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|Top > Society > History > By Region > North America > United States > Presidents > Thomas Jefferson|
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson (National Archives)
Jefferson carried with him from the college of William and Mary at Williamsburg, in his twentieth year, a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and French (to which he soon added Spanish, Italian and Anglo-Saxon), and a familiarity with the higher mathematics and natural sciences only possessed, at his age, by men who have a rare natural taste and ability for those studies. He remained an ardent student throughout life, able to give and take in association with the many scholars, American and foreign, whom he numbered among his friends and correspondents. With a liberal Scotsman, Dr William Small, then of the faculty of William and Mary and later a friend of Erasmus Darwin, and George Wythe (1726-1806), a very accomplished scholar and leader of the Virginia bar. Jefferson was an expert violinist, a good singer and dancer, proficient in outdoor sports, and an excellent horseman. Thorough-bred horses always remained to him a necessary luxury. He never used tobacco, never played cards, never gambled, and was never party to a personal quarrel.
Soon after leaving college he entered Wythe's law office, and in 1767, after five years of close study, was admitted to the bar. His thorough preparation enabled him to compete from the first with the leading lawyers of the colony, and his success shows that the bar had no rewards that were not fairly within his reach. As an advocate, however, he did not shine; a weakness of voice made continued speaking impossible, and he bad neither the ability nor the temperament for oratory. To his legal scholarship and collecting zeal Virginia owed the preservation of a large part of her early statutes. He seems to have lacked interest in litigiousness, which was extraordinarily developed in colonial Virginia; and he saw and wished to reform the law's abuses. It is probable that he turned, therefore, the more willingly to politics; at any rate, soon after entering public life he abandoned his law practice.
The death of his father had left him an estate of 1900 acres, the income from which (about £400) gave him the position of an independent country gentleman; and while engaged in the law he had added to his farms after the ambitious Virginia fashion, until, when he married in his thirtieth year, there were 5000 acres all paid for; and almost as much more came to him in 1773 on the death of his father-in-law.
On the 1st of January 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton (1749-1782), a childless widow of twenty-three, very handsome, accomplished, and very fond of music. Their married life was exceedingly happy, and Jefferson never remarried after her early death. Of six children born from their union, two daughters alone survived infancy. Jefferson was emotional and very affectionate in his home, and his generous and devoted relations with his children and grandchildren are among the finest features of his character.
Jefferson began his public service as a justice of the peace and parish vestryman; he was chosen a member of the Virginia house of burgesses in 1769 and of every succeeding assembly and convention of the colony until he entered the Continental Congress in 1775. His forceful, facile pen gave him great influence from the first; but though a foremost member of several great deliberative bodies, he can fairly be said never to have made a speech. He hated the” morbid rage of debate "because he believed that men were never convinced by argument, but only by reflection, through reading or unprovocative conversation; and this belief guided him through life. Moreover it is very improbable that he could ever have shone as a public speaker, and to this fact unfriendly critics have attributed, at least in part, his abstention from debate. The house of burgesses of 1769, and its successors in 1773 and 1774, were dissolved by the governor for their action on the subject of colonial grievances and intercolonial co-operation. Jefferson was prominent in all; was a signer of the Virginia agreement of non-importation and economy (1769); and was elected in 1774 to the first Virginia convention, called to consider the state of the colony and advance intercolonial union. Prevented by illness from attending, Jefferson sent to the convention elaborate resolutions, which he proposed as instructions to the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress that was to meet at Philadelphia in September.
Reappointed to the next Congress, he signalized his service by the authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Again reappointed, he surrendered his seat, and after refusing a proffered election to serve as a commissioner with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane in France, he entered again, in October 1776, the Virginia legislature, where he considered his services most needed.
The local work to which Jefferson attributed such importance was a revision of Virginia's laws. Of the measures proposed to this end he says: "I considered four, passed or reported, as forming a system by which every trace would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy, and a foundation laid for a government truly republican "the repeal of the laws of entail; the abolition of primogeniture and the unequal division of inheritances (Jefferson was himself an eldest son); the guarantee of freedom of conscience and relief of the people from supporting, by taxation, an established church; and a system of general education.
District, grammar and classical schools, a free state library and a state college, were all included in his plan. He was the first American statesman to make education by the state a fundamental article of democratic faith. His bill for elementary education he regarded as the most important part of the code, but Virginia had no strong middle class, and the planters would not assume the burden of educating the poor. At this time Jefferson championed the natural right of expatriation, and gradual emancipation of the slaves. His earliest legislative effort, in the five-day session of 1769, had been marked by an effort to secure to masters freedom to manumit their slaves without removing them from the state. It was unsuccessful, and the more radical measure he now favoured was even more impossible of attainment; but a bill he introduced to prohibit the importation of slaves was passed in 1778 - the only important change effected in the slave system of the state during the War of Independence. Finally he endeavoured, though unsuccessfully, to secure the introduction of juries into the courts of chancery.
