Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Jefferson, Thomas

Few members of the founding generation rank with Thomas Jefferson in the defining of the American Revolution for contemporaries and the shaping its legacy for posterity. His legion of accomplishments includes his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his service as America's first Secretary of State and its third President, and his establishment of the University of Virginia.

He was born at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia, on April 2, 1743 (o.s.), as the oldest son of surveyor and planter Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph. Living on the western edge of the settled region of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was educated at local schools run by Anglican ministers. He spent five years with the Rev. William Douglas, a Scot from whom Jefferson learned Latin and Greek and some French, and another two years under the Rev. James Maury. Jefferson's father died in 1757, and his will split his land, livestock, and slaves between Jefferson and his brother, Randolph. Jefferson also received his father's small and eclectic library, his scientific instruments, and a cherry-tree desk.

In March 1760 Jefferson entered the College of William and Mary to continue his studies in Greek and Latin, gain a better understanding of mathematics, and obtain "a more universal Acquaintance, which may hereafter be serviceable" to him than if he stayed "at the Mountains." He remained at William and Mary for two years and studied mainly with William Small, a Scottish intellectual less than ten years older than Jefferson. Small introduced Jefferson to a learned local lawyer, George Wythe, and to Virginia's erudite Lieutenant Governor, Francis Fauquier. The four often dined together, and Jefferson later recalled that "to the habitual conversations on these occasions" he owed much instruction. In April 1762 Jefferson left William and Mary to study law under Wythe, although he appears to have split his time as a law student between Shadwell and Williamsburg, where he was expected by Wythe to "attend constantly" the sessions of the courts. He was in Williamsburg for the debate in the House of Burgesses over the Stamp Act in May 1765, during which he was impressed with the arguments and passion of Patrick Henry. The following year Jefferson took his only pre-Revolutionary War trip outside Virginia when he traveled to Philadelphia in May to be inoculated against smallpox. He was back in Virginia by October, when he tried his first legal case.

Jefferson's political career began in 1769 when the voters of Albemarle County elected him to the House of Burgesses — a seat he would keep for the rest of the colonial period. His career immediately became immersed in the American Revolution, as Fauquier's successor, the Baron de Botetourt, dissolved the assembly after only nine days because of its strong resolutions adopted against the Townshend Duties. The Burgesses' resolutions denied Parliament's authority to levy taxes in Virginia. Jefferson and his fellow representatives then met at the Raleigh Tavern and agreed to George Mason's proposal to not import or purchase a long list of British goods after September 1. The House of Burgesses reconvened when it was announced that all the Townshend Duties except the one on tea would be repealed.

As the transatlantic political debate quieted down somewhat, Jefferson focused his attention on building his legal practice and his personal life, but the imperial controversy was never far away. In February 1770 much of Shadwell burned, taking most of his books and papers with it. This loss caused him to redouble efforts to build his own home, which he first called the Hermitage but then renamed Monticello. On June 22, he signed another non-importation association and five days later endorsed a petition to the King that asked him to end Parliament's pretensions to tax Americans. In November Jefferson "removed to the mountain" where he had "but one room, which, like the coblar's, serves me for parlour for kitchen and hall" and "for bedchamber and study, too." On January 1, 1772, he married the widow Martha Wayles Skelton, and in 1773 he became one of the largest slaveowners in Albemarle County when his father-in-law's will added 135 slaves — and a considerable amount of debt — to Jefferson's modest holdings.

In 1773 transatlantic politics rumbled again. During the March session of Virginia's assembly, word arrived that the British government answered the burning of a revenue ship in Rhode Island, the Gaspée, by appointing a royal commission empowered to send suspects to London for trial. On the evening of March 11, Jefferson met with Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Dabney Carr at the Raleigh Tavern and agreed to try to establish a committee of correspondence to communicate with the other colonies. Jefferson later recalled of that night, "We were all sensible that the most urgent of all measures was that of coming to an understanding with all the other colonies, to consider the British claims as a common cause to all, and to produce a unity of action." Carr, Jefferson's brother-in-law and best friend, proposed the resolution in the assembly the next day. Jefferson and Carr set out for home together after the governor ended that session, and the two agreed along the way that the committee would unite all the colonies "in the same principles and measures for the maintenance of our rights."

