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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3d PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. As the author of the

Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he is

probably the most conspicuous champion of political and spiritual freedom in his

country’s history. He voiced the aspirations of the new nation in matchless phrase,

and one may doubt if any other American has been so often quoted. As a public

official–legislator, diplomat, and executive–he served the province and

commonwealth of Virginia and the young American republic almost 40 years.

While his services as a Revolutionary patriot have beenhonored by his countrymen

with only slight dissent, his later and more controversial political activities have been

variously interpreted. Believing that the government was not being conducted in the

spirit of 1776, he turned against the administration in WASHINGTON’s second term and

remained in opposition during the presidency of John ADAMS. Jefferson, who was

president from 1801 to 1809, was the acknowledged head of his political party, and his

election to the highest office has been interpreted as a vindication of the right of

political opposition. His ELECTION checked in the United States the tide of political

reaction that was sweeping the Western world, and it furthered the development of

political democracy. Throughout his life he sought to do that, though the term he

generally used was republicanism.

Opinions differ about his conduct of foreign affairs as president. He acquired the vast

province of Louisiana and maintained neutrality in a world of war, but his policies

failed to safeguard neutral rights at sea and imposed hardships at home. As a result,

his administration reached its nadir as it ended. Until his last year as president he

exercised leadership over his party that was to be matched by no other 19th century

president, and he enjoyed remarkable popularity. He was rightly hailed as the “Man of

the People,” because he sought to conduct the government in the popular interest,

rather than in the interest of any privileged group, and, insofar as possible, in

accordance with the people’s will.

He was a tall and vigorous man, not particularly impressive in person but amiable,

once his original stiffness wore off. He was habitually tactful and notably respectful of

the opinions and personalities of others, though he had slight tolerance of those he

believed unfaithful to republicanism. A devoted family man who set great store by

privacy, he built his house upon a mountain, but he did not look down on people. A

distinguished architect and naturalist in his own right, a remarkable linguist, a noted

bibliophile, and the father of the University of Virginia, he was the chief patron of

learning and the arts in his country in his day. And, with the possible exception of

Benjamin Franklin, he was the closest American approximation of the universal man.

Early Career

Jefferson was born at Shadwell, his father’s home in Albemarle county, Va., on April 13

(April 2, Old Style), 1743. His father, Peter Jefferson, a man of legendary strength, was a

successful planter and surveyor who gained minor title to fame as an explorer and

mapmaker. His prominence in his own locality is attested by the fact that he served as

a burgess and as county lieutenant. Peter’s son later held the same offices. Through

his mother, Jane Randolph, a member of one of the most famous Virginia families,

Thomas was related to many of the most prominent people in the province.

Besides being well born, Thomas Jefferson was well educated. In small private

schools, notably that of James Maury, he was thoroughly grounded in the classics. He

attended the College of William and Mary–completing the course in 1762–where Dr.

William Small taught him mathematics and introduced him to science. He associated

intimately with the liberal-minded Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier, and read law (1762-1767)

with George Wythe, the greatest law teacher of his generation in Virginia.

Jefferson became unusually learned in the law. He was admittedto the bar in 1767 and

practiced until 1774, when the courts were closed by the American Revolution. He was

a successful lawyer, though his professional income was only a supplement. He had

inherited a considerable landed estate from his father, and doubled it by a happy

marriage on Jan. 1, 1772, to Martha Wayles Skelton. However, his father-in-law’s

estate imposed a burdensome debt on Jefferson. He began building Monticello before

his marriage, but his mansion was not completed in its present form until a

generation later.

Jefferson’s lifelong emphasis on local government grew directly from his own

experience. He served as magistrate and as county lieutenant of Albemarle county.

Elected to the House of Burgesses when he was 25, he served there from 1769 to 1774,

showing himself to be an effective committeeman and skillful draftsman, though not

an able speaker.

The Revolutionary Era

From the beginning of the struggle with the mother country, Jefferson stood with the

more advanced Patriots, grounding his position on a wide knowledge of English

history and political philosophy. His most notable early contribution to the cause of

the Patriots was his powerful pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British

America (1774), originally written for presentation to the Virginia convention of that

year. In this he emphasized natural rights, including that of emigration, and denied

parliamentary authority over the colonies, recognizing no tie with the mother country

except the king.

As a member of the Continental Congress (1775-1776), Jefferson was chosen in 1776 to

draft the Declaration of Independence. He summarized current revolutionary

philosophy in a brief paragraph that has been regarded ever since as a charter of

American and universal liberties. He presented to the world the case of the Patriots in

a series of burning charges against the king. In the light of modern scholarship some

of the charges require modification. But there is a timeless quality in the

philosophical section of the Declaration, which proclaims that all men are equal in

rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that government is the servant, not

the master, of human beings. The Declaration alone would entitle Jefferson to

enduring fame.

Desiring to be closer to his family and also hoping to translate his philosophy of

human rights into legal institutions in his own state, Jefferson left Congress in the

autumn of 1776 and served in the Virginia legislature until his election as governor in

1779. This was the most creative period of his revolutionary statesmanship. His earlier

proposals for broadening the electorate and making the system of representation

more equitable had failed, and the times permitted no action against slavery except

that of shutting off the foreign slave trade. But he succeeded in ridding the land

system of feudal vestiges, such as entail and primogeniture, and he was the moving

spirit in the disestablishment of the church. In 1779, with George Wythe and Edmund

Pendleton, he drew a highly significant report on the revising of the laws. His most

famous single bills are the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (adopted in 1786)

and the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which was never adopted as

he drew it. His fundamental purposes were to destroy artificial privilege of every sort,

to promote social mobility, and to make way for the natural aristocracy of talent and

virtue, which should provide leadership for a free society.