In 1779, at almost the gloomiest stage of the war in the southern states, Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as the governor of Virginia, being the second to hold that office after the organization of the state government. In his second term (1780-1781) the state was overrun by British expeditions, and Jefferson, a civilian, was blamed for the ineffectual resistance.
He was unanimously returned by Albemarle County as a delegate to the state legislature; and on the day previously set for legislative inquiry on a resolution offered by an impulsive critic, he received, by unanimous vote of the house, a declaration of thanks and confidence. He wished however to retire permanently from public life, a wish strengthened by the illness and death of his wife. At this time he composed his Notes on Virginia, a work full of humanitarian liberalism. Congress twice offered him an appointment as one of the plenipotentiaries to negotiate peace with England, but, though he accepted the second offer, the business was so far advanced before he could sail that his appointment was recalled. During the following winter (1783) he was again in Congress, and headed the committee appointed to consider the treaty of peace.
In the succeeding session his service was marked by a report, from which resulted the present monetary system of the United States; and by the honour of reporting the first definitely formulated plan for the government of the western territories,i that embodied in the ordinance of 1784. He was already particularly associated with the great territory north-west of the Ohio; for Virginia had tendered to Congress in 1781, while Jefferson was governor, a cession of her claims to it, and now in 1784 formally transferred the territory by act of Jefferson and his fellow delegates in congress: a consummation for which he had laboured from the beginning. His anti-slavery opinions grew in strength with years (though he was somewhat inconsistent in his attitude on the Missouri question in 1820-1821).
From 1784 to 1789 Jefferson was in France, first under an appointment to assist Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in negotiating treaties of commerce with European states, and then as Franklin's successor (1785-1789) as minister to France. In these years he travelled widely in western Europe. Though the commercial principles of the United States were far too liberal for acceptance, as such, by powers holding colonies in America, Jefferson won some specific concessions to American trade. He was exceedingly popular as a minister.
His theories had a deep and broad basis in English whiggism; and though he may well have found at least confirmation of his own ideas in French writers - he did not read sympathetically the writers commonly named, Rousseau and Montesquieu; besides, his democracy was seasoned, and he was rather a teacher than a student of revolutionary politics when he went to Paris. The Notes on Virginia were widely read in Paris, and undoubtedly had some influence in forwarding the dissolution of the doctrines of divine rights and passive obedience among the cultivated classes of France. Jefferson was deeply interested in all the events leading up to the French Revolution, and all his ideas were colored by his experience of the five seething years passed in Paris. On the 3rd of June 1789 he proposed to the leaders of the third estate a compromise between the king and the nation. In July he received the extraordinary honour of being invited to assist in the deliberations of the committee appointed by the national assembly to draft a constitution which he declined for he observed official proprieties and in no way wished to offend the French government to which he was accredited.
When Jefferson left France it was with the intention of soon returning; but President Washington offered him the secretaryship of state in the new federal government, and Jefferson reluctantly accepted. Alexander Hamilton was secretary of the treasury. These two men, opposite in temperament and political belief, clashed in irreconcilable hostility, and in the conflict of public sentiment, first on the financial measures of Hamilton, and then on the questions with regard to France and Great Britain, Jefferson's sympathies being predominantly with the former, Hamilton's with the latter, they formed about themselves the two great parties of Democrats and Federalists. The schools of thought for which they stood have since contended for mastery in American politics: Hamilton's gradually strengthened by the necessities of stronger administration, as time gave widening amplitude and increasing weight to the specific powers-and so to Hamilton's great doctrine of the "implied powers" - of the general government of a growing country; Jefferson's rooted in colonial life, and buttressed by the hopes and convictions of democracy.
The most perplexing questions treated by Jefferson as secretary of state arose out of the policy of neutrality adopted by the United States toward France, to whom she was bound by treaties and by a heavy debt of gratitude.
In the presidential election of 1796 John Adams, the Federalist candidate, received the largest number of electoral votes, and Jefferson, the Republican candidate, the next largest number, and under the law as it then existed the former became president and the latter vice-president.
The Federalist party had ruined itself, and it lost the presidential election of 1800. The Republican candidates, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, receiving equal votes, it devolved upon the House of Representatives, in accordance with the system which then obtained, to make one of the two president, the other vice-president.
In 1804, Jefferson was re-elected President by 162 out of 176 votes.
