Thomas Jefferson, America's third president and leading political thinker, was born at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia. He graduated from the College of William and Mary, studied law and administered a landed estate inherited from his father. Jefferson was elected to the House of Burgesses, the Virginia legislature, in 1769 and established his reputation as a writer on political issues, but not as an orator. In 1772, he married Martha Skelton, who held significant land of her own. His wife bore six children in 10 years, but only two survived infancy. Jefferson never remarried following his wife's death in 1782.
Jefferson drafted instructions for the Virginia delegates at the First Continental Congress and served in person at the Second Continental Congress. In the latter capacity, he is best known for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence.
During the early stages of the War of Independence, Jefferson served the Virginia legislature and later as governor (1779-81). He was unfairly castigated for fleeing in the face of a British advance while governor and would be accused of cowardice in later political campaigns.
Jefferson again served in the local legislature and in the Congress. In 1784, he was sent to France as America's diplomatic representative, not returning home until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and missing the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson had initially been supportive of the changes in France, but later was repulsed by the bloodshed.
While in France, Jefferson wrote to John Banister in 1785 regarding the best education for Americans. After considering various European alternatives, Jefferson opined:
It appears to me then, that an American coming to Europe for education, loses in his knowledge, in his morals, in his health, in his habits, and in his happiness. I had entertained only doubts on this head, before I came to Europe: what I see and hear, since I came here, proves more than I had even suspected. Cast your eye over America: who are the men of most learning, of most eloquence, most beloved by their countrymen, and most trusted and promoted by them? They are those who have been educated among them, and whose manners, morals, and habits, are perfectly homogeneous with those of the country.In 1789, Jefferson became the United States' first secretary of state. During the Washington administration, he became the focal point of the Democratic-Republican forces, which contended for influence with the Federalists under Alexander Hamilton. In 1796, Jefferson became vice-president in the John Adams administration.
Prior to the election of 1800, Jefferson wrote to Gideon Granger of Connecticut, making plain the difference between his political philosophy and that of the Federalists:
You have seen the practises by which the public servants have been able to cover their conduct, or, where that could not be done, delusions by which they have varnished it for the eye of their constituents. What an augmentation of the field for jobbing, speculating, plundering, office-building & office-hunting would be produced by an assumption of all the state powers into the hands of the general government.The results of the Election of 1800 pointedly illustrated a serious constitutional defect. Both Jefferson and Aaron Burr won identical numbers of electoral votes, necessitating action by the House of Representatives to decide the election. Bitter debate eventually gave way to Jefferson's selection. Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in Washington D.C. The capital was far from complete. The Senate chamber was the only part of the Capitol Building then completed. Jefferson was sworn in there, with the Senate, federal judges, and some members of the House present. He was reelected in 1804. Major events during his administrations included the War with Tripoli, the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Burr Conspiracy, and the Embargo of 1807.
Jefferson devoted much of his retirement to the establishment of the University of Virginia, tending his estate as the "Sage of Monticello," and corresponding with his former bitter political rival, John Adams. In one of the great ironies in American history, Jefferson and Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826 - 50 years to the day following approval of the Declaration of Independence.
There is much to admire about Jefferson, arguably the greatest intellect to occupy the presidency. He was a lifelong seeker of knowledge, a musician, an accomplished writer and philosopher, a student of several languages, and a naturalist. Jefferson pursued scientific studies, some of which resulted in practical benefits; he was the inventor of the swivel chair and the dumbwaiter. He developed plans for public-school reform and instituted land reform in Virginia. Jefferson also worked to establish religious toleration and freedom by eliminating the tax support of the Anglican Church in his home state.
There was, however, a less appealing side to Jefferson's character. He clearly understood that slavery was morally indefensible, but continued to own slaves. He was accused during his lifetime of fathering a child with his slave, Sally Hemings, a controversy that remains unsettled. In foreign affairs, he was an unbending foe of Britain when prudence would have dictated a more balanced approach. His view of an agrarian democracy was naïve in his own day and was soon eclipsed.