As governor from 1779 to 1781, Jefferson had little power, and he suffered inevitable

discredit when the British invaders overran Virginia. An inquiry into his conduct

during his last year in office was voted by the legislature after his retirement in June

1781. He was fully vindicated by the next legislature, but these charges were

afterward exaggerated by political enemies, and he was hounded by them to some

extent throughout his national career. The most important immediate effect of his

troubles was to create in his own mind a distaste for public life that persisted in acute

form until the death of his wife on Sept. 6, 1782, which reconciled him to a return to

office. He also acquired an aversion to controversy and censure from which he never

wholly recovered.

During this brief private interval (1781-1783) he began to compile his Notes on the

State of Virginia, which was first published when he was in France (1785). This work

was described at the time by competent authority as “a most excellent natural

history not merely of Virginia but of North America.” Undertaken in response to a

series of queries by the secretary of the French legation, it was ostensibly an account

of the resources, productions, government, and society of a single state. But it

spanned a continent and contained reflections on religion, slavery, and the Indians. It

afterward appeared in many editions and was the literary foundation of his deserved

reputation as a scientist.

In the Continental Congress (1783-1784), Jefferson’s most notable services were

connected with the adoption of the decimal system of coinage, which later as

secretary of state he tried vainly to extend to weights and measures, and with the

Ordinance of 1784. Though not adopted, the latter foreshadowed many features of the

famous Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory. Jefferson went

so far as to advocate the prohibition of slavery in all the territories.

Minister to France

Jefferson’s stay in France (1784-1789), where he was first a commissioner to

negotiate commercial treaties and then Benjamin Franklin’s successor as minister,

was in many ways the richest period of his life. He gained genuine commercial

concessions from the French, negotiated an important consular convention in 1788,

and served the interests of his own weak government with diligence and skill. He was

confirmed in his opinion that France was a natural friend of the United States, and

Britain at this stage a natural rival, and thus his foreign policy assumed the

orientation it was to maintain until the eve of the Louisiana Purchase. The publication

of his book on Virginia symbolized his unofficial service of information to the French.

His services to his own countrymen were exemplified by the books, the seeds and

plants, the statues and architectural models, and the scientific information that he

sent home. His stay in Europe contributed greatly to that universality of spirit and

diversity of achievement in which he was equaled by no other American statesman,

except possibly Franklin.

Toward the end of his mission he reported with scrupulous care the unfolding

revolution in France. His personal part in it was slight, and such advice as he gave was

moderate. Doubting the readiness of the people for self-government of the American

type, he now favored a limited monarchy for France, and he cautioned his liberal

friends not to risk the loss of their gains by going too fast. Though always aware of the

importance of French developments in the worldwide struggle for greater freedom

and happiness, he tended to stress this more after he returned home and perceived

the dangers of political reaction in his own country. Eventually he was repelled by the

excesses of the French Revolution, and he thoroughly disapproved of it when it passed

into an openly imperialistic phase under Napoleon. But insofar as it represented a

revolt against despotism, he continued to believe that its spirit could never die.

Because of his absence in Europe, Jefferson had no direct part in the framing or

ratification of the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, and at first the document

aroused his fears. His chief objections were that it did not expressly safeguard the

rights of individuals, and that the unlimited eligibility of the president for reelection

would make it possible for him to become a king. He became sufficiently satisfied

after he learned that a bill of rights would be provided and after he reflected that

there would be no danger of monarchy under George Washington.

Secretary of State

Although his fears of monarchical tendencies remained and colored his attitude in

later partisan struggles, it was as a friend of the new government that he accepted

Washington’s invitation to become secretary of state.

During Jefferson’s service in this post from 1790 to 1793, Alexander Hamilton,

secretary of the treasury, defeated the movement for commercial discrimination

against Britain, which Jefferson favored. Hamilton, also, connived with the British

minister George Hammond to nullify Jefferson’s efforts in 1792 to gain observance of

the terms of peace from the British, and especially to dislodge them from the

northwest posts. Jefferson’s policy was not pro-French, but it seemed anti-British.

Hamilton was distinctly pro-British, largely for financial reasons, and he became

more so when general war broke out in Europe and ideology was clearly involved. In

1793, Jefferson wanted the French Revolution to succeed against its external foes, but

he also recognized that the interests of his own country demanded a policy of

neutrality. Such a policy was adopted, to the dissatisfaction of many strong friends of

democracy in America, and was executed so fairly as to win the reluctant praise of

the British.

Jefferson was greatly embarrassed by the indiscretions of the fiery French minister,

Edmond Charles Genet, who arrived in Washington in the spring of 1793, but he

skillfully brought about Genet’s recall and avoided a breach with the revolutionary

government of his country.

Jefferson helped Hamilton gain congressional consent to the assumption of state

debts, for which the location of the federal capital on the Potomac was the political

return. His growing objections to the Hamiltonian financial system were partly owing

to his belief that the treasury was catering to commercial and financial groups, not

agricultural, but he also believed that Hamilton was building up his own political

power by creating ties of financial interest and was corrupting Congress. The issue

between the two secretaries was sharply joined by 1791, when the Bank of the United



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