After news of the Coercive Acts reached Virginia in 1774, Jefferson gave up his legal practice to devote himself full-time to politics (he turned all his cases over to Edmund Randolph). Upon hearing of the Boston Port Act, he joined with Henry, Lee, and others to establish the day that Boston's port was set to close as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer for the burgesses. The House agreed on May 24 to the action for June 1. Upon learning of the move, Lord Dunmore, the governor who succeeded Botetourt, dissolved the assembly for fear that more strident measures to challenge the authority of Parliament would surely follow. Dunmore was right. Meeting in the Raleigh Tavern the next day, Jefferson and the former Burgesses agreed to another association to halt the importation of British goods. They also called for a continental congress, declaring "that an attack, made on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America." After the tavern meeting, Jefferson composed a printed call to his Albemarle County constituents to observe the June 1 fast day. In July he was elected to the First Virginia Convention and drafted the Albemarle Resolves, which proclaimed that "no other Legislature whatever can rightly exercise authority over them; and that these privileges they hold as the common rights of mankind."

Jefferson refined and expanded the argument of the Albemarle Resolves in his first major political work, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, published first in Williamsburg on August 8, 1774, and then in London only weeks later. It was intended as an instruction to Virginia's delegates to the First Continental Congress but was essentially a strident letter to George III that proclaimed America's independence from Parliament (although not from the King). The reasoning was based on an individual's act of emigration (an argument first articulated by Virginia's Richard Bland). The work established Jefferson's reputation as a radical patriot leader - one too radical to be chosen by his fellow Virginians as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. He was selected only as an alternate to the Second Continental Congress.

He was in Williamsburg in early June 1775 when Peyton Randolph, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, asked him to draft the House's response to Lord North's conciliatory proposals. Jefferson's rejection of the ministry's final attempt to ward off war was adopted by the House, but not without "a dash of cold water on it here and there, enfeebling it somewhat." He was in Philadelphia just a few weeks later to fill a vacancy in Virginia's delegation to the Continental Congress. Jefferson was asked to draft the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. John Dickinson thought it too harsh, and William Livingston believed it possessed "little sense or dignity." So Dickinson substantially revised it before it was accepted by the Congress and given to George Washington, on his way to command the Continental army outside of Boston, for publication there.

On June 11, 1776, Jefferson was appointed to a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. It was adopted in July by the Continental Congress -- but not without significant changes that, according to Edmund Pendleton in Virginia, "altered it much for the worse." Nevertheless, the document transformed Jefferson's political creed "that all men are created equal" into that of the American nation, and it still serves as the basis of his legacy and enduring relevance.

Jefferson then gave up his seat in Congress to return to Virginia "to establish a government truly republican" and remove any trace "of ancient or future aristocracy." He laid out a plan that would eliminate laws that restricted the inheritance of property, ensure the separation between church and state, create a system of general education, and gradually emancipate slaves. Elected a member of the new House of Delegates by October 1776, he was assigned, along with his old law teacher, George Wythe, to a committee to revise Virginia's laws - and its society. Most of his ideas were represented in the 126 laws submitted by the committee to the House on June 18, 1778. By 1786, almost all of his legislative goals had been achieved. While his plan for general education and gradual slave emancipation were never adopted, in December 1779 Jefferson did succeed in reorganizing the curriculum and faculty of the College of William and Mary.

Jefferson became the second democratically-elected Governor of Virginia, succeeding Patrick Henry on June 1, 1779. One of his first acts was to approve a bill he wrote to move the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond. He considered the old city was too vulnerable to a coastal British attack and believed a new republican government required a neo-classical edifice that could be only erected in a new location. Jefferson had only a few months to enjoy the change of scenery, as the landing of an invasion force under British Brigadier General Benedict Arnold in December 1780 caught the government completely off-guard. Because the governor's office created by the Virginia constitution in 1776 was exceptionally weak in executive authority, Jefferson could do little to oppose Arnold's movements up the James River to Richmond. Arnold occupied the city in January 1781 and caused the government to flee west to Charlottesville. For much of the next six months, Arnold faced little opposition in the state from either militia or Continental forces under the Marquis de Lafayette and the Baron von Steuben. Major General Charles Cornwallis' British army from the Carolinas created more concern when it entered Virginia in May. Colonel John Graves Simcoe and Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton were sent to threaten Steuben's supplies and strike at the heart of the state government with a raid on Charlottesville. They succeeded on both counts, nearly capturing Jefferson and most of the legislature on June 4. Jefferson's term as governor ended on June 3, so he did not proceed farther west to Staunton, where the assembly reconvened. That led to criticism of Jefferson's wartime leadership and calls for an investigation into his administration. Neither were seriously pursued, and both houses of the legislature voted Jefferson their thanks in December.

