Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
3rd President of the United States of America
Born: April 18, 1743; Goochland (now Albemarle) County, Virginia
Died: JuIy 4,1826; Charlottesville, Virginia
Married: January 1, 1772
Martha Wayles Skelton

1762: Graduated from College of William and Mary 
1767: Began practicing law
1769-79: Served in Virginia legislature
1775:-76: Member of Virginia's delegation to Congress; wrote Declaration of Independence
1779-81 Governor of Virginia
1783-84: Member of Virginia's delegation to Congress
1784-85: Diplomatik commissioner of Congress in Europe
1785-89: U.S. diplomatic minister to France
1789-93: Secretary of State under George Washington
1797-1801: Vice President under John Adams 
Term: March 4, 1801-March 4, 1809 as 3rd President of the U.S.
Vice Presidents: Aaron Burr; George Clinton
1816-25: Founder and first rector of the University of Virginia
Buried: Charlottesville

Thomas Jefferson was the eldest son and third of the ten children of Peter and Jane Jefferson. Peter Jefferson was a wealthy plantation owner, and Jane was a member of the prominent Randolph family, which was descended from British royalty.

As a boy, Thomas received instruction in Latin, Greek, French, mathematics, and philosophy from local scholars. When Peter Jefferson died in 1757, Thomas inherited Shadwell, the thousand-acre Virginia estate on which he was born. In 1760, at the age of seventeen, Thomas entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. There he studied vigorously for two years under the tutelage of Dr. William Small, a professor of mathematics, history, and philosophy. He left the college in the spring of 1762, however, without taking a degree.

Jefferson then studied law in Williamsburg for five years under the well-respected lawyer George Wythe. During Jefferson's stay in Williamsburg, Wythe and SmalI introduced him to many members of Virginia's government, including Francis Fauquier, the royal governor of the colony. In 1767 Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia bar and began a successful legal practice. Two years later he took a seat in Virginia's House of Burgesses. During his six years in that body, Jefferson distinguished himself as a powerful literary stylist. His colleagues often called upon him to draft proclamations and legislative documents.

Jefferson brought his reputation as a gifted writer to the Continental Congress in 1775. The following year, at the age of thirty-three, he was appointed by Congress to the committee charged with writing the Declaration of Independence. His fellow committee members -John Adams, Benjannin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman- chose him to draft the document. Although the committee made minor changes in Jefferson's original draft and the entire Congress asked that several passages be deleted or rnodified, the Declaration of Independence was largely Jefferson's work.

Jefferson returned to Virginia in 1776 to a seat in the state legislature. In 1779 he became governor of his home state. His first experience as a chief executive was not impressive. In 1781 he was forced to abandon the Virginia capital of Richmond when British troops advanced upon the city. Some Virginians accused him of cowardice, but after a long debate the Virginia legislature passed a resolution stating that Jefferson's retreat was justified. He declined renomination for governor in 1781.

Diplomat and Secretary of State

In 1784 Congress sent Jefferson to Paris asits minister to France. During his five years at this post, Jefferson witnessed the many events of the French Revolution. He applauded the revolution's stated democratic goals and had many friends among its leaders. Jefferson, like John Adams, missed the drafting of the Constitution because of his diplomatic service in Europe.

In 1789 Jefferson returned to the United States to become the country's first secretary of state. In this capacity Jefferson was more than just the nation's leading diplomat. Like the other members of George Washington's cabinet, Jefferson served as an adviser to Washington on matters outside the area of policy traditionally associated with his position. Washington often preferred to have his cabinet debate issues while he listened dispassionately to their reasoning. In these debates Jefferson was usually pitted against Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, who was closer ideologically to Washington than Jefferson, was undoubtedly the most influential member of the cabinet. In July 1794 he announced that he would resign at the end of the year because of his disagreements with administration policies. In particular, Jefferson objected to Hamilton's creation of a national bank and Washington's strict neutrality between Britain and France despite the 1778 treaty of alliance with France, which Jefferson believed should have been honored.

By 1798 the Democratic-Republican party, which opposed the Federalists, had begun to emerge with Jefferson as its leader. That year he lost the presidential election te John Adams by three electoral votes, and, according to the original election rules of the Constitution, his second-place finish earned him the vice presidency. In this office he actively opposed the policies of Adams and the Federalists.


After the election of 1800 the Twelfth Amendmnent introduced new election rules, which called for the president and vice president to him as a team, thereby eliminating the possibility of a candidate intended for the vice presidency receiving more votes than the presidential candidate. In the 1800 election, however, Jefferson was paired on the Democratic-Republican ticket with Aaron Burr. When the ambitious Burr received as many electoral votes as Jefferson, he refused to concede to his running mate. The tie gave the House of Representatives, where the Federalists and Alexander Hamilton were still in the majority, the responsibility of electing the president. To Hamilton's credit, he worked for the election of Jefferson, his political archenemy, whom he thought less dangerous and more reasonable than Burr. The tie-breaking process took thirty six ballots, but Jefferson was elected eventually.

