Thomas Jefferson Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3d PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. As the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he is probably the most conspicuous champion of political and spiritual freedom in his country’s history. He voiced the aspirations of the new nation in matchless phrase, and one may doubt if any other American has been so often quoted. As a public official–legislator, diplomat, and executive–he served the province and commonwealth of Virginia and the young American republic almost 40 years.
While his services as a Revolutionary patriot have beenhonored by his countrymen with only slight dissent, his later and more controversial political activities have been variously interpreted. Believing that the government was not being conducted in the spirit of 1776, he turned against the administration in WASHINGTON’s second term and remained in opposition during the presidency of John ADAMS. Jefferson, who was president from 1801 to 1809, was the acknowledged head of his political party, and his election to the highest office has been interpreted as a vindication of the right of political opposition. His ELECTION checked in the United States the tide of political reaction that was sweeping the Western world, and it furthered the development of political democracy.
Throughout his life he sought to do that, though the term he generally used was republicanism. Opinions differ about his conduct of foreign affairs as president. He acquired the vast province of Louisiana and maintained neutrality in a world of war, but his policies failed to safeguard neutral rights at sea and imposed hardships at home. As a result, his administration reached its nadir as it ended. Until his last year as president he exercised leadership over his party that was to be matched by no other 19th century president, and he enjoyed remarkable popularity. He was rightly hailed as the “Man of the People,” because he sought to conduct the government in the popular interest, rather than in the interest of any privileged group, and, insofar as possible, in accordance with the people’s will.
He was a tall and vigorous man, not particularly impressive in person but amiable, once his original stiffness wore off. He was habitually tactful and notably respectful of the opinions and personalities of others, though he had slight tolerance of those he believed unfaithful to republicanism. A devoted family man who set great store by privacy, he built his house upon a mountain, but he did not look down on people. A distinguished architect and naturalist in his own right, a remarkable linguist, a noted bibliophile, and the father of the University of Virginia, he was the chief patron of learning and the arts in his country in his day. And, with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin, he was the closest American approximation of the universal man.
Early Career Jefferson was born at Shadwell, his father’s home in Albemarle county, Va., on April 13 (April 2, Old Style), 1743. His father, Peter Jefferson, a man of legendary strength, was a successful planter and surveyor who gained minor title to fame as an explorer and mapmaker. His prominence in his own locality is attested by the fact that he served as a burgess and as county lieutenant. Peter’s son later held the same offices.
Through his mother, Jane Randolph, a member of one of the most famous Virginia families, Thomas was related to many of the most prominent people in the province. Besides being well born, Thomas Jefferson was well educated. In small private schools, notably that of James Maury, he was thoroughly grounded in the classics. He attended the College of William and Mary–completing the course in 1762–where Dr.
William Small taught him mathematics and introduced him to science. He associated intimately with the liberal-minded Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier, and read law (1762-1767) with George Wythe, the greatest law teacher of his generation in Virginia. Jefferson became unusually learned in the law.
He was admittedto the bar in 1767 and practiced until 1774, when the courts were closed by the American Revolution. He was a successful lawyer, though his professional income was only a supplement. He had inherited a considerable landed estate from his father, and doubled it by a happy marriage on Jan. 1, 1772, to Martha Wayles Skelton.
However, his father-in-law’s estate imposed a burdensome debt on Jefferson. He began building Monticello before his marriage, but his mansion was not completed in its present form until a generation later. Jefferson’s lifelong emphasis on local government grew directly from his own experience. He served as magistrate and as county lieutenant of Albemarle county.
Elected to the House of Burgesses when he was 25, he served there from 1769 to 1774, showing himself to be an effective committeeman and skillful draftsman, though not an able speaker. The Revolutionary Era From the beginning of the struggle with the mother country, Jefferson stood with the more advanced Patriots, grounding his position on a wide knowledge of English history and political philosophy. His most notable early contribution to the cause of the Patriots was his powerful pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), originally written for presentation to the Virginia convention of that year. In this he emphasized natural rights, including that of emigration, and denied parliamentary authority over the colonies, recognizing no tie with the mother country except the king. As a member of the Continental Congress (1775-1776), Jefferson was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence.
