Thomas Jefferson is best known as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as third president of the United States. But he was also a diplomat, an architect, a musician, a scientist and inventor, a strong supporter of religious freedom, and an early advocate of public education. He was the founder of the University of Virginia and the greatest patron of learning and the arts in his generation. Although he lived 83 years, he never ceased to be young in spirit. He was always learning something new, always trying to contribute to human progress. In his range of interests, perhaps no other American except Benjamin Franklin ever matched him.

Early Life

Although renowned as a champion of democracy and friend of the common people, Jefferson was a member of a favored class by birth and training. He was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, his father's home in Albemarle County, Virginia, then on the edge of western settlement. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a successful landholder as well as a noted explorer. He provided his son with excellent opportunities for education and left him a considerable estate. His mother, Jane Randolph, belonged to one of the leading Virginia families.

Jefferson was educated privately during his youth. He studied Latin and Greek before going to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg at the age of 17. He learned French early and later acquired a knowledge of Italian and Spanish. At college he developed an interest in science and mathematics, and in the colonial capital of Williamsburg, he got to see government in operation. He would later be a part of that government.

In appearance, Jefferson was tall and lean, sandy-haired, and inclined to freckle. Although somewhat awkward, he was physically strong and a fine horseman. A friendly man, although he could be stiff at first meeting, he made and kept many friends.

Lawyer, Planter, and Burgess

Jefferson studied law under George Wythe, the most famous law teacher in Virginia, and at 24 was admitted to the bar. Legal fees provided only part of his earnings, however, and he was supported mainly by the income from his lands. These were doubled by the inheritance of his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, whom he married in 1772. But his wife's estate was burdened with a heavy debt from which he never escaped.

Jefferson owned about 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) of land, much of it forested, and from 100 to 200 slaves. He was always opposed to slavery, but his proposals to abolish it in Virginia failed. He himself was an especially kind master. On a small hilltop he built a house, later extensively remodeled, which he named Monticello--meaning "little mountain" in Italian. He was his own architect and builder.

Because of his position as a leading planter, Jefferson was expected to take part in the colonial government. In 1769, at the age of 25, he was elected to the House of Burgesses, the Virginia legislature, where he would serve until the outbreak of the American Revolution. He disliked speaking in public, partly because his voice was not strong, but he excelled on committees and soon showed his skill as a writer. From the beginning he belonged to the group that most strongly upheld the rights of the American colonies against the British government, which then ruled them. It was afterward said of Jefferson that he was the pen of the American Revolution, as George Washington was the sword.

Revolutionary Patriot

Jefferson said many times that he never liked public life, and he might have remained quietly at home in Virginia if the conflict between the American colonies and Britain had not become critical. One of the sparks that helped ignite American feeling against the British government was the severe measures it imposed against the colony of Massachusetts after the so-called Boston Tea Party in 1773. As a protest against taxes and other grievances, the colonists had dumped a cargo of British tea into Boston Harbor.

The issue, as Jefferson saw it, was between freedom and tyranny. When he became a member of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775, after the outbreak of the Revolution, he was already known as an ardent patriot. Because of his writing ability and because, as a Virginian, he was a representative of the largest colony, he was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. This document, adopted in 1776, proclaimed to the world that the 13 American colonies were now independent of Britain. Seven more years of war were to follow, however, before Britain accepted the idea of American independence.

Legislator and Governor

Jefferson returned to Virginia in 1776. He served in the House of Delegates, part of the new Virginia legislature, until 1779, when he was elected governor. To Jefferson, his service in the Virginia legislature during this period was of particular importance. Believing that the American Revolution was not only a struggle against foreign rule but also a fight for the rights of the individual, he set out to reform the laws of Virginia. His aim was to replace the artificial aristocracy of birth and wealth, to which he himself belonged, with a natural aristocracy of talent and virtue.

Jefferson set the highest value on his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which he introduced in 1779 but which was not passed until seven years later. It called for the complete separation of church and state and for the freedom of people to think and worship as they liked. A second measure, the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which would have created a system of public schools in Virginia, failed to pass. Jefferson was ahead of his time in this, but his ideas on education had great influence on others.

Jefferson's years as governor of Virginia, from 1779 to 1781, were unhappy ones. He had little power under the existing state constitution, and, to make matters worse, in his last year, the British invaded Virginia. The legislature fled, and for a time the state had no governor. Jefferson was blamed, although there was little he could have done. An inquiry into his conduct cleared him of all charges, but the criticism so distressed him that he determined never to return to public life. During his retirement he began his Notes on the State of Virginia. Originally an account of the natural resources, government, and society of his own state, it grew to be continental in scope.


