its elaborate gardens himself.
Over the course of his life, he remodeled and expanded Monticello and filled it with art, fine furnishings and interesting gadgets and architectural details. He kept records of everything that happened at the 5,000-acre plantation, including daily weather reports, a gardening journal and notes about his slaves and animals.
On January 1, 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton (1748-82), a young widow. The couple moved to Monticello and eventually had six children; only two of their daughters—Martha (1772-1836) and Mary (1778-1804)—survived into adulthood. In 1782, Jefferson’s wife Martha died at age 33 following complications from childbirth. Jefferson was distraught and never remarried. However, it is believed he fathered more children with one of his enslaved women, Sally Hemings (1773-1835), who was also his wife’s half-sister.
Slavery was a contradictory issue in Jefferson’s life. Although he was an advocate for individual liberty and at one point promoted a plan for the gradual emancipation of slaves in America, he enslaved people throughout his life. Additionally, while he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he believed African Americans were biologically inferior to whites and thought the two races could not coexist peacefully in freedom. Jefferson inherited some 175 enslaved people from his father and father-in-law and owned an estimated 600 slaves over the course of his life. He freed only a small number of them in his will; the majority were sold following his death.
Thomas Jefferson and the American Revolution
In 1775, with the American Revolutionary War recently underway, Jefferson was selected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Although not known as a great public speaker, he was a gifted writer and at age 33, was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence (before he began writing, Jefferson discussed the document’s contents with a five-member drafting committee that included John Adams and Benjamin Franklin). The Declaration of Independence, which explained why the 13 colonies wanted to be free of British rule and also detailed the importance of individual rights and freedoms, was adopted on July 4, 1776.
In the fall of 1776, Jefferson resigned from the Continental Congress and was re-elected to the Virginia House of Delegates (formerly the House of Burgesses). He considered the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he authored in the late 1770s and which Virginia lawmakers eventually passed in 1786, to be one of the significant achievements of his career. It was a forerunner to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects people’s right to worship as they choose.
From 1779 to 1781, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia, and from 1783 to 1784, did a second stint in Congress (then officially known, since 1781, as the Congress of the Confederation). In 1785, he succeeded Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) as U.S. minister to France. Jefferson’s duties in Europe meant he could not attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787; however, he was kept informed of the proceedings to draft a new national constitution and later advocated for including a bill of rights and presidential term limits.
Jefferson's Path to the Presidency
After returning to America in the fall of 1789, Jefferson accepted an appointment from President George Washington (1732-99) to become the new nation’s first secretary of state. In this post, Jefferson clashed with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755/57-1804) over foreign policy and their differing interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. In the early 1790s, Jefferson, who favored strong state and local government, co-founded the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose Hamilton’s Federalist Party, which advocated for a strong national government with broad powers over the economy.
In the presidential election of 1796, Jefferson ran against John Adams and received the second-highest amount of votes, which, according to the law at the time, made him vice president.
Jefferson ran against Adams again in the presidential election of 1800, which turned into a bitter battle between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Jefferson defeated Adams; however, due to a flaw in the electoral system, Jefferson tied with fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr (1756-1836). The House of Representatives broke the tie and voted Jefferson into office. In order to avoid a repeat of this situation, Congress proposed the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which required separate voting for president and vice president. The amendment was ratified in 1804.
Jefferson Becomes Third U.S. President
Jefferson was sworn into office on March 4, 1801; he was the first presidential inauguration held in Washington, D.C. (George Washington was inaugurated in New York in 1789; in 1793, he was sworn into office in Philadelphia, as was his successor, John Adams, in 1797.) Instead of riding in a horse-drawn carriage, Jefferson broke with tradition and walked to and from the ceremony.
One of the most significant achievements of Jefferson’s first administration was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million in 1803. At more than 820,000 square miles, the Louisiana Purchase (which included lands extending between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico to present-day Canada) effectively doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson then commissioned explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the uncharted land, plus the area beyond, out to the Pacific Ocean. (At the time, most Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.) Lewis and Clark’s expedition, known today as the Corps of Discovery, lasted from 1804 to 1806 and provided valuable information about the geography, American Indian tribes and animal and plant life of the western part of the continent.
In 1804, Jefferson ran for re-election and defeated Federalist candidate Charles Pinckney (1746-1825) of South Carolina with more than 70 percent of the popular vote and an electoral count of 162-14. During his second term, Jefferson focused on trying to keep America out of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). However, after Great Britain and France, who were at war, both began harassing American merchant ships, Jefferson implemented the Embargo Act of 1807.
The act, which closed U.S. ports to foreign trade, proved unpopular with Americans and hurt the U.S. economy. It was repealed in 1809 and, despite the president’s attempts to maintain neutrality, the U.S. ended up going to war against Britain in the War of 1812. Jefferson chose not to run for a third term in 1808 and was succeeded in office by James Madison (1751-1836), a fellow Virginian and former U.S. secretary of state.
Thomas Jefferson’s Later Years and Death
Jefferson spent his post-presidential years at Monticello, where he continued to pursue his many interests, including architecture, music, reading and gardening. He also helped found the University of Virginia, which held its first classes in 1825. Jefferson was involved with designing the school’s buildings and curriculum and ensured that unlike other American colleges at the time, the school had no religious affiliation or religious requirements for its students.
Jefferson died at age 83 at Monticello on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Coincidentally, John Adams, Jefferson’s friend, former rival and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, died the same day. Jefferson was buried at Monticello. However, due to the significant debt the former president had accumulated during his life, his mansion, furnishing and enslaved people were sold at auction following his death. Monticello was eventually acquired by a nonprofit organization, which opened it to the public in 1954.
Jefferson remains an American icon. His face appears on the U.S. nickel and is carved into stone at Mount Rushmore. The Jefferson Memorial, near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated on April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth.