The Presidents of the USA



Thomas Jefferson
One of the founding fathers and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Of broad interests and activity, he exerted an immense influence on the future of the new nation.The most intelligent man ever in the White House.

Born: Apr. 13, 1743, Goochland (now Albemarle) County, Va.
Political partyDemocratic-Republican
Education: College of William and Mary, B.A., 1762
Military service Colonel in the Virginia militia
Previous public office ♦ Virginia House of Burgesses, 1769-75
♦ Second Continental Congress, 1775
♦ committee that drafted Declaration of Independence, 1776
♦ Virginia House of Delegates, 1776-78
♦ Governor of Virginia, 1779-81
♦ Continental Congress, 1783-84
♦ Minister to France, 1785-89
♦ U.S.Secretary of State, 1790–93
♦ Vice President, 1797–1801
Died July 4, 1826, Monticello, Va.
picture of Thomas Jefferson

Early Life

Jefferson was born at Shadwell, his father's 10,000-acre plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia. After graduating from college, he read law for five years and was admitted to the bar in 1767. Five years later he had obtained 5,000 acres for a plantation to secure his financial independence.

Jefferson became one of the best-educated Americans of his time. At the age of 17 he entered the College of William and Mary, where he got exciting first glimpses of "the expansion of science, and of the system of things in which we are placed." Nature destined him to be a scientist, he often said; but there was no opportunity for a scientific career in Virginia, and he took the path of the law, studying it under the tutelage of George Wythe as a branch of the history of mankind. He read widely in the law, in the sciences, and in both ancient and modern history, philosophy, and literature. Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767; his successful practice led to a wide circle of influence and to cultivated intellectual habits that would prove remarkably creative in statesmanship. When the onrush of the American Revolution forced him to abandon practice in 1774, he turned these legal skills to the rebel cause.

Jefferson married the 23-year-old widow Martha Wayles Skelton on January 1, 1772. Martha Jefferson was attractive, gracious and popular with her friends; she was a frequent hostess for Jefferson and managed the large household. They had a happy marriage. She read widely, did fine needle work and was an amateur musician. Jefferson played the violin and Martha was an accomplished piano player. It is said that she was attracted to Thomas largely because of their mutual love of music. His wife died in 1782, Jefferson remained a widower for the rest of his life; their marriage produced six children, of whom two survived to adulthood.

Political Career

Jefferson's public career began in 1769, when he served as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. As a member of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence in 1774, he wrote a defense of American independence called “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which argued that the British Parliament, elected by 150,000 British voters, had no right to control the legislatures or courts of millions of Americans, no right to prevent Americans from prohibiting the slave trade, no right to quarter British soldiers in American homes, and no right to use American taxes to support British troops in the colonies. Virginia's Williamsburg Convention could not accept all the principles and did not officially endorse the document, but it established Jefferson as one of the preeminent political theorists of the Revolution.

In 1775, in response to prime minister Lord North's proposals to compromise with the colonies, Jefferson wrote “Causes for Taking Up Arms,” which inspired revolutionary sentiment and rejected the British offer. At the Continental Congress in 1776 he was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence, and with only a few changes his draft became the document signed on July 4, 1776.

Jefferson returned from Philadelphia in September 1776, was elected to the Virginia legislature, and set to work organizing a legal code for its new state government. He wrote the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which ended the status of the Episcopal church as the state's established religion and affirmed the principle of separation of church and state. He also wrote a new penal code and much of the state constitution. His bill to prohibit the importation of slaves into Virginia was passed in 1778.

In 1779 Jefferson was elected governor, but he proved an ineffective wartime leader. British troops under General Charles Cornwallis occupied the capital at Richmond, and Jefferson himself, shortly after leaving office in 1781, was almost captured by a British raiding party at his Monticello estate.

He then published Notes on the State of Virginia, which described the social and political life of his state. In 1783, after his wife's death, he returned to Congress, where he worked on a committee to consider the peace treaty with Great Britain and another to establish territorial government for the Northwest Territories ceded by the British; his proposals were later embodied in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Though Congress initially refused to include his ban on slavery in the territories when it considered his proposal in 1784, it did ban slavery in these territories in 1787.

When his wife died, friends such as John Adams noted that Jefferson seemed so depressed that he might be suicidal. They believed that sending him to France would take his mind off his wife's death, so he was appointed minister to France in 1785. Jefferson's tenure in France was uneventful, partly because he found it difficult to fill the shoes of his predecessor Benjamin Franklin, who at the time was one of the most famous people in the world. He enjoyed the architecture, arts, and the salon culture of Paris. He often dined with many of the city's most prominent people, and stocked up on wines to take back to the US. While in Paris, Jefferson corresponded with many people who had important roles in the imminent French Revolution. These included the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Comte de Mirabeau, a popular pamphleteer who repeated ideals that had been the basis for the American Revolution.

Jefferson joined the administration of George Washington in 1790 as secretary of state. He soon became involved in a bitter rivalry with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton over foreign policy. Hamilton favored a pro-British “neutrality” in the Franco-British wars, while Jefferson favored strict neutrality and took a pro-French position. Hamilton favored creation of a national bank; Jefferson argued that the bank exceeded the powers of the national government and favored Northern interests. At the end of 1793, after writing a report recommending closer ties to France, Jefferson resigned from the cabinet and, with James Madison, began to organize the Democratic Societies. These associations later became a political party in opposition to the Federalist faction then in power.