Jefferson probably would have remained in Monticello if his wife had not died in 1782, leaving him lonely and desolate. Of the six children born to them, only three girls had survived. He sent his two youngest children, Mary and Lucy, to live with an aunt (where Lucy later died). But he kept his eldest daughter, Martha, with him. Yielding to the wishes of friends, he accepted election to Congress in 1783. Although he served only briefly, he was its most useful and industrious member. He recommended adoption of the dollar as the American monetary unit and the decimal system for its coinage. His report on the government of the western territory anticipated the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which formed the basis for the creation of new states from western lands. It was the system under which the United States as it exists today was gradually developed. He also drafted a report on the 1783 peace treaty with Britain that ended the Revolutionary War.

Minister to France

Jefferson now had to turn his eyes eastward, for in 1784 he was sent to Paris to help negotiate treaties of commerce between the new United States and the countries of Europe. The American mission had only limited success, but the next year Jefferson was appointed minister to France, succeeding the popular Benjamin Franklin.

Jefferson's five years in Paris were among the most interesting of his entire life. He took his daughter Martha with him, and after a time he sent for his other daughter, Mary. He enjoyed to the fullest the architecture, art, and music of the Old World, bought books by the dozen, and made friends of scholars and scientists. He learned many of the secrets of French cooking and became an authority on French wines. Jefferson also traveled widely and kept careful records of the things he saw. He wrote to American friends about them and sent home samples of European animals and plants. His drawings of a Roman temple in France served as a model for the capitol building in Richmond (which had succeeded Williamsburg as Virginia's state capital). It also spurred the classic revival in American architecture.

Jefferson formed a low opinion of European kings. He especially disliked the French monarchy. But France had shown friendship to the United States and had helped it financially and militarily during the American Revolution, and Jefferson was determined to strengthen this tie at a time when the young republic had hardly any other friends.

Jefferson saw the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, his last year in Paris. He feared that it would get out of hand, as it did later, but he approved of this revolt against what he considered royal tyranny.

Secretary of State

Jefferson returned home that same year. Rather reluctantly he accepted the invitation of President George Washington to become the first secretary of state (then called secretary of foreign affairs) under the new Constitution. He took office in 1790 and served until the end of 1793.

During this time occurred his historic conflict with Alexander Hamilton, the young and brilliant secretary of the treasury. In foreign affairs Jefferson, who believed that Britain was still an enemy, tried to keep the United States friendly to France and the cause of liberty it now represented. Hamilton favored the British and preferred the rule of a monarch to that of the French revolutionaries. But when war broke out between France and Britain in 1793, both men agreed that the United States should stay out of it.

Jefferson objected to certain of Hamilton's policies as favoring merchants and financiers rather than farmers. Most of the people in the United States were then farmers, and Jefferson always thought of himself as one. He believed in individual liberty more than Hamilton did and trusted the people more. He thought that Hamilton was trying to increase the power of the national government beyond what was permitted by the Constitution. Jefferson favored the strict interpretation of the Constitution, believing that this would prevent tyranny.

Vice President

In the presidential election of 1796, John Adams, who was Washington's vice president, was the candidate of the Federalists, who supported a strong national, or federal, government. Jefferson was the choice of the Republicans (also known as Democratic-Republicans), who opposed the policies of the Federalists. Adams won election by a majority of three electoral votes. According to the electoral system then in effect, Jefferson became the vice president. There has never been another situation quite like this in U.S. history, in which the president was also the recognized leader of the party opposed to the government.

This was the time of what Adams called the "half-war" with France. Diplomatic relations between the United States and France were broken, and there was fighting between their two navies. Jefferson was charged with favoring the French in the dispute, although in fact he did not do so. The wartime mood also led to the passage in 1798, by a Federalist-controlled Congress, of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Under their provisions, foreigners could be deported from the country if they were thought dangerous, and journalists and others who criticized the government could be sent to jail.

The Election of 1800

The presidential election of 1800 was also marked by confusion. Jefferson and Adams were again the candidates of their parties. Adams, whose popularity, along with that of the Federalists, had fallen drastically, lost his bid for re-election. But the election resulted in a tie between Jefferson and his own vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr. For months it was uncertain who would be president. The outcome was finally determined when the House of Representatives elected Jefferson, as the majority of the voters had intended. (The manner in which presidents were elected was clarified by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804.)

His Presidency: An Overview

Jefferson's inauguration as president in 1801 was the first transfer of power in the United States from one political group to another. That it was accomplished peacefully made it especially noteworthy. Jefferson served two terms in office, winning re-election in 1804 by a wide margin. He reduced taxes, abolished offices that he thought unnecessary, and generally governed in a spirit of toleration and humanity. The hated Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed or allowed to expire. He also worked well with Congress, respecting the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of the government.

