Founding Fathers - Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Born: April 14, 1743 (Shadwell, Virginia)

Died: July 4, 1826 (Charlottesville, Virginia)

In honor of President's Day, I am turning my attention to Thomas Jefferson, the only remaining signer to have been elected to America's top executive office (other than John Adams, who had the distinction of being studied first during our current series here).  Obviously our third president provided one of the most famous names to have been affixed to our founding document, and he has been one of American history's most-researched figures.  Born on a Virginia plantation to a successful surveyor and planter named Peter Jefferson and his wife, Jane Randolph, Thomas was the oldest son of the couple's ten children.  The young man was just 14 when his father died in 1757, and although he received a large portion of land as his inheritance, Jefferson seems to have a difficult relationship with his widowed mother.  He soon left home to board with his schoolmaster, Reverend James Maury, for three years in Williamsburg until he began attending the College of William and Mary.  He was famously studious, typically spending 15 hours with his books and another 3 with his violin each day, and came under the influence of Virginia's leading legal scholar, George Wythe.  After graduating two years later, he spent another five years studying with his mentor before being admitted to the bar and returning to Shadwell to open his own legal practice in 1767.  He earned a reputation of possessing a superior scholarly mind but was not much of a public speaker.

After a single year of living with his mother, Thomas Jefferson began work in 1768 on a new home on his property that would become his life's passion.  Clearing the highest point available to him, Jefferson named both the hill and the new residence "Monticello".  The following year marked the beginning of his public service as he was elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses, where he would represent Albemarle County until the assembly was dissolved in 1775.  In 1772 he married a widow named Martha Wayles Skelton, daughter of another planter and slave trader named John Wayles, who died a year later.  Jefferson inherited quite a bit from his wife and father-in-law, and his land and slave holdings nearly doubled over this short period of time.  It was one of the many paradoxes of Jefferson's life that he actively owned and traded hundreds of enslaved individuals, while at the same time also representing and assisting many slaves (including funding their escapes) through his legal practice.  One of the most notable individuals to be owned by Thomas Jefferson was Elizabeth Hemings, who had multiple children presumably fathered by Wayles himself, thus making them half-brothers and half-sisters to Martha Jefferson.  Later in life, Jefferson would himself father children with one of those individuals - Sally Hemings.

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson made a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic by authoring a resolution calling for prayer, fasting, and a boycott against Britain's Intolerable Acts, and then publishing a treatise arguing that the American colonies were voluntarily bound by loyalty to their mother country but insisting that King George III was little more than an officer to assist government.  The following year he was thrust upon the national stage when he was appointed as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.  Despite being mostly quiet during debates and having a history supporting the bond between Britain and her colonies, the 33 year old Jefferson was chosen to join the Committee of Five who write the Declaration of Independence.  In just 17 days, with input from his fellow delegates, Jefferson penned the document that was presented for debate on June 28, 1776.  He was privately disappointed that any changes were ultimately made to his first draft but did not make his views publicly known.  After the Declaration was signed, he wasted little time before returning to Virginia to act as a delegate to the state legislature to enact reforms that would align with the principles of the founding document.  Jefferson served two one-year terms as governor, making such lasting changes as moving the capital to Richmond, but considered his most rewarding achievement during his time of state service to be a religious liberty bill that served as a model for the freedoms later guaranteed by the US Constitution's First Amendment. 

Seeking to take time away from Monticello after the death of his wife in 1782, a needed change of scenery for Thomas Jefferson came as he traveled to Paris as a trade agent before taking over for Benjamin Franklin as America's ambassador to France in 1785.  He managed to follow proceedings on the Constitutional Convention from afar, offering advice and advocating for a bill of rights and term limits, before returning home in 1789 once the French Revolution was under way and America's new form of government had been ratified.  George Washington immediately tabbed his fellow Virginian to join him in the nation's capital as the first Secretary of State, where Jefferson's frequent disputes with Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton created the beginnings of party politics.  He resigned his  cabinet position in 1793, and narrowly lost the presidential election of 1796 to John Adams.  The initial guidelines of the Constitution stated that a second-place finish in electoral votes made Jefferson the new vice president.  Although the two men had been very close while striving for independence, their views on proper government were radically different - Jefferson the Republican believed that Adams the Federalist was seeking too much centralized power.  It is ironic that four years later it was Alexander Hamilton, the champion of Federalist ideals, who swung his support to his former rival Jefferson in order to help him win the election of 1800 against both Adams and Aaron Burr.

Sworn into the presidency in 1801, Thomas Jefferson's two terms in office epitomized more of the ironic dichotomy that existed in many arenas of his life.  Although claiming to want a limited government his most notable action was the Louisiana Purchase, the legality of which did not appear to have any Constitutional support.  And despite his calls for an impartial press he chafed at personal attacks from his opponents, and even sought indictments against those who published critical material.  Jefferson's first term in office was largely popular, and alongside the end of the Federalist party led to a landslide re-election in 1804.  His second term, however, was marred by a series of controversies involving Aaron Burr and failed attempts at either remaining neutral or economically impacting the ongoing Napoleonic Wars in Europe.  After eight years, Jefferson welcomed the opportunity to follow Washington's example of not attempting a second re-election, deciding instead to return to private life in Monticello.  He spent many years in intellectual pursuits, first selling his extensive personal book collection to the Library of Congress to help rebuild what the British burned during the War of 1812, and then continuing to purchase new volumes to house in his ever-changing home.  He founded the University of Virginia in 1819 at the age of 76, and then began his autobiography two years later but never advanced the narrative beyond the events of 1790.  On a personal level he reconciled with John Adams after years of vitriol, leading to 14 years of correspondence between two of the great leaders of America, and then in 1824 he invited Lafayette to Monticello for a reunion of old friends who had not seen one another since the early days of the French Revolution in 1789.  Like Adams, Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the birth of the nation, deeply in debt but still optimistic about the prospects of the American experiment he helped launch.

The signature of Thomas Jefferson can be found as the eighth name on the third column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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