Thomas Jefferson

Start Free Trial

Thomas Jefferson Biography

In Thomas Jefferson's case, the pen really does prove mightier than the sword. Although Jefferson served the United States first as secretary of state, then as vice president, and finally as its third president, it is as the main writer of the Declaration of Independence that he stands out in the minds of most Americans. He alone wrote the first draft of the historic document, which was then submitted for minor revisions, presented to the Continental Congress, and quickly approved on July 4, 1776. The Declaration of Independence remains an eloquent reminder of the principles of liberty. By crafting it, Jefferson indelibly affected not only his country but the entire world.

Facts and Trivia

  • Jefferson was born into a well-to-do Virginian family in 1743. He received an excellent classical education that included the study of Latin and Greek as well as mathematics, philosophy, and metaphysics. His study of philosopher John Locke played a major role in making Jefferson a strong advocate of personal liberty.
  • Jefferson is one of only two presidents to serve as secretary of state, vice president, and president (the other is Martin Van Buren).
  • One of the most important events during Jefferson’s presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States in 1803. After the purchase of the territory, Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the land.
  • Jefferson’s life sometimes contradicted his ideals. He was a devout supporter of liberty who stated his moral outrage against slavery, yet he was also a slave owner.
  • Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the acceptance and reading of the Declaration of Independence.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Article abstract: A genuine revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson was one of the early and effective leaders of the movement to overthrow British rule in North America; he then labored to create a free, prosperous, enlightened, and agrarian republic.

Early Life

The man generally considered the first thoroughgoing democrat in United States history began life as a Virginia aristocrat. His father, Peter Jefferson, had indeed come from yeoman stock but commended himself to the upper class as an expert surveyor, reliable county officer, and energetic planter. Peter Jefferson then joined that upper class by marrying Jane Randolph. From his parents, Thomas Jefferson inherited wealth, status, and a tradition of public service.

Educated at first in private schools kept by Anglican clergymen William Douglas and James Maury, Jefferson descended to Williamsburg in 1760, to study at the College of William and Mary. A proficient student, he completed the requirements for his degree within two years but stayed on to read law with George Wythe, an uncommonly learned and humane jurist. In his student years, Jefferson was frequently a guest, along with his favorite professor, William Small, and Wythe, in the governor’s palace. Admitted to the bar in 1767, the young bachelor attorney became acquainted with all of Virginia by the strenuous but interesting practice of attending the quarter sessions of county courts. Jefferson soon stood among the leaders of his profession.

Entering the House of Burgesses in 1769, Jefferson already owned more than twenty-five hundred acres inherited from his father, who had died in 1757. His marriage to the young widow Martha Wayles Skelton doubled his property in 1772, and the death of Martha’s father in 1774 doubled it again, while increasing his slaves to more than two hundred. The Wayles inheritance also brought a large indebtedness, but in 1774, Jefferson might count himself the most fortunate of men, with a lovely wife and a robust baby daughter, a personal fortune, and a position near the top of Virginia’s society and politics. He was imposing in appearance, standing over six feet tall, with plentiful red hair, strong features, and an attitude of vitality and interest. Yet he was also shy and avoided public appearances whenever he could; he was at his very best in the cordial intimacy of the drawing room or the dining table.

Life’s Work

In 1774, Virginia chose to support Massachusetts against the assaults of the so-called Coercive or Intolerable Acts. To that support, Jefferson contributed the first of his major political writings, A Summary View of theRights of British America (1774). In 1775, he was a delegate of Virginia in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, supporting George Washington’s newly formed Continental Army in the defense of Massachusetts. Here, for a few months, Jefferson’s sentiments were too radical for the majority, but when independence seemed all but inevitable in June, 1776, Congress placed him (with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams) on the special committee to draft a Declaration of Independence. Though slightly amended in committee and again on the floor of Congress, the Declaration of Independence is largely Jefferson’s work.

For the next several years, Jefferson avoided Continental service, preferring the considerable scene of action near his growing family and estate. With Wythe and Edmund Pendleton he drew up a new legal code for the state. He also prepared a plan for the gradual ending of slavery but declined to bring it before the House of Delegates. He also postponed his plans for a general scheme of education and for the separation of church and state. Elected governor in 1779, he found that office an ordeal. To the minor...

(This entire section contains 2824 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

confusion of moving government from Williamsburg to Richmond was added the major trauma of a full-scale British military invasion of his state. Just before Jefferson’s second term ended in June, 1781, he had to flee into the Blue Ridge to escape a raiding party sent to Monticello expressly to capture him.

Already discouraged by his last months as governor, Jefferson was cast into the deepest depression of his life by his wife’s death in 1782. He never remarried, but he did accept reappointment to the Congress, where, in 1783 and 1784, he worked on the monetary system of the United States, basing it on the plentiful Spanish dollar and applying the rational decimal system to fractional coins. He also drafted a comprehensive scheme for organizing the western territories of the United States. He introduced the idea of rectangular surveys and proposed local self-government from the start. His division of the terrain into eighteen jurisdictions, while convenient for the participatory democracy he had in view, would have long delayed statehood for any of them. A provision barring the introduction of slavery after 1800 failed to win the support of the nine states required under the Articles of Confederation, but Congress did adopt Jefferson’s plan, replacing it instead with the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Meanwhile, Jefferson had accepted a diplomatic mission to France; in 1785, he replaced the aged Benjamin Franklin as minister.

The five years in Europe were busy and happy. A tour of France and Northern Italy confirmed Jefferson’s architectural taste and enlarged his knowledge of agriculture. He flirted with an artistic Englishwoman, Mrs. Maria Cosway, and enjoyed visiting John Adams in England, though he did not care for English society in general. By mail he kept up with the movement to disestablish religion in Virginia, where his own bill was finally passed under the expert guidance of James Madison. He also encouraged Madison and other correspondents in their drive toward a new federal constitution. In France, he sought help against the Barbary Pirates and urged France to remove prohibitions or costly restrictions on such American commodities as tobacco and whale oil. His closest friends were liberal aristocrats such as the Marquis de Lafayette, whose leading role in the early stages of the French Revolution Jefferson followed with interest and encouragement.

Intending a brief visit only, Jefferson returned to the United States at the end of 1789, but he promptly accepted the post of secretary of state from President Washington. After settling his two daughters in Virginia, he took up his duties in the temporary capital, New York City. There he helped bring about the trade of votes which made possible Hamilton’s federal assumption of state revolutionary war debts and the permanent location of the Federal District on the Potomac River. The government then moved, temporarily, to Philadelphia.

In 1791, Jefferson and Madison began to organize the first opposition party under the new Constitution. Their avowed object was to overturn not Washington but his secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Washington almost always sided with Hamilton against his rivals, however, so it was really a case of going against a popular president by forcing him to fire a considerably less popular minister and change his policies. Vigorously protesting Hamilton’s Bank of the United States and his avowed intention to reach a friendly understanding with Great Britain, Jefferson and his growing party accused Hamilton of secret designs to reestablish aristocracy, monarchy, and even return the United States to the British Empire.

In the spring of 1793, Jefferson opposed Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation and initially supported the representative of the new French Republic, Edmond Charles Genet. Genet, however, far overreached Jefferson’s idea of propriety by licensing privateers to prey on British shipping, setting up prize courts in American seaports and raising an army based in Kentucky to attack Spanish Louisiana. Jefferson had the unpleasant task of opposing all this, while trying to contain the zeal of the many new Democratic societies which were supporting Genet. This crisis passed when Genet’s group fell from power in France, and, after a harrowing yellow fever epidemic paralyzed the American government in the late summer, Jefferson returned to present Congress with his report on the foreign commerce of the United States. He then resigned and spent three years improving his estate and carrying on a lively exchange of letters with his political friends.

The odd workings of the original electoral system made Jefferson vice president in 1797, after he had finished a close second behind his now-estranged rival, John Adams, in the contest for president. Discreet in public, he acted behind the scenes to stiffen resistance to Adams and his Federalist majorities in Congress during the undeclared naval war with France. Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions against the partisan Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; his friend John Breckinridge steered them through the Kentucky legislature. The resolutions contained the extreme doctrine that a state might nullify an act of Congress; the effect, however, was to let off steam until the Federalists and their acts passed from the scene.

Fearful that John Adams might sneak in for a second term, every Jeffersonian elector cast one ballot for Jefferson and another for Aaron Burr of New York in the election of 1800. This produced a tie, unintended by the mass of voters, and threw the election into the lame-duck Congress that had been elected in 1798. Enough Federalist congressmen preferred Burr to Jefferson to produce a stalemate for several weeks, but Jefferson finally prevailed; Burr, as vice president, found Jefferson depriving him of federal patronage, and Governor George Clinton depriving him of influence in New York. Burr thus began on the course which led to his seeking Federalist support for his political comeback, which in turn produced the famous duel, fatal to Alexander Hamilton, and finally the adventures in the West that led Jefferson to arrest Burr and try him for treason.

Jefferson’s first term in office was one of the most popular and successful in the history of the presidency. After many a bad turn, Washington and Adams had secured peace with all the major foreign powers and all the Indian tribes capable of threatening American frontiers. By cordially maintaining these arrangements—even with Britain—Jefferson presided over four years of peaceful and prosperous expansion. Yet he proved to be different from his predecessors. With the expert help of Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury, and James Madison, secretary of state, he greatly reduced the army, the navy, and the foreign diplomatic corps. His congressional majorities reduced the federal judiciary and repealed the unpopular excises, including the tax on distillations that had set off the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution ended forever the confusion of presidential and vice presidential votes.