But he also had to endure personal attacks on his character by his enemies, perhaps more than any other president. Among the false accusations was that Jefferson was an atheist (that he did not believe in God) and that he was immoral. In spite of this, for nearly all of his administration, he enjoyed enormous popularity among the American people.

The New Capital.

Jefferson was nearly 58 when he became president. He was the first chief executive to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C., which had become the seat of government during the last year of the Adams administration. Although it was called a city, Washington was then really just a village in the wilderness. Only one wing of the original Capitol had been built, and the president's residence (it officially became known as the White House much later) looked like a big bare box. The columns that now adorn the entrance were not yet in place.

Nevertheless, Jefferson had the place furnished handsomely and gave delicious dinners there. He did not like formality or ceremony, however, preferring the relaxed atmosphere he was used to at Monticello. The duties of hostess were occasionally shared by his daughters, Martha and Mary, now married and with their own families. Mary's death in 1804 would be a severe blow to Jefferson.

Louisiana Purchase.

The most notable achievement of Jefferson's presidency was his purchase from France in 1803 of the Louisiana Territory. The acquisition of this vast territory, lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, doubled the area of the United States at a stroke. Jefferson had already prepared the Lewis and Clark expedition, which explored the virtually unknown region and eventually reached the Pacific Ocean. The purchase aroused alarm among New Englanders, who feared that their small states would become unimportant, but it delighted most Americans. Actually, Jefferson himself had wondered if the purchase was constitutional but was persuaded of its legality.

The Federalist Judges.

Judges, particularly the many appointed in the waning days of the Adams presidency. Considering the judges biased against his administration, Jefferson rejected many of the late appointments and sought to impeach an associate justice of the Supreme Court. But he was rebuffed by U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, a Federalist. The dispute, although of little importance now, resulted in one of the Supreme Court's most important decisions, Marbury v. Madison (1803). In it, Marshall established the right of judicial review, under which the Court could declare a law unconstitutional.

The Tripolitan War.

In 1801 war broke out between the United States and Tripoli, one of the Barbary States situated along the coast of North Africa. The Barbary States lived by piracy, and the United States and other countries paid them tribute, in the form of yearly sums of money, to allow their merchant ships to cross the Mediterranean Sea unmolested. The immediate cause of the conflict was the demand by Tripoli for additional tribute, which the United States refused. Fought mainly at sea, the war ended in 1805 with the capture of the Tripolitan fortress of Derna by U.S. land and sea forces.

The Burr Conspiracy.

Soon after his inauguration for a second term in 1805, Jefferson was caught up in the strange events involving his former vice president, Aaron Burr. (George Clinton had succeeded Burr in that office.) Already notorious for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, Burr was suspected of conspiring to set up an independent empire in the Southwest. He was tried for treason but acquitted by a court presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall.

The Embargo.

Jefferson's most vexing problems as president grew out of the war between Britain and France, which had resumed and involved much of Europe. Both sides ignored the neutral rights of the United States, but since Britain commanded the seas, its actions most offended Americans. Particularly objectionable was the practice of impressment, in which British warships stopped American vessels and impressed, or forced, American seamen into British service. Not wanting either to submit or be forced into war, Jefferson, in 1807, gained passage in Congress of the Embargo Act, which halted exports to both Britain and France.

Measures of this sort had been used successfully by the colonists against the British before the Revolution. However, the embargo was bitterly opposed by shippers, especially in New England, who claimed that it did more harm than good, and that the government was tyrannical in enforcing it. The embargo's failure was painful to Jefferson, and it was repealed at the very end of his presidency.

Last Retirement

After his friend James Madison, who had served as his secretary of state, succeeded to the presidency in 1809, Jefferson returned to Monticello. There he spent the last 17 years of his life. He was often surrounded by his grandchildren, whom he adored, but he had so many other visitors as well that he fled for part of each year to another place of his, Poplar Forest, near Lynchburg, Virginia. He spent much of his time writing letters. Many of them were to his old opponent John Adams, with whom he discussed books, government, religion, and almost everything else. Jefferson was in financial difficulties during his last years and was practically bankrupt at his death.

Jefferson's last great public service was the founding of the University of Virginia in 1819. It was the only accomplishment that he valued as much as his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom. He designed the university's buildings himself and selected the first professors.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; John Adams died the same day. He was buried at Monticello, beside his wife. Two centuries after his birth, in 1943, a memorial to Jefferson was dedicated in Washington, D.C., establishing his place alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln among great Americans.


Dumas Malone
University of Virginia
Author, Jefferson and His Time

Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson credit: Library of Congress.