Authors: Thomas Jefferson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American statesman and essayist

April 13, 1743

Shadwell, Goochland (now Albemarle) County, Virginia

July 4, 1826

Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia

Biography

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of Jane Randolph and Peter Jefferson. He liked to emphasize his father’s frontier experiences as surveyor and cartographer instead of his family’s prominent antecedents. Educated in private schools and at the College of William and Mary, he was admitted to the bar in 1767 by his teacher, George Wythe. Throughout life, he studied agronomy, anthropology, archaeology, architecture, astronomy, biblical and legal history, botany, music, philology, and the latest scientific discoveries of his age. Between 1770 and 1810 he built Monticello, a Palladian mansion on the hilltop of his estate. He married Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772, and they had two daughters who attained maturity.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson.

By Charles Willson Peale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson was an organizer of political parties rather than an orator. His forte lay more in committee work than in personal correspondence or persuasion. In “his country” of Virginia, he served as burgess (1768-1775), delegate (1776-1779), and governor (1779-1781). His written address to the Virginia Convention of 1774 is famous as A Summary View of the Rights of British America. This natural-rights document denied Parliament’s colonial authority and any bonds other than voluntary submission to the king. It demanded free trade in products not essential to the mother country and an end of British colonial taxation. Jefferson was a principal author of the 1776 Virginia constitution, whose preamble foreshadowed the Declaration of Independence. His bills for the abolition of entails, primogeniture, and the lex talionis were accompanied by those establishing religious freedom and educational reform. All were enacted, although the last was limited to Deistic substitution of foreign languages, law, and medicine for religious curricula at William and Mary.

Jefferson’s wartime governorship was unhappy because of his reluctance to exceed constitutional authority. After the British capture of Richmond and the pursuit of the governor and legislature into the Shenandoah Valley, however, Jefferson welcomed the election of a successor with dictatorial powers. He had helped transfer the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, and he subsequently designed the capitol after the Maison Carrée of Nîmes. To refute Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s and Guillaume-Thomas François de Raynal’s thesis that humans and animals degenerated in the New World, he wrote his Notes on the State of Virginia, valuable for its statistical description of the commonwealth’s economy, fauna, flora, polity, and society.

Among Jefferson’s accomplishments in congressional committees were the adoption of the units of currency still in use, plans for foreign trade agreements, and organization of the Northwest Territory. His Declaration of Independence listed grievances against the king instead of Parliament. Inspired by John Locke, it emphasized inalienable rights of humans, the social compact theory, but not absolute equality.

In 1784 Jefferson joined Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in Europe and helped negotiate a commercial treaty with Prussia. As minister to France (1785-1789), he gained concessions for American cereal grains, fish products, naval stores, and rice and tobacco in French domestic and colonial markets. Favoring a stronger union, Jefferson endorsed the U.S. Constitution after the addition of the first ten amendments. Home from France, he was persuaded by George Washington to become secretary of state, serving from 1789 to 1793. His reports on foreign commerce, the mint, neutrality, and weights and measures belong to this period. At first not hostile to Alexander Hamilton’s schemes for assumption of state debts and funding them with those of the central government, Jefferson increasingly suspected that Hamilton favored private, monarchical privilege at public expense in incorporating the Bank of the United States and ratifying Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain. In this, Jefferson established common ground with proto-Republicans led by his friend and neighbor James Madison.

Defeated for the presidency by John Adams in 1796, Jefferson served as vice president from 1797 to 1801. With Madison he was the author of the four Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (1798-1800), which protested the Alien and Sedition Acts as violations of the Bill of Rights and as extreme centralization of authority inconsistent with the tenth amendment. Although subsequently claimed as precedents by advocates of nullification and secession, these resolves avoided charges of disunion even though asserting that a substantial minority of the states could interpose their authority through constitutional conventions. They formed admirable campaign documents in the “revolution of 1800,” in which moderate Federalists joined with the Republicans in electing Jefferson president; he served from 1801 to 1809.

