Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, was one of the most brilliant men in history. His interests were boundless, and his accomplishments were great and varied. He was a philosopher, educator, naturalist, politician, scientist, architect, inventor, pioneer in scientific farming, musician, and writer, and was the foremost spokesmen for democracy in his day. He was born at Shadwell in Goochland County, Virginia on April 13, 1743, to Jane Randolph and Peter Jefferson. Jefferson Graduated from the college of William and Mary in 1760 (Adams, Page #26).
His interest in science was fostered by Dr. William Small, teacher of mathematics and philosophy, who introduced him to Gov. Francis Fauquier and to George Wythe, then the most noted teacher of law in Virginia. To “habitual conversation” with these friends Jefferson said he “owed much instruction” (Dos Passos, Page #102).
In 1767 Jefferson was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in the capitol (Adams, Page #43). Jefferson was elected justice of the peace and church vestryman in 1768. In May of the next year he was elected to the House of Burgesses, in which he served until the house cease to function in 1775. He was appointed county lieutenant of Albemarle in 1770 and the same year completed the building of his new home, Monticello. Two years later he married, January 1, 1772, Martha Skelton, a widow who was both attractive and accomplished, the daughter of John Wayles, a well known lawyer, and just before the College of William and Mary appointed him surveyor of the county in 1773 (Adams, Page #46-47).
Jefferson’s most remarkable contribution in legislative work before the Revolution came through work on committees and though such writings as his paper to the Virginia Convention, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In defining the grievances with Great Britain, Jefferson denied that Parliament had any authority over the colonies, and he attacked the restrictive acts passed by Parliament as a deliberate plan to destroy colonial freedom. Jefferson also accused the king of rejecting the best laws passed by colonial legislatures, of preventing the outlaw of slavery, of permitting his governors to break up colonial assemblies, and of sending armed forces without right to do so(Dos Passos, Page #169).
On June 21, 1775 he was given a seat in the Continental Congress, appointed to the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, and he was chosen by the committee to write the declaration because of his “peculiar felicity of style.” The Declaration of Independence was formally adopted on July 4, In 1776 Jefferson was elected to the Virginia legislature, giving up his seat in the Continental Congress and declining an offer to serve with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane as commissioners to France, mostly because of personal reasons having to do with his family, but also, because he felt he could best serve the revolutionary cause by furthering the reformation of Virginia ( Adams, Page #98-99).
He then served three years in the house of delegates. While there he began the revision of the laws of Virginia. His most noteworthy achievement during this time was his proposal of the Statute for Religious Freedom, which stated in Jefferson’s own words, “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever”, and that no one should suffer in any way for their “religious opinions or beliefs.”
The bill was eventually adopted in 1786. Jefferson also had succeeded in the of passing bills to abolish primogeniture and entail. Although never passed, his Bill of Universal Diffusion of Knowledge, set forth a philosophy of providing free public schooling for all citizens (Adams During this period, Jefferson managed to spend considerable time with his family, but even in leisure he was never idle. He took up building projects at Monticello and continued to develop his land.
Jefferson was a philosopher and at the same time an architect and inventor. He invented the dumbwaiter, a swivel chair, a lamp-heater, and an improved plow for which the French gave him a medal. He tinkered with clocks, steam engines, and metronomes. He collected plans of large cities and later helped in the planning of Washington, DC.
Jefferson kept an over sea correspondence with Giovanni Fabbroni, an Italian naturalist, in order to compare climate and plant life in Virginia and southern Europe. He added to his valuable collection of books and bought instruments for making astronomical observations. He also fostered his love of music. In a letter to the Italian, Philip Mazzei, Jefferson describes music as “the favorite passion of my soul” and wished that his servants were also musicians, “so that one might have a band…without enlarging their domestic expenses” (Adams, Page #115-122).
Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia in 1779, at the age of thirty-six, where he served two terms (Wibberley, Page #73). As a governor in the mist of a revolution, Jefferson had little military experience and could do little to directly help in war against Britain. Virginia had no standing army, or navy, and he could send no militia men because there were little or no supplies to equip them with. The government was continually having to retreat, and Jefferson sent his family off to safety in Tuckahoe (Wibberley, Page #80). Some blamed Jefferson for the defeat at Richmond and Charlottesville, and later a committee of the legislature investigated his conduct in office during the British invasion. Although he was exonerated, his reputation was badly tarnished in his home state (Wibberley, Page #110).
Jefferson refused to serve another term as governor, and even declined the appointment by Congress to go to Paris as a minister to negotiate peace. During this period he wrote The Notes on the State of Virginia containing essays on a variety of subjects ranging from the study of weather, through botany, anthropology, zoology and the philology of Indian languages to his private observations on how long it took a slave to dig so many cubic feet of clay out of a ditch. Through it Jefferson gained much of his reputation as a pioneer American scientist (Padover, Page #10).
Jefferson was elected delegate to congress in June, 1783, and during this term he served on almost every important committee and drafted as many as 31 state papers, one of the most important of which was a proposal for the organization of the Northwest Territory. The proposal was adopted by Congress but never put into effect, and was later rewritten and called the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which left out Jefferson’s clause on the abolition of slavery. The ordinance made provisions for newly acquired lands and their admittance to the United States (Adams Page #159-164).