In 1796 Jefferson ran for President against Federalist John Adams. Jefferson received the second-highest total in the electoral college vote, and in accordance with the procedures then used, he assumed the Vice Presidency. When the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which made it a criminal offense to criticize the government, Jefferson opposed the tendency of the Federalists “to silence, by force and not by reason,” the complaints and criticisms of the people. In response, he drafted the Kentucky Resolves, in which he argued that an unconstitutional act passed by the national government, in this case violating 1st Amendment freedoms of speech and press, may be nullified by state governments.

In the election of 1800 Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, each received the same number of votes in the electoral college (the electoral votes at that time did not distinguish between President and Vice President). Jefferson was chosen President in the contingency election held by the House of Representatives. This was the first election in the United States in which power was transferred from one party to another. It was also the first election in which the electoral college voting had been organized by parties: all but one elector voted for his party's nominees.


Jefferson was the first President to be inaugurated in the new capital, Washington, D.C. He rode to his inauguration on his own horse rather than in a carriage, and after taking the oath of office reassured his political opponents with the conciliatory words, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

With the motto “That government is best which governs least,” Jefferson began to overturn many of the Federalist policies. He abolished new federal judgeships that the Federalists had created in 1801; trimmed back the Treasury Department's attempts to direct the national economy; eliminated domestic taxes (especially on whiskey); turned domestic matters back to the states; and reduced the national debt. He modernized the navy but cut back on the army, though he did establish the military academy at West Point.

He arranged for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory (1803) from Napoleon Bonaparte for $11,250,000 million. America gained an uncharted domain of some 800,000 square miles, doubling its size.

Jefferson authorized Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to organize an expedition to map and report on the vast expanse of land. Congress then established a military government for the territory, which was gradually organized into 13 states.

The Lewis and Clark expedition, like the Louisiana Purchase, was a spectacular consummation of Jefferson's western vision.

Jefferson was also successful when he used the navy against the pasha of Tripoli and the Barbary pirates; within four years their threat to U.S. shipping was diminished after a series of American naval victories. Jefferson did have to pay $60,000 to secure the release of American prisoners of war, however.

With the nation peaceful and prosperous, in 1804 Jefferson crushed his Federalist opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, to win reelection to a second term. Jefferson then tried to remove Federalist Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase but could not secure the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate, a result that confirmed the independence of the judiciary from political interference.

In foreign affairs Jefferson suffered setbacks. Napoleon refused to sell East or West Florida. Great Britain and France began to interfere with U.S. shipping. The Embargo Act of 1807: the President proposed, and Congress enacted, a total embargo on America's seagoing commerce. More than an alternative to war, the embargo was a test of the power of commercial coercion in international disputes. The act forbade all foreign trade. As a result, hundreds of American ships sat and rotted in ports while sailors were idle and merchants lost their markets. The act was widely criticized and was repealed by Congress near the end of Jefferson's administration. Congress replaced it with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, a law that restored American trade to all nations except England and France, which would have to declare their respect for American shipping to restore trade. Jefferson's poor handling of maritime policy eroded his support within his own party. Though five state legislatures passed resolutions requesting that he run for a third term, Jefferson declined.


In 1809 he retired to his plantation, Monticello, where he pursued his interests in science, philosophy, and architecture. He served as president of the American Philosophical Society (17971815), and in 1819 he founded and designed the University of Virginia. Jefferson was responsible for the chartering of the University of Virginia in 1819. He designed the campus and its buildings and served as the first rector of the university. He also designed the state capitol building.

In 1812, after a long estrangement, he and Adams were reconciled and began a lengthy correspondence that illuminated their opposing political philosophies.

The government purchased his magnificent library after the War of 1812 to form the nucleus of the second Library of Congress (the British having burned the first).

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, just a few hours before his great rival and friend John Adams, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

He wrote his own epitaph: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” (No mention of having been a President.)


About this time he started his political career in the Virginia Committee (1769), Jefferson began building Monticello, the lovely home perched on a densely wooded summit that became a lifelong obsession. He learned architecture from books, above all from the Renaissance Italian Andrea Palladio. Yet Monticello, like the many other buildings Jefferson designed over the years, was a uniquely personal creation. Dissatisfied with the first version, completed in 12 years, Jefferson later rebuilt it. Monticello assumed its ultimate form about the time he retired from the presidency.

After the death (1784) of his wife Martha Wayles Skelton, Jefferson did not remarry. During his White House years, Dolley Madison served as his First Lady.

Though a lifelong slaveholder, Jefferson was an anomaly among the Virginia planter class for his support of gradual emancipation.

In the 1990s long-repeated rumors that he had fathered a child or children by the slave Sally Hemings, his wife's half-sister, appeared to be supported by DNA research. Although the subject remained controversial, in 2000 the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation concluded after an exhaustive study that Jefferson was almost certainly the father of one and quite probably of all six of Hemings's children.

A leader in the Enlightenment, Jefferson was a polymath who spoke five languages fluently and was deeply interested in science, invention, architecture, religion and philosophy. While not a notable orator, Jefferson was a skilled writer and corresponded with many influential people in America and Europe throughout his adult life.


He is remembered in history less for the offices he held than for what he stood for: his belief in the natural rights of man as he expressed them in the Declaration of Independence and his faith in the people's ability to govern themselves. He left an impact on his times equaled by few others in American history.

Thomas Jefferson is considered by many to be the most intelligent man ever to occupy the White House. He was a scientist, architect, landscaper, lawyer, inventor, violinist, and philosopher (serving between 1797 and 1815 as president of the American Philosophical Society), as well as the founder and leader of the Democratic-Republican political party.”

At a White House reception for Nobel Prize winners, John F. Kennedy said he was hosting “probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson ate alone.”

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