Despite the acrimony between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists (outgoing president John Adams did not even attend Jefferson's inauguration), Jefferson entered office preaching reconciliation. He transformed the atmosphere surrounding the presidency from the stiff, regal style of Washington and Adams to his own democratic informality. Jefferson immediately freed all persons who had been jailed under the Alien and Sedition Acts enacted during the Adams administration. The Alien Act gave the president the authority to jail or deport aliens in peace time, and the Sedition Act gave federal authorities broad power to prosecute persons who criticized the govemment. He also worked with Congress, which had come under the control of his party after the 1800 election, to cut the govemment budget and federal taxes.

In foreign policy Jefferson acted decisively to meet the threat to American shipping in the Mediterranean from pirates operating from the Barbary Coast of North Africa. American and European nations had been paying tribute to the governments of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli to protect their ships from harassment. Jefferson, however, refused demands for increased tribute payments and sent a squadron of warships to the Mediterranean to protect U.S. shipping. After U.S. forces defeated Tripoli in a naval war, a treaty was concluded in 1805 that ended tribute payments to that state. The United States continued tribute payments to other North African states, however, until 1816.

Jefferson's most important act during his first term as president was the Louisiana Purchase. In 1803 the French owned the port of New Orleans as well as a vast area that stretched from New Orleans to present-day Montana, known as the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson, fearing that the French could block U.S. navigation of the Mississippi and threaten American settlements in the West, sent ambassadors to France in the hope of purchasing the port of New Orleans. The French instead offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. The American representatives, James Monroe and Robert Livingston, saw the opportunity to create an American empire and improve the security of the western frontier. Thus, they struck a deal with French emperor Napoleon to buy all ot the Louisiana Territory for $15 million.

Jefferson recognized that to support the agreement he would have to ignore his own principles of strict constructionism, since the Constitution did not specifically authorize the president to acquire territory and Congress had not appropriated money for the purchase. He believed that the purchase would greatly benefit the nation and that the offer from Napoleon might be withdrawn if he hesitated. Therefore, Jefferson approved the deal and urged Congress to ratify it and appropriate funds for the purchase. In the fall of 1803 Congress bowed to his wishes and appropriated the $15 million. With the addition of the 828,000 square miles of the Louisiana Territory, the area of the United States nearly doubled.

In 1804, Jefferson, who was at the height ot his popularity, easily won reelection. He lost only two states and defeated Charles C. Pinckney in the electoral college by a vote
of 162-14.

Jefferson's second term was troubled by war between Britain and France. In 1806 both powers were blockading each other's ports and seizing American sailors and cargo. Jefferson was determined, however, to not become involved in the war. Thus, he 
persuaded Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited the shipping of U.S. products to other nations. Jefferson hoped that by cutting off all foreign trade he would prevent provocations on the seas that could lead to war.

The Embargo Act was a total failure. lt severely hurt American businesses and farmers by denying them export markets. As the U.S. economy stagnated, Federalists and some Democratic-Republicans argued that the federal government's authority to regulate foreign commerce did not give it the power to stop ... commerce altogether. Many merchants defied the embargo, causing Jefferson to order harsh enforcement measures that led to abuses of civil rights. On March 1, 1809, three days before the end of his term, Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act, which ended the embargo against nations other than Britain and France and made provisions to lift the embargo against those two nations if they stopped violating U.S. neutralty. Despite the unpopularity of the Embargo Act, Jefferson's chosen heir and secretary of state, James Madison, won the 1808 presidential election.


When his second term expired, Jefferson retired to Monticello, his home outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, which he had designed himself. He devoted his time to managing his estate, entertaining visitors, corresponding with former colleagues, and revelling in his many intellectual pursuits. Jefferson, who suffered from financial troubles caused by bis generous entertaining and the defaults by several friends on loans he had cosigned, sold bis 6,500- volume library to Congress in 1815. Congress's original collection of books had been burned by the British during the War of 1812. Jefferson's books formed tbe nucleus of the collection that would become the modern Library of Congress.

In 1819 the University ot Virginia was chartered under Jefferson's supervision. He planned the curriculum, chose the faculty, drew up the Plans for its buildings, and served as its rector until his death. Jefferson died at Monticello on July 4, 1826, the same day as John Adams and the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson is buried at Monticello beneath a gravestone that he willed should read: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the ... of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia".

Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton, a wealthy twenty-three-year-old widow, on January 1, 1772. The couple had six children, but only two, Martha and Maria, reached maturity. Martha Jefferson's father, John Wayles, died in 1773, leaving a forty-thousand-acre estate to the Jeffersons that doubled their landholdings. Wayles was heavily in debt, however, and Jefferson struggled for many years to pay off the balance. On September 6, 1782, Martha Jefferson died at the age of thirty-three. Little is known about Martha, and there is no authentic portrait of her in existence. Jefferson never remarried.