American Biography – Thomas
Jefferson (1743 -1826)
Jefferson was born on his father’s
plantation on the western frontier of
Virginia. His father was a wealthy
planter and slave-owner. His mother
was a member of one of the
wealthiest and most aristocratic
families in Virginian society. From
birth Jefferson was associated with
both the frontier and the aristocratic
level of society.
His early upbringing was typical
of an upper class boy in his society.
His father died when Thomas was 14
and, as his father’s heir, he inherited
his property of 1200 ha and over 100
slaves. Two years later, he entered
William and Mary College in
Virginia. After graduation, he
studied law and became one of the
foremost lawyers in his colony.
In 1769, he was elected to the
House of Burgesses and
immediately identified himself with
the radical, anti-British forces. In 1774, he published “A Summary view of the Rights
of British America”, which argued in favour of colonial self government. He became
known throughout the colonies as an eloquent and logical spokesman for independence.
His reputation secured him election to the Continental Congresses of 1774 and
1776. He was selected by his colleagues to draft the Declaration of Independence.
After two weeks, he completed the task, a task that made him famous both in the
colonies and in Europe.
Returning to Virginia, he introduced a law that guaranteed complete religious
freedom to all Virginians. He regarded this act as one of his finest achievements. As
well, he supported a host of other social reforms which laid, he said, “a foundation for a
government truly republican”. These acts included the establishment of a public school
After two terms as Governor of Virginia, he was elected to Congress in 1783. He
was responsible for two important pieces of policy that had a long term impact on
American life. He persuaded Congress to adopt a decimal monetary system (using
cents and dollars rather than pence and shillings). As well, he authored the North
West Ordinance. This act regulated the manner in which the western territories were
to be settled.
In 1785, Thomas was appointed ambassador to France. He succeeded Benjamin
Franklin, who was the most highly respected and best known American in Europe.
Jefferson was regarded as being second in brilliance to Franklin. While in France,
Thomas published “Notes on Virginia”. It was a response to a series of questions
about America that had been sent to all the colonial governors. Actually written in 1780,
the book was a wide ranging description of American geography, natural resources,
races, economy, commerce, history – but not politics. It gives a good picture of what
the country and its society was like. As well it reflects Jefferson’s personal views on
many important issues, such as slavery (which he opposed and believed should be
abolished gradually), race relations (he feared that the ownership of slaves would turn
whites into petty tyrants) and Blacks (he was convinced that they were and always
would be inferior to whites; in fact, he believed that, once slavery was abolished, all the
Blacks should be sent to Africa since the two races could not live harmoniously as free
In 1789, Thomas witnessed the French
Revolution. He was extremely frightened and
disgusted by the violence of the Parisian mobs.
Although he never changed his support for the need
and right of revolutionary action to overthrow an
unjust government, he strengthened his opposition
to violence. He also reaffirmed his hatred of
monarchy and belief in republicanism, his dislike of
cities was also re-enforced by his stay in Paris.
He was called back to the United States by
George Washington to serve as the Secretary of
State, responsible for foreign affairs. As a member
of Washington’s Cabinet, Jefferson found himself
increasingly at odds with Alexander Hamilton. In
particular, Jefferson opposed Hamilton’s
interpretation of the meaning of the new
Constitution. Jefferson argued that the document
had to be interpreted “strictly”, that is, as it was
written. Hamilton affirmed that it should be
interpreted “loosely”, that is, in terms of its spirit.
Their constitutional differences led to bitter disagreements over financial policies.
The two men were also divided over the sort of foreign policy that the United
States should adopt after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1793. Jefferson favoured
republican France, while Hamilton supported monarchical England.
In the presidential election of 1796, Jefferson ran against his old friend John
Adams. Although they were now political rivals, Adams was elected President and
Jefferson Vice-President. Representing opposing political parties, they in effect
represented a sort of coalition government.
Their political and personal relations grew worse over the next four years. In
response to Adams’ signing of the Alien and Sedition Act, Jefferson wrote the
Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Unintentionally, Thomas’ action established the
philosophical justification for the secession of the southern states in 1860 which led to
the Civil War.
In 1800, Jefferson ran against Adams for the presidency and won. Adams
peacefully left office, an action that established an important principle. Elections, not
military might, would decide the fate of governments in the new Republic.
Thomas Jefferson served two terms as President. During these years he managed
to keep the United States neutral during the war in Europe. By the Louisiana
Purchase he doubled the size of the United States and peacefully removed the French
as a potential threat. Ironically, the Louisiana Purchase was based on the sort of “loose”
interpretation of the Constitution that Jefferson had vigorously opposed in the 1790s.
For the Constitution gave no power to the President to purchase lands.
On the other hand, he suspended many of the basic legal processes – and
invented the doctrine of “executive privilege” – made famous by President Richard
years later – in his effort to have his Vice-President, Aaron Burr, found guilty of
Thomas was very nervous when he had to speak in public. He had his annual
State of the Union speech read to Congress by others. This started a tradition that
was to last until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When Thomas Jefferson left the presidency, the Republic was stronger than ever.
Democracy was firmly entrenched. At the same time, his political party, the
Democratic-Republicans, had forced their rivals, the Federalists, out of national
politics. Democratic-Republican Presidents – James Madison, James Monroe, John
Quincy Adams – were to control the White House for the next 20 years in what has
been called the Virginia Dynasty. In national politics, Jefferson created what could be
described as a “one party state”.
During his retirement, Thomas
established the University of Virginia
(1819). Congress purchased his library and
it formed the basis for the present day
Library of Congress. He died, fittingly, on
July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the
adoption of his Declaration of Independence.
For his own epitaph, Jefferson wrote: “Here
was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the
Declaration of American Independence, of the
statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and
the father of the University of Virginia.”
Thomas was a many-sided man.
Although not trained as an architect, he
designed his home at Monticello as well as
many important buildings in Virginia. He also
invented many practical items, such as the
dumb-waiter, a revolving chair, a plow that
won a gold medal at a French exhibition, a
walking stick that folded into a chair, a letter
copying machine and a pedometer that
measured the length of his walks. As well, he knew Latin, Greek, French, Italian,
Spanish, and Anglo-Saxon.
Thomas represented the complexity and contradictions of his countrymen: an
ardent liberal, as President he suspended civil liberty laws; an opponent of slavery, he
believed in the inferiority of Blacks to whites; a political philosopher, he was practical
enough to put philosophical principles aside when he felt it was necessary; an aristocrat
and plantation-owner, he became the spokesman of the small, independent farmer,
whom he believed were the backbone of American society. He may not have been the
best President that Americans have had, but he surely was one of the greatest.
Question for thought:
What were some of Jefferson’s accomplishments as President?