Jefferson's administrations were distinguished by the simplicity that marked his conduct in private life. He eschewed the pomp and ceremonies, natural inheritances from English origins, that had been an innocent setting to the character of his two noble predecessors. His dress was of "plain cloth" on the day of his inauguration. Instead of driving to the Capitol in a coach and six, he walked without a guard or servant from his lodgings-or, as a rival tradition has it, he rode, and hitched his horse to a neighbouring fence-attended by a crowd of citizens. Instead of opening Congress with a speech to which a formal reply was expected, he sent in a written message by a private hand. He discontinued the practice of sending ministers abroad in public vessels. Between himself and the governors of states he recognized no difference in rank. He would not have his birthday celebrated by state balls. The weekly levee was practically abandoned. Even such titles as "Excellency," "Honourable," "Mr" were distasteful to him. It was formally agreed in cabinet meeting that "when brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office." Thus diplomatic grades were ignored in social precedence and foreign relations were seriously compromised by dinner-table complications. One minister who appeared in gold lace and dress sword for his first, and regularly appointed, official call on the president, was received - as he insisted with studied purpose - by Jefferson in negligent undress and slippers down at the heel.
Jefferson's first administration was marked by a reduction of the army, navy, diplomatic establishment and, to the uttermost, of governmental expenses; some reduction of the civil service, accompanied by a large shifting of offices to Republicans; and, above all, by the Louisiana Purchase, following which Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, sent by Jefferson, ducted their famous exploring expedition across the continent to the Pacific.
When, on the 4th of March 1809, Jefferson retired from the presidency, he had been almost continuously in the public service for forty years. He refused to be re-elected for a third time, though requested by the legislatures of five states to be a candidate. Jefferson's last years were devoted to the establishment of the university of Virginia at Charlottesville, near his home. He planned the buildings, gathered its faculty-mainly from abroad-and shaped its organization. Practically all the great ideas of aim, administration and curriculum that dominated American universities at the end of the r9th century were anticipated by him. His fine library of over 10,000 volumes was purchased at a low price by Congress in 1815, and a national contribution ($26,500) just before his death enabled him to die in peace.
He died on the 4th of July 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, on the same day as John Adams. He chose for his tomb the epitaph:
"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the university of Virginia."
Jefferson was about 6 ft. in height, large-boned, slim, erect and sinewy. He had angular features, a very ruddy complexion, sandy hair, and hazel-flecked, grey eyes. Age lessened the unattractiveness of his exterior. In later years he was negligent in dress and loose in bearing. There was grace, nevertheless, in his manners; and his frank and earnest address, his quick sympathy (yet he seemed cold to strangers), his vivacious, desultory, informing talk, gave him an engaging charm. Beneath a quiet surface he was fairly aglow with intense convictions and a very emotional temperament. Yet he seems to have acted habitually, in great and little things, on system. His mind, no less trenchant and subtle than Hamilton's, was the most impressible, the most receptive, mind of his time in America. The range of his interests is remarkable.
He was classed as a "French infidel "and atheist. His attitude toward religion was in fact deeply reverent and sincere, but he insisted that religion was purely an individual matter, "evidenced, as concerns the world by each one's daily life," and demanded absolute freedom of private judgment. He looked on Unitarianism with much sympathy and desired its growth. "I am a Christian," he wrote in 1823, "in the only sense in which he (Jesus) wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other."
Reference: Excerpts of the above History article are from the 1911 edition Encyclopedia.
Drafting the Declaration of Independence. The Committee-Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Livingston and Sherman. Copy of engraving after Alonzo Chappel., 1776 (National Archives)
Dunlap Broadside [Declaration of Independence],
07/04/1776 (National Archives)
This is the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence. Drafted for the most part by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence justified breaking the colonial ties to Great Britain by providing a basic philosophy of government and a list of grievances against the Crown. John Dunlap of Philadelphia was the printer to the Continental Congress.
Charcoal drawing of Thomas Jefferson (National Archives)
Last annual message of President Thomas Jefferson to the U.S. Congress, 11/08/1808 (National Archives)
Rank: 3rd (1801-1809) Followed: John Adams Succeeded by: James Madison Date of Birth April 13, 1743 Place of Birth: Shadwell, Virginia Date of Death: July 4, 1826 Place of Death: Monticello, Virginia First Lady: Martha Wayles Skelton Occupation: lawyer, farmer Political Party: Democratic-Republican Vice President: Aaron Burr (1801-1805) George Clinton (1805-1809)
Thomas Jefferson (b. 1743 d. 1826) was the third President of the United States, from 1801 to 1809.
He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and a source of many other contributions to American culture. Achievements of his presidency include the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
His home in Virginia was Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, which included automatic doors and other convenient devices that he designed himself. He helped to found the University of Virginia.
Jefferson's ideal for the United States was that of an agricultural nation of yeoman farmers, in contrast to the vision of Alexander Hamilton, who envisioned a nation of commerce and manufacturing.
Like many landholders of his time, Jefferson owned slaves. A subject of considerable controversy since Jefferson's own time was whether Jefferson was the father of any of the children of his slave Sally Hemings.
Jefferson is known for taking a strong independent stance in regards to religion. He compiled a collection of what he considered to be the most profound and meaningful passages from the Bible, and published it as an independent work. This became known as the Jefferson Bible.
"To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."
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