Jefferson remained out of public office for the next two years to spend the time with his family. This was when he wrote much of the only book he would publish, Notes on the State of Virginia. It covers a wide range of topics, from Virginia's natural history to the weaknesses of its constitution. Jefferson's reflections on slavery would prove the source of the most persistent criticism of Jefferson's ideas. He questioned whether black people, as a race, were mentally "inferior" to whites, the result of an unfortunate racial condition "fixed in nature." The Notes also supply Jefferson's scientific conjectures in answer to the questions posed in an inquisition of all things animal, vegetable and mineral in Virginia by the French government at the beginning of the American Revolution. He also suffered a major personal blow during this period with the death of his wife on September 6, 1782, an event that Edmund Randolph reported to James Madison "has left our friend inconsolable." Madison replied to Randolph that "this domestic catastrophe may prove in its operation beneficial to his country by weening him from those attachments which deprived it of his services." Madison suggested Randolph urge Jefferson to accept a diplomatic post "as soon as his sensibility will bear." Jefferson eventually yielded to such calls for him to return to public life. After spending almost a year back in Congress, where he saw firsthand the weakness of the Confederation government, he went to France as an ambassador in the summer of 1784.

Jefferson's time in Paris changed his political life as the experience sharpened his commitment to republicanism and, more critically, to democracy. Jefferson saw Shays' Rebellion as a democratic revolt in defense of liberty, excusing the violence by declaring to John Adams that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." He believed the subsequent Constitutional Convention was an overreaction, but he corresponded extensively with Madison over its form and expressed his deep concern over its lack of a bill of rights. Jefferson was still in France in July 1789 when the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille and the capitulation of Louis XVI. He returned to America in September before the convulsion entered its bloodier phases.

In December 1789 Jefferson accepted a position in the federal government under the new Constitution as the first Secretary of State. American political culture was then in the midst of dramatic changes as partisan warfare between Federalists and Republicans broke out in earnest, especially in the growing American press. Alexander Hamilton faced off against Jefferson and Madison while President George Washington attempted to hold on to a nonpartisan government. The almost constant battles between Hamilton and Jefferson over financial and diplomatic affairs took their toll on the Virginian, and he resigned in January 1794 to return to Monticello.

In 1796 Jefferson ran for President but finished second to John Adams and settled for the office of Vice President. He played almost no role in a Federalist government dominated by Anglophiles and still heavily influenced by Hamilton. A Quasi-War against France threatened in 1798 to become an all-out war and prompted debates that would echo for decades. Congress passed four bills that have become known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Jefferson believed were a direct assault on the civil liberties and therefore an attack on the legacy of the American Revolution. The Sedition Act was especially heinous to Jefferson because it targeted the Republican press by making it a crime to publish "false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the government. Jefferson and James Madison responded on behalf of Virginia and Kentucky to write "a solemn protest" against the acts. Based on a clearly stated presumption of loyalty to the Union, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves declared it the right of any state to judge for itself whether any act passed by Congress was unconstitutional and therefore "null and void" (although Jefferson used the word "nullify" only once, they established the concept of nullification in American political culture and were co-opted by many southerners as the legal justification for secession in 1860-1861). Adams avoided war with France, but the political damage was already done as Jefferson chose to run against Adams once more.

After a very close vote that went to 36 ballots in the House of Representatives, Jefferson was elected President in 1801, after what he called the "revolution of 1800." To him, the election "was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of '76 was in it's form" and resulted in a restoration of the government to the American people. The Louisiana Purchase is often considered the greatest achievement of his two terms in office. Other important events include the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the war against the Barbary pirates, the trial of Vice President Aaron Burr for treason, and Jefferson's ill-considered Embargo Acts.

On March 15, 1809, Jefferson returned to Monticello for good and vowed to stay out of public affairs. He lamented the War of 1812 because he believed it forever altered the destiny of the United States by shifting the nation's focus from peace and agriculture to defense and manufacturing. He hated the Supreme Court's decision in McCulloch v. Maryland for fostering a consolidation of federal power. The westward expansion of slavery represented by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 also gave him grave concerns over the future of the republic. He wrote that the Missouri question, "like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union."

There were highlights during his retirement, however, such as the creation of the University of Virginia in 1817. He died at Monticello on July 4, 1826.

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