The third president of the United States of America and a powerful advocate of liberty was born April 3, 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia. Thomas Jefferson inherited from his father, a planter and surveyor, some 5,000 acres of land, and from his mother, a Randolph, high social standing. He studied at the College of William and Mary, and then went on to practice or “read” law as it was known in his day. In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a young widow, and took her to live in his partly constructed mountaintop home, Monticello. It was at Monticello that they had six children: Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772–1836), Jane Randolph (1774–1775), a stillborn or unnamed son (1777), Mary Wayles (1778–1804), Lucy Elizabeth (1780–1781), and Lucy Elizabeth (1782–1785). Martha died on September 6, 1782 and Jefferson never remarried. It has been stated but never fully proven that Jefferson may also have been the father of several children with his slave Sally Hemings.
Thomas was freckled and sandy-haired and was often described as being rather tall and awkward. While Jefferson was eloquent as a correspondent, he was not public speaker. While he was in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress, he contributed his pen rather than his voice to the patriot cause. Acting as the “silent member” of the Congress, Jefferson, age 33, drafted the Declaration of Independence. In the following years he labored diligently to make its words a reality in Virginia. One of his most notable achievements was when he wrote a bill establishing religious freedom, enacted in 1786.
Jefferson succeeded the popular Benjamin Franklin as minister to France in 1785. His very public sympathy for the French Revolution led him into conflict with Alexander Hamilton when Jefferson was Secretary of State in President Washington’s Cabinet. Disillusioned with politics he resigned in 1793.
It was during this time that sharp political conflict developed, and two separate parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, began to form. Jefferson went on to gradually assume leadership of the Republicans, who sympathized with the revolutionary cause in France. His opinions vigorously attacked Federalist policies and he opposed a strong centralized Government and championed the rights of states.
Thomas Jefferson became a reluctant candidate for President in 1796 and came within three votes of election. History buffs are delighted that through a flaw in the Constitution, he became Vice President, although he was an opponent of President Adams. Yet in 1800 this defect caused a more serious problem when Republican electors, attempting to name both a President and a Vice President from their own party, cast a tie vote between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives went on to settle the tie. Ironically it was his old nemesis Alexander Hamilton who championed Jefferson’s election to the presidency.
When Jefferson had assumed the Presidency, the crisis in France had already passed. One of his first acts as President was to slash Army and Navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminate the tax on whiskey (that was wildly unpopular in the West,) and still manage to reduce the national debt by a third. He also became a foreign policy President when he sent a naval squadron to fight the Barbary pirates, who were harassing American commerce in the Mediterranean. Further, while the Constitution made no provision for the acquisition of new land, Jefferson suppressed his qualms over constitutionality when he had the opportunity to acquire the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803.
During Jefferson’s second term as President, he became increasingly preoccupied with keeping the nation from involvement in the Napoleonic wars. He worked constantly on this though both England and France interfered with the neutral rights of American merchantmen. Jefferson’s attempted solution to this conflict was an embargo upon American shipping, which worked badly and was unpopular.
After two terms as President, Jefferson retired to Monticello to ponder such projects as his grand designs for the University of Virginia.
He died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Ironically he died just a few hours before the death of John Adams, co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, one time political rival and later friend and correspondent.