Jefferson did incur the expense of sending several ships to the Mediterranean, where various North African states were holding American sailors for ransom and demanding tribute that Federalist presidents, and various European governments, had customarily paid. Even in this, Jefferson hoped to save money in the long run, by putting a stop to criminal behavior which, he believed, civilized nations should never have tolerated in the first place.

Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte, first consul and soon-to-be emperor of France, had secretly acquired Louisiana from Spain and undertook in 1802, first to reconquer the rebel black colony of Haiti and then to take over Louisiana. Defeated in Haiti, Napoleon decided to sell Louisiana. Jefferson was delighted to buy Louisiana, and so were his countrymen, except for a few New Englanders. The United States now enjoyed full control of the Mississippi River, while doubling its territory. Two young army officers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, then led an expedition up the Missouri River and across the mountains to Oregon and the mouth of the Columbia River, returning in 1806 with a wealth of scientific and geographic information.

Jefferson’s victory in the election of 1804 was almost total, as the gentlemanly Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina afforded only token opposition. Soon, however, Jefferson’s difficulties mounted. France embroiled the United States in a debilitating intrigue over Florida. A group of Old Republicans led by John Randolph began systematically to oppose the Administration on both domestic and foreign questions. The treason trial of Aaron Burr was conducted in a high-handed manner by Jefferson’s enemy, John Marshall, and Burr was acquitted.

As Napoleon undertook the conquest of Europe and the isolation of England, both powers increasingly interfered with American trade, to which the British added the offense of impressing sailors off the decks of United States merchant ships. When the British cruiser Leopard attacked the U.S.S. Chesapeake, killing or wounding several of its crew and removing four alleged deserters, Jefferson had grounds for a declaration of war. Instead, he insisted that the British recognize the American definition of neutral rights, and when they declined to do so he secured from Congress the sweeping Embargo of 1807. This act paralyzed American foreign trade for fourteen months. Congress repealed it a few days before Jefferson, with evident relief, left the presidency in the hands of Madison.

Back in private life, but hardly in retirement, Jefferson maintained an extensive political and philosophical correspondence, especially with John Adams, the two now fully reconciled. He also labored long and finally successfully to establish the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, while their fellow citizens were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.


Thomas Jefferson was brilliant, versatile, energetic, and creative, but he was neither original nor systematic. He contributed no great books to the American tradition, but rather a number of ringing phrases about natural rights, the impositions of tyrants, the virtue of the people, and the beneficence of free inquiry. With Abraham Lincoln, he is the most quotable American public figure, and every conceivable political view has been bolstered by his maxims. Jefferson further helped this trend by being inconsistent in such important areas as the power of the national government, the proper treatment of dissenters, and the crucial question of slavery. Yet he was perfectly consistent on many points. A true son of the Enlightenment, he believed that scientific study and education would cure the ills of mankind, and he rejected as superstitious all those parts of religion that dwelt on mysterious or miraculous interventions in the affairs of mankind. He detested the very idea of inherited power or status and believed that differences among races and national groups were the result of environment. He always believed that government should be kept to a minimum, that standing armies were unrepublican, and that the true strength of a people resided in the widest possible distribution of virtue, learning, and property; not in armies, national treasuries, or government agencies. Early in life, he had supposed that the United States might not extend beyond the Appalachians, for he still shared the classical view that republics must be small. By the time he had retired from the presidency, however, he had conceived that all North America might be “an Empire for Liberty.”


Boorstin, Daniel J. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Henry Holt, 1948. This is still the best introduction to the place of Thomas Jefferson in the American Enlightenment.

Burstein, M. L. Understanding Thomas Jefferson: Studies in Economics, Law, and Philosophy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Julian P. Boyd. 20 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950-    . Containing an enormous and imaginative editorial apparatus, this splendid edition of Jefferson’s writings has reached only to 1791.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Paul L. Ford. 10 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-1899. This is the most convenient and accurate of the complete editions.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by A. A. Lipscomb and A. E. Bergh. 20 vols. Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905. A somewhat fuller edition than Ford’s, handsomely printed.

Levy, Leonard. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1963. Levy demonstrates that as a civil libertarian Jefferson acted very much the same as his contemporaries, however advanced his preachings.

McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. This serves as an introduction to Jefferson’s republican ideology and his special concern with economic policy as an expression of republicanism.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-1981. This is, by a considerable margin, the longest and richest of the biographies.

Miller, John Chester. The Wolf by the Ears. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. A balanced and thorough review of everything that Thomas Jefferson thought and did about Afro-American slavery.

Peterson, Merrill D. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. A fascinating and indispensable study of what Americans have made of Jefferson over the years.

Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. By far the most accurate, detailed, and imaginative of the one-volume biographies.

Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: H. Holt, 1993.

Sheldon, Garrett Ward. The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991.