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.
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.
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 the Rights 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 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...
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