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Biography of Thomas Jefferson

Written by: Borden, Morton    Posted on: 03/18/2003

Category: Biographies

Source: CCN

JEFFERSON, THOMAS.

EARLY LIFE

Jefferson was born at Shadwell in what is now Albemarle County, Va., on Apr. 13, 1743. He treated his pedigree lightly, but his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, came from one of the first families of Virginia; his father, Peter Jefferson, was a well-to-do landowner, although not in the class of the wealthiest plan- ters. Jefferson attended (1760-62) the College of William and Mary and then studied law with George Wythe. In 1769 he began six years of service as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. The following year he began building Monticello on land inherited from his father. The mansion, which he designed in every detail, took years to complete, but part of it was ready for occupancy when he married Martha Wayles Skelton on Jan. 1, 1772. They had six children, two of whom survived into adulthood.

Jefferson's reputation began to reach beyond Virginia in 1774, when he wrote a political pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Arguing on the basis of natural rights theory, Jefferson claimed that colonial allegiance to the king was voluntary. "The God who gave us life," he wrote, "gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

Elected to the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, Jefferson was appointed on June 11, 1776, to head a committee of five in preparing the Declaration of Independence. He was its primary author, although his initial draft was amended after consultation with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and altered both stylistically and substantively by Congress. Jefferson's reference to the voluntary allegiance of colonists to the crown was struck; also deleted was a clause that censured the monarchy for imposing slavery upon America.

Based upon the same natural rights theory contained in A Summary View, to which it bears a strong resemblance, the Declaration of Independence made Jefferson internationally famous. Years later that fame evoked the jealousy of John Adams, who complained that the declaration's ideas were "hackneyed." Jefferson agreed; he wrote of the declaration, "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind."

REVOLUTIONARY LEGISLATOR

Returning to Virginia late in 1776, Jefferson served until 1779 in the House of Delegates, one of the two houses of the General Assembly of Virginia--es- tablished in 1776 by the state's new constitution. While the American Revolution continued, Jefferson sought to liberalize Virginia's laws. Joined by his old law teacher, George Wythe, and by James Madison and George Mason, Jefferson intro- duced a number of bills that were resisted fiercely by those representing the conservative planter class. In 1776 he succeeded in obtaining the abolition of entail; his proposal to abolish primogeniture became law in 1785. Jefferson proudly noted that "these laws, drawn by myself, laid the ax to the foot of pseudoaristocracy."

Jefferson was also instrumental in devising a major revision of the criminal code, although it was not enacted until 1796. His bill to create a free system of tax-supported elementary education for all except slaves was defeated as were his bills to create a public library and to modernize the curriculum of the College of William and Mary.

In June 1779 the introduction of Jefferson's bill on religious liberty touched off a quarrel that caused turmoil in Virginia for 8 years. The bill was sig- nificant as no other state--indeed, no other nation--provided for complete religious liberty at that time. Jefferson's bill stated "that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions on matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." Many Virginians regarded the bill as an attack upon Chris- tianity. It did not pass until 1786, and then mainly through the perseverance of James Madison. Jefferson, by then in France, congratulated Madison, adding that "it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions."

WARTIME GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA

In June 1779, Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia. His political enemies criticized his performance as war governor mercilessly. He was charged with failure to provide for the adequate defense of Richmond in 1780-81, although he knew a British invasion was imminent, and of cowardice and "pusillanimous conduct" when he fled the capital during the moment of crisis. In June 1781 he retired from the governorship. The Virginia assembly subsequently voted that "an inquiry be made into the conduct of the executive of this state." Jefferson was exonerated: in fact, the assembly unanimously voted a resolution of appreciation of his conduct. The episode left Jefferson bitter, however, about the rewards of public service.

MONEY AND THE ORDINANCE OF 1784

The death of his wife, on Sept. 6, 1782, added to Jefferson's problems, but by the following year he was again seated in Congress. There he made two contribu- tions of enduring importance to the nation. In April 1784 he submitted Notes on the Establishment of a Money Unit and of a Coinage for the United States in which he advised the use of a decimal system. This report led to the adoption (1792) of the dollar, rather than the pound, as the basic monetary unit in the United States.

As chairman of the committee dealing with the government of western lands, Jefferson submitted proposals so liberal and farsighted as to constitute, when enacted, the most progressive colonial policy of any nation in modern history. The proposed ordinance of 1784 reflected Jefferson's belief that the western territories should be self-governing and, when they reached a certain stage of growth, should be admitted to the Union as full partners with the original 13 states. Jefferson also proposed that slavery should be excluded from all of the American western territories after 1800. Although he himself was a slaveowner, he believed that slavery was an evil that should not be permitted to spread. In 1784 the provision banning slavery was narrowly defeated. Had one representative (John Beatty of New Jersey), sick and confined to his lodging, been present, the vote would have been different. "Thus," Jefferson later reflected, "we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment." Although Congress approved the proposed ordinance of 1784, it was never put into effect; its main features were incorporated, how- ever, in the Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory. Moreover, slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory.

MINISTER TO FRANCE

>From 1784 to 1789, Jefferson lived outside the United States. He was sent to Paris initially as a commissioner to help negotiate commercial treaties; then in 1785 he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to France. Most European countries, however, were indifferent to American economic overtures. "They seemed, in fact," Jefferson wrote, "to know little about us...They were ignorant of our commerce, and of the exchange of articles it might offer advantageously to both parties." Only one country, Prussia, signed a pact based on a model treaty drafted by Jefferson.

During these years Jefferson followed events in the United States with under- standable interest. He advised against any harsh punishment of those responsible for Shays's Rebellion (1786-87) in Massachusetts. He worried particularly that the new Constitution of the United States lacked a bill of rights and failed to limit the number of terms for the presidency. In France he witnessed the begin- ning of the French Revolution, but he doubted whether the French people could duplicate the American example of republican government. His advice, more con- servative than might be anticipated, was that France emulate the British system of constitutional monarchy.

SECRETARY OF STATE

When Jefferson left Paris on Sept. 26, 1789, he expected to return to his post. On that date and unknown to him, however, Congress confirmed his appointment as secretary of state in the first administration of George Washington. Jefferson accepted the position with some reluctance and largely because of Washington's insistence. He immediately expressed his alarm at the regal forms and ceremonies that marked the executive office, but his fears were tempered somewhat by his confidence in the character of Washington.

Jefferson, however, distrusted both the proposals and the motives of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. He thought Hamilton's financial programs both unwise and unconstitutional, flowing "from principles adverse to liberty." On the issue of federal assumption of state debts, Jefferson struck a bargain with Hamilton permitting assumption to pass--a concession that he later regret- ted. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Washington to veto the bill incorporating a Bank of the United States--recommended by Hamilton.

Jefferson suspected Hamilton and others in the emerging Federalist Party of a secret design to implant monarchist ideals and institutions in the government. The disagreements spilled over into foreign affairs. Hamilton was pro-British, and Jefferson was by inclination pro-French, although he directed the office of secretary of state with notable objectivity. The more Washington sided with Hamilton, the more Jefferson became dissatisfied with his minority position within the cabinet. Finally, after being twice dissuaded from resigning, Jefferson did so on Dec. 31, 1793.

BRIEF RETIREMENT

At home for the next three years, Jefferson devoted himself to farm and family. He experimented with a new plow and other ingenious inventions, built a nail factory, commenced the rebuilding of Monticello, set out a thousand peach trees, received distinguished guests from abroad, and welcomed the visits of his grand- children. But he also followed national and international developments with a mounting sense of foreboding. "From the moment of my retiring from the adminis- tration," he later wrote, "the Federalists got unchecked hold on General Wash- ington." Jefferson thought Washington's expedition to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion (1794) an unnecessary use of military force. He deplored Washington's denunciation of the Democratic societies and considered Jay's Treaty (1794) with Britain a "monument of folly and venality."

VICE-PRESIDENT

Thus Jefferson welcomed Washington's decision not to run for a third term in 1796. Jefferson became the reluctant presidential candidate of the Democratic- Republican party, and he seemed genuinely relieved when the Federalist can- didate, John Adams, gained a narrow electoral college victory (71 to 68). As the runner-up, however, Jefferson became vice-president under the system then in effect.

Jefferson hoped that he could work with Adams, as of old, especially since both men shared an anti-Hamilton bias. But those hopes were soon dashed. Relations with France deteriorated. In 1798, in the wake of the XYZ Affair, the so-called Quasi-War began. New taxes were imposed and the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) threatened the freedom of Americans. Jefferson, laboring to check the authorit- arian drift of the national government, secretly authored the Kentucky Resolu- tion. More important, he provided his party with principles and strategy, aiming to win the election of 1800.

PRESIDENT

Jefferson's triumph was delayed temporarily as a result of a tie in electoral ballots with his running mate, Aaron Burr, which shifted the election to the House of Representatives. There Hamilton's influence helped Jefferson to pre- vail, although most Federalists supported Burr as the lesser evil. In his inaugural speech Jefferson held out an olive branch to his political enemies, inviting them to bury the partisanship of the past decade, to unite now as Americans.

Federalist leaders remained adamantly opposed to Jefferson, but the people approved his policies. Internal taxes were reduced; the military budget was cut; the Alien and Sedition Acts were permitted to lapse; and plans were made to extinguish the public debt. Simplicity and frugality became the hallmarks of Jefferson's administration. The Louisiana Purchase (1803) capped his achieve- ments. Ironically, Jefferson had to overcome constitutional scruples in order to take over the vast new territory without authorization by constitutional amend- ment. In this instance it was his Federalist critics who became the constitu- tional purists. Nonetheless, the purchase was received with popular enthusiasm. In the election of 1804, Jefferson swept every state except two--Connecticut and Delaware.

Jefferson's second administration began with a minor success--the favorable settlement concluding the Tripolitan War (1801-05), in which the newly created U.S. Navy fought its first engagements. The following year the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which the president had dispatched to explore the Louisiana Ter- ritory, returned triumphantly after crossing the continent. The West was also a source of trouble, however. The disaffected Aaron Burr engaged in a conspiracy, the details of which are still obscure, either to establish an independent republic in the Louisiana Territory or to launch an invasion of Spanish-held Mexico. Jefferson acted swiftly to arrest Burr early in 1807 and bring him to trial for treason. Burr was acquitted, however.

Jefferson's main concern in his second administration was foreign affairs, in which he experienced a notable failure. In the course of the Napoleonic Wars Britain and France repeatedly violated American sovereignty in incidents such as the Chesapeake affair (1807). Jefferson attempted to avoid a policy of either appeasement or war by the use of economic pressure.

The Embargo Act (Dec. 22, 1807), which prohibited virtually all exports and most imports and was supplemented by enforcing legislation, was designed to coerce British and French recognition of American rights. Although it failed, it did rouse many northerners, who suffered economically, to a state of defiance of national authority. The Federalist party experienced a rebirth of popularity. In 1809, shortly before he retired from the presidency, Jefferson signed the act repealing the embargo, which had been in effect for 15 months.

LATER LIFE

In the final 17 years of his life, Jefferson's major accomplishment was the founding (1819) of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He conceived it, planned it, designed it, and supervised both its construction and the hiring of faculty.

The university was the last of three contributions by which Jefferson wished to be remembered; they constituted a trilogy of interrelated causes: freedom from Britain, freedom of conscience, and freedom maintained through education. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died at Monticello. MORTON BORDEN

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boyd, Julian P., et al., eds.- THE PAPERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, 19 vols. (1950-) Brodie, Fawn - THOMAS JEFFERSON: AN INTIMATE HISTORY (1974) Dabney, Virginius - THE JEFFERSON SCANDAL: A REBUTTAL (1981) Levy, Leonard - JEFFERSON AND CIVIL LIBERTIES (1972) McDonald, Forrest - THE PRESIDENCY OF THOMAS JEFFERSON (1976) Malone, Dumas - JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME, 6 vols. (1948-81) Mayo, Bernard - THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS UNKNOWN BROTHERS (1981) Miller, John C. - THE WOLF BY THE EARS: THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SLAVERY (1980) Peterson, Merrill D. - THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE NEW NATION (1970) Wills, Garry - INVENTING AMERICA: JEFFERSON'S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (1978).

THOMAS JEFFERSON

3d President of the United States (1801-09) Nickname: "Man of the People"; "Sage of Monticello" Born: Apr. 13, 1743, Shadwell plantation, Goochland (now in Albemarle) Co., Va. Education: College of William and Mary (graduated 1762) Profession: Lawyer, Planter Religious Affiliation: None Marriage: Jan. 1, 1772, to Martha Wayles Skelton (1748-82) Children: Martha Washington Jefferson (1772-1836) Jane Randolph Jefferson (1774-75) infant son (1777) Mary Jefferson (1778-1804) Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1780-81) Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson (1782-84) Political Affiliation: Democratic-Republican Writings: WRITINGS (10 vols. 1892-99), ed. by Paul L. Ford THE PAPERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON (1950-  ) ed. by Julian P. Boyd, et al. NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA 1781 (1955), ed. by William Peden AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1959), ed. by Dumas Malone Died: July 4, 1826, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Va. Buried: Monticello, near Charlottesville, Va. Vice-President: Aaron Burr (1801-05) George Clinton (1805-09) Secretary of State: James Madison Secretary of the Treasury: Samuel Dexter (1801)   Albert Gallatin (1801-09) Secretary of War: Henry Dearborn Attorney General: Levi Lincoln (1801-04)   John Breckinridge (1805-06)   Caesar A. Rodney (1807-09) Secretary of the Navy: Benjamin Stoddert (1801)   Robert Smith (1801-09)

'Copyright 1987, Grolier Inc, Academic American Encyclopedia, Electronic Version'

USED BY PERMISSION, granted January 9, 1988

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