He summarized current revolutionary philosophy in a brief paragraph that has been regarded ever since as a charter of American and universal liberties. He presented to the world the case of the Patriots in a series of burning charges against the king. In the light of modern scholarship some of the charges require modification. But there is a timeless quality in the philosophical section of the Declaration, which proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that government is the servant, not the master, of human beings. The Declaration alone would entitle Jefferson to enduring fame.
Desiring to be closer to his family and also hoping to translate his philosophy of human rights into legal institutions in his own state, Jefferson left Congress in the autumn of 1776 and served in the Virginia legislature until his election as governor in 1779. This was the most creative period of his revolutionary statesmanship. His earlier proposals for broadening the electorate and making the system of representation more equitable had failed, and the times permitted no action against slavery except that of shutting off the foreign slave trade. But he succeeded in ridding the land system of feudal vestiges, such as entail and primogeniture, and he was the moving spirit in the disestablishment of the church. In 1779, with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton, he drew a highly significant report on the revising of the laws.
His most famous single bills are the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (adopted in 1786) and the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which was never adopted as he drew it. His fundamental purposes were to destroy artificial privilege of every sort, to promote social mobility, and to make way for the natural aristocracy of talent and virtue, which should provide leadership for a free society. As governor from 1779 to 1781, Jefferson had little power, and he suffered inevitable discredit when the British invaders overran Virginia. An inquiry into his conduct during his last year in office was voted by the legislature after his retirement in June 1781.
He was fully vindicated by the next legislature, but these charges were afterward exaggerated by political enemies, and he was hounded by them to some extent throughout his national career. The most important immediate effect of his troubles was to create in his own mind a distaste for public life that persisted in acute form until the death of his wife on Sept. 6, 1782, which reconciled him to a return to office. He also acquired an aversion to controversy and censure from which he never wholly recovered. During this brief private interval (1781-1783) he began to compile his Notes on the State of Virginia, which was first published when he was in France (1785). This work was described at the time by competent authority as “a most excellent natural history not merely of Virginia but of North America.” Undertaken in response to a series of queries by the secretary of the French legation, it was ostensibly an account of the resources, productions, government, and society of a single state.
But it spanned a continent and contained reflections on religion, slavery, and the Indians. It afterward appeared in many editions and was the literary foundation of his deserved reputation as a scientist. In the Continental Congress (1783-1784), Jefferson’s most notable services were connected with the adoption of the decimal system of coinage, which later as secretary of state he tried vainly to extend to weights and measures, and with the Ordinance of 1784. Though not adopted, the latter foreshadowed many features of the famous Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory.
Jefferson went so far as to advocate the prohibition of slavery in all the territories. Minister to France Jefferson’s stay in France (1784-1789), where he was first a commissioner to negotiate commercial treaties and then Benjamin Franklin’s successor as minister, was in many ways the richest period of his life. He gained genuine commercial concessions from the French, negotiated an important consular convention in 1788, and served the interests of his own weak government with diligence and skill. He was confirmed in his opinion that France was a natural friend of the United States, and Britain at this stage a natural rival, and thus his foreign policy assumed the orientation it was to maintain until the eve of the Louisiana Purchase. The publication of his book on Virginia symbolized his unofficial service of information to the French.
His services to his own countrymen were exemplified by the books, the seeds and plants, the statues and architectural models, and the scientific information that he sent home. His stay in Europe contributed greatly to that universality of spirit and diversity of achievement in which he was equaled by no other American statesman, except possibly Franklin. Toward the end of his mission he reported with scrupulous care the unfolding revolution in France. His personal part in it was slight, and such advice as he gave was moderate. Doubting the readiness of the people for self-government of the American type, he now favored a limited monarchy for France, and he cautioned his liberal friends not to risk the loss of their gains by going too fast.
Though always aware of the importance of French developments in the worldwide struggle for greater freedom and happiness, he tended to stress this more after he returned home and perceived the dangers of political reaction in his own country. Eventually he was repelled by the excesses of the French Revolution, and he thoroughly disapproved of it when it passed into an openly imperialistic phase under Napoleon. But insofar as it represented a revolt against despotism, he continued to believe that its spiri …