Another important proposal was Jefferson’s report on the coinage system. His recommendation of the establishment of the dollar as the central monetary unit, with a 10-dollar gold coin and a one-tenth-dollar silver and one-hundredth dollar copper coin, was eventually adopted by congress. He drew up a report on the definitive treaty of peace, which was adopted, and his report of December 20,1783, was accepted as the basis for procedure in negotiating treaties of commerce with foreign countries (Wibberley Page #140).
In 1784 Congress appointed Jefferson, with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, to negotiate commercial treaties with foreign countries. He was appointed minister to France in 1785 when Benjamin Franklin retired from the position and remained in France until October 1789. One of Jefferson’s most important functions in France was to report home how “the vaunted scene of Europe…struck a savage of the mountains of America.” Not impressed Jefferson said, “It will make you adore your own country” (Adams Page #173-176). Soon after Jefferson’s return to the United Sates He was offered the appointment of secretary of state by George Washington, which he accepted and entered the office on March 22, 1790 (Dos Passos Page #360).
During this period, Jefferson differed with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s theories of foreign policies and government fiancee, and was leader of a faction opposing Hamilton. Jefferson distrusted centralized power and believed that the purpose of government was to assure the freedom of individual citizens. Hamilton, on the other hand distrusted popular rule and once exclaimed, “The people is a great beast.” The rivalry of the factions of Hamilton and Jefferson marked the beginning of the political parties in the United States. The Jefferson group denounced the Hamilton group and as monarchists and claimed the title of Republicans (Dos Passos Page #368-372).
The Hamilton party became known as the Federalists and the Jefferson party became know as the Democratic-Republicans (Adams, The most important question confronting Jefferson as secretary of state grew out of the policy of neutrality adopted by the United States toward its ally, France. At the time of the French revolution, Jefferson was determined that the United states should take no action that would oppose the principle right of the French people to revolt, yet he shared the conviction of Washington and Hamilton that US policies should be for America and French policies for France. This policy was accepted by Washington in his Farewell Address. Jefferson resigned from the office of secretary on December 31, 1793, and retired to Monticello (Adams, Page #251-253).
In 1796 John Adams, the Federalist candidate, was elected president. Jefferson, the Republican candidate, was elected vice-president. Because Adams and Jefferson were political opponents although good personal friends, Jefferson played little part in the administration. Jefferson’s attempts during this period to have Congress enact bills that would promote public education were not successful (Padover, Page #105). During this period he wrote the Manual of Parliamentary Practice, a book of parliamentary rules which was published in 1801 and still remains the standard for our legislative bodies (Adams, Page #279).
In the election of 1800 the Federalist party lost ground, and the Democratic-Republican candidates, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, received an equal number of votes. Then it was up to the house of representatives to name one of them president. Jefferson was chosen to be the first president to be inaugurated in the city of Washington. He was re-elected in 1804,when John Adams, as a Republican elector from Massachusetts, voted for him (Adams, Page #297).
During his term in the office he pardoned all those still imprisoned under the Sedition Act. He reenacted the five-year residency requirement for citizenship, and replaced all Federalist office holders with Republicans. He also enacted a plan to remove the national debt by 1817, while at the same time reducing taxes (Conlin Page #205).
The greatest achievements of Jefferson’s administration were the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition through the Northwest part of the territory acquired in the purchase, in 1804 (Adams Page #318-319). Jefferson retired from the White House to Monticello on March 4,1809, and from then on his chief public interest was education. He wrote to Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours in 1816: “Enlighten the people generally and tyranny and oppressions of both mind and body will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day” (Padover, Page #274).
In 1814 he became a trustee of the then unorganized Albemarle Academy, which later became Central College. The University of Virginia later developed, from which came the realization of Jefferson’s dream of free public education. Many of the architectural specifications for buildings of the university were drawn by Jefferson himself, and many of the structures on the campus were built under his direct supervision (Adams, Page #351-352). He also designed his own home Monticello, and anonymously entered a competition among architects for the designing of the White House itself (Conlin, Page #204).
In 1815 Jefferson sold his 6500 volume collection to the federal government for a mere $23,950 in the restoration of the Library of Congress, which was being built up again after its destruction in the British’s burning Washington in the War of 1812 Jefferson never lost faith in his concept of progress though education nor his faith in “the people”, that they would responsibly “elect the really good and wise.” Late in life he wrote to his friend John Adams: “You and I will yet look down from heaven with joy at the fulfillment of our great dreams.” Both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary.
- Declaration of Independence (Adams, Page #356-358).
- Dos Passos, J. (1954). The head and heart of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Double &
- Wibberly, L. (1964). A dawn in the trees. New York: Farrar, Straus and Company.
- Adams, J. (1936). The living Jefferson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Padover, S. (1956). A Jefferson profile as revealed in his letters. New York: The John Day
- Conlin, J. (1997). The American past. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace