“Aware of the tendency of power to degenerate into abuse, the worthies of our country have secured its independence by the establishment of a Constitution and form of government for our nation, calculated to prevent as well as to correct abuse.” –Thomas Jefferson to Washington Tammany Society, 1809.
Thomas Jefferson (born April 2, 1743 O.S.) – died July 4, 1826) was an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the third President of the United States (1801–1809). At the beginning of the American Revolution, he served in the Continental Congress, representing Virginia and then served as a wartime Governor of Virginia (1779–1781). Just after the war ended, from mid-1784 Jefferson served as a diplomat, stationed in Paris. In May 1785, he became the United States Minister to France. Jefferson was the first United States Secretary of State (1790–1793) serving under President George Washington. With his close friend James Madison he organized the Democratic-Republican Party, and subsequently resigned from Washington’s cabinet. Elected Vice-President in 1796, when he came in second to John Adams of the Federalists, Jefferson opposed Adams and with Madison secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which attempted to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Elected president in what Jefferson called the Revolution of 1800, he oversaw the purchase of the vast Louisiana Territory from France (1803), and sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition (born 1804–died 1806) to explore the new west. His second term was beset with troubles at home, such as the failed treason trial of his former Vice President Aaron Burr, and escalating trouble with Britain. With Britain at war with Napoleon, he tried economic warfare against them; however, his embargo laws did more damage to American trade and the economy. In 1807, President Jefferson signed into law a bill that banned the importation of slaves into the United States. Jefferson has often been rated in scholarly surveys as one of the greatest U.S. presidents, though since the late-twentieth century, he has been increasingly criticized by historians, often on the issue of slavery.
A leader in the Enlightenment, Jefferson was a polymath who spoke five languages and was deeply interested in science, invention, architecture, religion and philosophy, interests that led him to the founding of the University of Virginia after his presidency. He designed his own large mansion on a 5,000 acre plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia, which he named Monticello. While not a notable orator, Jefferson was an indefatigable letter writer and corresponded with many influential people in America and Europe. Yet, he was opposed to the ultimate continuation of the institution of slavery throughout his life and privately struggled with the dilemma of slavery and freedom and its compatibility with the ideals of the American Revolution. After Martha Jefferson, his wife of eleven years, died in 1782, Jefferson remained a widower for the rest of his life; his marriage produced six children, with only two surviving to adulthood. In 1802 allegations surfaced that he was also the father of his slave Sally Hemings‘ children. In 1998, DNA tests revealed a match between her last child and the Jefferson male family line. Although some historians have noted that the evidence can also support other possible fathers, most have concluded that Jefferson had a long relationship with Hemings and fathered one or more of her children.
Monticello – Further information: Monticello and Jeffersonian architecture
In 1768, Jefferson began construction of his primary residence, Monticello, on a hilltop overlooking a 5,000 acre plantation. Construction was done mostly by local masons and carpenters, assisted by Jefferson’s slaves. Jefferson moved into the South Pavilion (an outbuilding) in 1770, where his new wife, Martha, joined him in 1772. Turning Monticello into a neoclassical masterpiece after the Palladian style would be his continuing project.
While Minister to France during 1784–1789, Jefferson had opportunity to see some of the classical buildings with which he had become acquainted from his reading, as well as to discover the “modern” trends in French architecture then fashionable in Paris. In 1794, following his service as Secretary of State (1790–93), he began rebuilding Monticello based on the ideas he had acquired in Europe. The remodeling continued throughout most of his presidency (1801–09). The most notable change was the addition of the octagonal dome.
Lawyer and House of Burgesses
Jefferson was a lawyer in colonial Virginia from 1768 to 1773 with his friend and mentor, George Wythe. Jefferson’s client list included members of the Virginia’s elite families, including members of his mother’s family, the Randolphs. Beside practicing law, Jefferson represented Albemarle County in the Virginia House of Burgesses beginning on May 11, 1769 and ending June 20, 1775. Following the passage of the Intolerable Acts by the British Parliament in 1774, Jefferson wrote a set of resolutions against the acts. These were later expanded into A Summary View of the Rights of British America, in which he expressed his belief that people had the right to govern themselves.
Political career from 1775 to 1800
Jefferson served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress beginning in June 1775, soon after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. He didn’t know many people in the congress, but sought out John Adams who, along with his cousin Samuel, had emerged as a leader of the convention. Jefferson and Adams established a friendship that would last the rest of their lives; it led to the drafting of Jefferson to write the declaration of independence. When Congress began considering a resolution of independence in June 1776, Adams ensured that Jefferson was appointed to the five-man committee to write a declaration in support of the resolution. After discussing the general outline for the document, the committee decided that Jefferson would write the first draft. The committee in general, and Jefferson in particular, thought Adams should write the document. Adams persuaded the committee to choose Jefferson, who was reluctant to take the assignment, and promised to consult with the younger man. Over the next seventeen days, Jefferson had limited time for writing and finished the draft quickly. Consulting with other committee members, Jefferson also drew on his own proposed draft of the Virginia Constitution, George Mason‘s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and other sources. The other committee members made some changes. Most notably Jefferson had written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable…” Franklin changed it to, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” A final draft was presented to the Congress on June 28, 1776. The title of the document was “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.”
After voting in favor of the resolution of independence on July 2, Congress turned its attention to the declaration. Over three days of debate, Congress made changes and deleted nearly a fourth of the text, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade. While Jefferson resented the changes, he did not speak publicly about the revisions. On July 4, 1776, the Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence and the delegates signed the document. The Declaration would eventually be considered one of Jefferson’s major achievements; his preamble has been considered an enduring statement of human rights. All men are created equal has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language,” containing “the most potent and consequential words in American history.” The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive. This view was notably promoted by Abraham Lincoln, who based his philosophy on it, and argued for the Declaration as a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.