Thomas Jefferson is remembered as one of America’s greatest political thinkers. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, and later was elected the nation’s third president. As president, Jefferson nearly doubled the size of the United States with the purchase of the vast Louisiana Territory.
Jefferson’s talents stretched far beyond politics. He was an inventor, architect, scientist, musician, and more!
Thomas Jefferson’s father was a Virginia farmer. His mother belonged to one of Virginia’s most distinguished families. Thomas was born in 1743.
Jefferson began his education at age five. By age nine, he studied away from home. He learned Greek and Latin, and studied science. Like many Virginia gentlemen, the tall boy with reddish hair learned to dance and ride horseback. Young Jefferson also began a lifelong love of playing the violin.
Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary for two years. He began law studies in 1762. Five years later, Jefferson opened a law practice. Like other gentlemen of his day, Jefferson earned most of his money from farming. In 1770, Jefferson began to build a mansion home he designed, called Monticello.
In 1772, Jefferson brought his new bride, Martha, to Monticello. The couple had six children. Only two daughters lived to be adults. Martha died in 1782, and Jefferson did not remarry.
JEFFERSON ENTERS POLITICS
Jefferson won election to the Virginia legislature in 1769. He was not good at making speeches. But Jefferson’s powerful writing made him stand out.
Jefferson joined others who opposed new British taxes on the colonists. Jefferson believed the colonists had the right to govern themselves. The British king and the British Parliament could not tell the colonists what to do.
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
In April 1775, colonists in Massachusetts took up arms against British troops. The American Revolution had begun. The following year, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia asked Jefferson to write a document declaring America’s independence from Britain.
The Continental Congress approved Jefferson’s work with few changes. The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. The bonds that tied the colonies to Britain were broken.
Jefferson wanted the reasons for America’s independence stated clearly so the world would understand. He wrote “all men are created equal,” with rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Governments are created to secure people’s rights. The people could change a government that no longer protected their rights.
JEFFERSON DURING THE REVOLUTION
During the war, Jefferson served in the Virginia legislature. While there, he wrote a bill to protect religious freedom. He then served as Virginia’s governor.
DIPLOMAT TO FRANCE
In 1784, the United States Congress appointed Jefferson a diplomat to France. Support for a revolution in France was growing. Jefferson believed in the goals of the French Revolution. He saw it as similar to the American Revolution. He hoped France’s king, Louis XVI, would give the people a charter of rights.
While in France, Jefferson followed American events. He approved of America’s new constitution, drawn up in 1787. But he thought it should have a bill of rights to protect people from their government. Jefferson urged his friend, James Madison, to push for these rights. Madison did, and the first ten amendments (known as the Bill of Rights) were added to the Constitution. Jefferson returned to America in 1789.
SECRETARY OF STATE
When Jefferson returned, President George Washington invited him to serve as secretary of state. Jefferson agreed. Conflict soon developed between Jefferson and the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
Jefferson and Hamilton held very different views. Jefferson believed that the people should control government. Hamilton feared rule by the people. Jefferson feared a strong national government. Hamilton believed strong government made a strong country. Jefferson favored an economy based on farming. Hamilton favored an economy based on factories and business.
Two different political parties began to form. Hamilton’s followers became known as Federalists. Jefferson’s followers became known as Democratic-Republicans.
In 1796, Jefferson lost the presidential election to John Adams, a Federalist. Jefferson became vice president. The two men, once friends, had become political rivals.
In 1800, Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in the presidential election. A vote in the House of Representatives decided who was president. Jefferson became the first president inaugurated in Washington, D.C.
The greatest accomplishment of Jefferson’s presidency was the Louisiana Purchase. In 1803, France sold the United States the Louisiana Territory. This huge territory stretched west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Jefferson commissioned an expedition, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the new lands.
Jefferson was a popular president. He won a landslide victory for a second term in the 1804 presidential race.
Jefferson retired from politics at the age of 65 and devoted time to Monticello. In 1819, he founded the University of Virginia. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
On his tombstone Jefferson asked that he be remembered for these acts: “Author of the Declaration of Independence, Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, And Father of the University of Virginia.”