In his first inaugural address he spoke for abatement of partisanship, avoidance of the intrigues of Europe, and limitations of both executive and central government by strict interpretation of the constitution; he was in favor of balanced power within the federal government and between the federal government and the states. Acquisition of the Louisiana Territory violated strict construction, but it was shortly thereafter authorized by Congress. Jefferson dispatched the Lewis and Clark expedition to gather information about this virtually unknown empire. Preferring a militia to standing armies or navies, his administration both crushed the Tripolitanian pirates and reduced the national debt. Increasing difficulties with France and Great Britain over neutral, maritime trading rights during the Napoleonic wars plagued his second term, and Jefferson’s embargo on trade with both belligerents caused much protest.

In retirement, Jefferson advised his successors, Madison and James Monroe, agreeing with the former in declaring war on Great Britain in 1812 and with the latter in warning the monarchs of Europe not to molest newly freed Latin American republics. Acquisition of Florida by 1821 was the culmination of Jefferson’s Spanish policy of the 1790’s. Largely responsible for assembling the first Library of Congress, which was destroyed by the British in 1814, he sold his own library to the federal government for a nominal sum as a replacement. His contributions to the American Philosophical and Colonization Societies were important aspects of his later years, but he considered the greatest achievement of this period of his life to be the founding of the University of Virginia (1819), of which he was a benefactor and architect. These benefactions, added to a lifetime of public service in which his own finances suffered, he could ill afford in the depression following the panic of 1819. On the verge of bankruptcy, this most versatile of American presidents died at Monticello on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Author Works Nonfiction: A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774, 1943 “Drafts of the Virginia Constitution,” 1776 The Declaration of Independence, 1776 (with others) “Plan for Government of the Western Territory,” 1784 Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785, 1954 (William Peden, editor) A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, 1801 “First Inaugural Address,” 1801 “Second Inaugural Address,” 1805 An Essay Towards Facilitating Instruction in the Anglo-Saxon and Modern Dialects of the English Language, 1851 The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 1892-1899 (10 volumes; Paul L. Ford, editor) The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, 1904 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950-1995 (26 volumes; Julian P. Boyd et al., editors) The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826, 1995 (3 volumes; James Morton Smith, editor) Bibliography Boorstin, Daniel J. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Holt, 1948. This is still the best introduction to the place of Jefferson in the American Enlightenment. Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. An award-winning biography of Jefferson that seeks to separate fact from myth. Ferling, John E. Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. While not always complimentary to his subjects, Ferling presents a solid view of how these three men contributed to shaping a revolution. Maps and bibliography. Levy, Leonard W. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1963. Levy demonstrates that as a civil libertarian Jefferson acted very much the same as his contemporaries, however advanced his preachings. McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. This serves as an introduction to Jefferson’s republican ideology and his special concern with economic policy as an expression of republicanism. Malone, Dumas. Thomas Jefferson and His Time. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-1981. The definitive multivolume work. By a considerable margin, this is the longest and richest of the biographies. Miller, John Chester. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. 1977. Reprint. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991. A balanced and thorough review of everything that Jefferson thought and did about African American slavery. Onuf, Peter S. Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Onuf provides a clearly reasoned discussion of Jefferson’s political thought and his role in shaping the philosophy of a nation. Peterson, Merrill D. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. 1960. Reprint. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. A masterful summation of bibliography and interpretation. An indispensable study of what Americans have made of Jefferson over the years. Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. By far the most accurate, detailed, and imaginative of the one-volume biographies. Randall, Henry S. The Life of Thomas Jefferson. 3 vols. New York: Derby and Jackson, 1858. The standard, classic biography until it was replaced by the Malone work. Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. A good one-volume biography. Sheldon, Garrett Ward. The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. A specialized study. Sloan, Herbert E. Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Sloan maintains that Jefferson was obsessed by debt, to the detriment of his career and the early American republic. The author discusses Jefferson’s war with debt, both personal and public, and the role of debt in the American Revolution. Tucker, Robert W. and David C. Hendrickson. Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. An examination of Jefferson's public life, thought, and legacy.

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