Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia. Jefferson’s father created the first accurate map of the Virginia colony, and when he died in 1757, he left his son 5,000 acres of land.
Jefferson studied under several tutors, and in 1760, enrolled himself in the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He completed his studies there in 1762. Over the next five years, Jefferson studied law and, in 1767, was admitted to the bar. He practiced law for the next seven years.
In 1769 he was elected to the House of Burgesses and began construction on his home at Monticello. He was married on January 1, 1772, to Martha Wayles Skelton. They had six children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.
He published Summary View of the Rights of America in 1774, which was his draft of instruction that he felt should be given to Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress, but were considered too radical. He was elected as part of Virginia’s delegation to the First Continental Congress as a backup.
Jefferson was elected to the committee charged with writing a Declaration of Independence in addition to Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson drafted the initial document and although the other committee members and Congress made changes to it, most of the document was his handiwork.
With his return to Virginia, Jefferson joined the House of Delegates on October 7, 1776. He immediately revised the laws of Virginia. Included in the changes was the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, as well as doing away with primogeniture.
Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia on June 1, 1779, by the General Assembly, serving two one-year terms. The office of governor had little power because it was overseen by a committee from the General Assembly.
With the loss of the revenue from the export of tobacco and then a drought in 1779 that almost totally destroyed the wheat crop, the colony was suffering. To raise money, the assembly turned to printing money, which only made the situation worse.
Jefferson was not interested in serving a third term, but before his replacement could be elected, the American Revolution began, brought to Virginia by Benedict Arnold, who had switched his allegiance to the British. Arnold attacked Richmond as well as military stores; Jefferson did not call out the militia in time to protect the city.
With the end of his governorship, Jefferson took some time to be with his family and tend to his farms. He also took time to work on Notes on the State of Virginia, which documented geography, productions, politics, and social life in Virginia.
His wife died on September 6, 1782. In November he was appointed to the peace commission in Paris, but his services became unnecessary, and the appointment was withdrawn. He was elected to serve in Congress again in June 1783.
While serving in Congress, Jefferson put forward the idea to forbid slavery in the western territories after 1800. He also presented a report on December 20, 1783, on the procedure for negotiating commercial treaties with foreign governments. Because of this report he was appointed to assist Franklin and Adams as they negotiated commercial treaties in Europe; he joined them on August 6.
Minister to France
Jefferson replaced Franklin as minister to France in 1785 and held the position until he returned home in October 1789, when he was offered the job of secretary of state by President George Washington, which he accepted.
Jefferson became the first secretary of state in March 1790. During his time in office, he came into conflict with Alexander Hamilton over the creation of the Bank of the United States, which Jefferson opposed. Jefferson and Hamilton continued to be at odds throughout Jefferson’s time in office.
A point that both men agreed on was that the United States needed to stay neutral during the French Revolution. Agreeing to stay in office until the end of 1793, Jefferson decided to retire again from public life and return to Monticello.
His retirement lasted only a few years. Jefferson was nominated for the presidency in 1796 but lost to political rival John Adams. During these four years, the Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Jefferson interpreted as being designed more to attack his own party than to protect the new country.
Writing anonymously, Jefferson and James Madison attacked the acts with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, declaring that the federal government could have no power that was not specifically allowed by the states. In effect, this was the first voicing of the theory of states’ rights.
In 1800 Jefferson ran for president, and the election ended in a tied electoral vote between him and Aaron Burr. The tie was broken by the House of Representatives, which voted for Jefferson. He was the first president to have his inauguration in Washington, D.C., which he had helped design while secretary of state. Jefferson served two terms from 1801 to 1809.
It was during Jefferson’s first term that he sent James Monroe to France to purchase the town of New Orleans; Madison worked out a deal to purchase the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million. The purchase doubled the size of the country. Jefferson then commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an expedition into the new territory.
During his first term he also sent a naval force against the Barbary pirates and against the sultan of Morocco. In the end a new treaty was negotiated with the sultan that granted the United States more favorable terms than the previous agreement.
Jefferson’s second term was marked by war between France and England. The United States wanted to remain neutral and not get involved in the war. Because of the limits and restrictions placed on American merchants by both European powers, the United States found itself in a no-win situation.
In an attempt to keep the United States out of war, Congress enacted an embargo on shipments to Europe to get France and Britain to negotiate better trade terms with the United States, which did not happen. On March 1, 1809, Jefferson was forced to end the embargo. Shortly afterward, his second term was over, and he was able to turn the office and the problems of Europe over to Madison.
After leaving office Jefferson returned to Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his life. The embargo had hurt most of the planters in Virginia, and Jefferson was no exception. Taking on even more debt, he was forced in 1815 to sell his personal library to the government; the collection started the Library of Congress.
He also turned over management of his lands to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Jefferson wanted to see a university established in western Virginia. In 1814 he got involved, as a trustee, with the Albemarle Academy, which then became Central College and eventually the University of Virginia.
The General Assembly approved funding for the university in 1818, and a commission was formed, with Jefferson as a member, to find a site for the school. The final report was made, and a charter was issued in 1819 for the university, which opened its doors in 1825.
Jefferson suffered another financial setback and set about selling his land to cover his debt. He died believing that his debts would be covered, not realizing that Monticello would end up passing out of the hands of his heirs. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826.
In 1998 evidence came to light suggesting that Jefferson had fathered a number of children with his slave Sally Hemings. While such allegations were not new—as early as 1802 a Richmond newspaper reported that Jefferson lived with a slave named Sally as a concubine—DNA evidence linked Jefferson’s family with that of Hemings.
While inconclusive in determining the actual parentage, most experts agree that it is unlikely that any member of Jefferson’s family other than Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.
This highlights Jefferson’s complicated views on race and slavery. While a slaveholder himself, Jefferson spoke out against slavery; original wording in the Declaration of Independence condemned the British government for continuing the slave trade; and, as president, Jefferson abolished the slave trade in 1807. His own ownership of slaves appears to have caused him a great deal of internal conflict, and shortly before his death he freed his five most trusted slaves.