|Born||04/13/1743 in Shadwell, Virginia|
|Died||07/04/1826 in Charlottesville, Virginia|
Father: Colonel Peter 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 been honored 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, he was the closest American approximation of the universal man.
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 admitted to 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 spirit could never die.
Secretary of State
Although his fears of monarchical tendencies remained and colored his attitude in later partisan struggles, it was as a friend of the new government that he accepted Washington's invitation to become secretary of state.
Jefferson helped Hamilton gain congressional consent to the assumption of state debts, for which the location of the federal capital on the Potomac was the political return. His growing objections to the Hamiltonian financial system were partly owing to his belief that the treasury was catering to commercial and financial groups, not agricultural, but he also believed that Hamilton was building up his own political power by creating ties of financial interest and was corrupting Congress. The issue between the two secretaries was sharply joined by 1791, when the Bank of the United States was established. They gave to the president their rival interpretations of the Constitution in this connection. The victory at the time and in the long run was with Hamilton's doctrine of liberal construction, or interpretation, of the Constitution and his assertion of broad national power. But Jefferson's general distrust of power and his reliance on basic law as a safeguard have enduring value.
By late 1792 or 1793 the opponents of Hamiltonianism constituted a fairly definite national party, calling itself Republican. Jefferson's recognized leadership of this group can be more easily attributed to his official standing and his political philosophy than to his partisan activities. In the summer and autumn of 1792, by means of anonymous newspaper articles, Hamilton sought to drive Jefferson from the government. The alleged justification was the campaign being waged against Hamilton by the editor of the National Gazette, Philip Freneau. Jefferson had given Freneau minor employment as a translator for the State Department, but he claimed that he never brought influence to bear on him, and there is no evidence that he himself wrote anything for the paper. But he had told Washington precisely what he thought of his colleague's policies, and had already said that he himself wanted to get out of the government.
During a respite of three years from public duties, he began to remodel his house at Monticello and interested himself greatly in agriculture, claiming that he had wholly lost the "little spice of ambition" he had once had. He was outraged by Washington's attack on the Democratic societies, which were identified with his party, and by what he regarded as the surrender to the British in Jay's Treaty, but at this stage he was playing little part in politics. Nonetheless, he was supported by the Republicans for president in 1796, and, running second to John Adams by three Electoral votes, he became Vice President. His Manual of Parliamentary Practice (1801) was a result of his experience as the presiding officer over the Senate. His papers on the extinct mega onyx and on the moldboard of a plow invented by him attested to his scientific interests and attainments. These papers were presented to the American Philosophical Society, of which he became president in 1797.
A private letter of his to his friend Philip Mazzei, published that year, severely criticized Federalist leaders and was interpreted as an attack on Washington. Jefferson's partisan activities increased during his vice presidency. He deplored the Federalist exploitation of a dangerous quarrel with France, although Jefferson's own sympathy with France had declined.
The notorious Alien and Sedition Acts were the principal cause of Jefferson's disapproval of the Adams administration. Jefferson's grounds were both philosophical and partisan. The historic Republican protest against laws that attempted to suppress freedom of speech and destroy political opposition was made in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions (1798). Jefferson wrote the former, as James Madison did the latter. Jefferson's authorship was not known at the time. In the Kentucky Resolutions he carried his states'-rights doctrines to their most extreme point in his career. In invoking the authority of the states against laws that he regarded as unconstitutional, his resolutions were in the tradition that finally led to nullification and secession. But they were also in the best tradition of civil liberties and human rights.
President: First Term
Jefferson's victory over John Adams in the presidential election of 1800 can be partially explained by the dissension among the Federalists, but the policies of the government were unpopular, and as a party the Federalists were now much less representative of the country than were the Republicans. Jefferson's own title to the presidency was not established for some weeks, because he was accidentally tied with his running mate, Aaron Burr, under the workings of the original electoral system. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where the Federalists voted for Burr through many indecisive ballots. Finally, enough of them abstained to permit the obvious will of the majority to be carried out.
Jefferson later said that the ousting of the Federalists and the accession of his own party constituted a "revolution," but that statement was hyperbole. He was speaking of the principles of the government rather than of its form, and his major concern was to restore the spirit of 1776. He regarded himself as more loyal to the U. S. Constitution than his loose-constructionist foes were, though in fact he was less a strict constructionist in practice than in theory. Although he had objected to features of Hamilton's financial system, he had no intention of upsetting it now that it was firmly established. Instead, the purpose he had in mind, and was to be highly successful in carrying out, was to obviate some of the grave dangers he saw in the system by reducing the national debt.
Jefferson's accession to the presidency is notable in American history because it marked the first transfer of national authority from one political group to another, and it is especially significant that, despite Federalist obstructionism for a time, the transition was effected by peaceful and strictly constitutional means. Jefferson himself emphasized this in his conciliatory inaugural address. These events set a precedent of acquiescence in the will of the majority. The new president described this as a "sacred principle" that must prevail, but he added that, to be rightful, it must be reasonable and that the rights of minorities must be protected. His accession removed the threat of counterrevolution from his country. The government he conducted, in its spirit of tolerance and humanity, was without parallel in his world.
His first term, most of it in a period of relative international calm, was distinctly successful. He was the undisputed leader of a party that had acquired cohesion during its years in opposition. In James Madison as secretary of state and Albert Gallatin as secretary of the treasury, he had lieutenants of high competence whom he treated as peers but whose loyalty to him bordered on reverence. By virtually ruling himself out of the party, Vice President Aaron Burr relieved Jefferson of a potential rival. Working through the Republican leaders in Congress, whom he treated with the utmost respect, Jefferson exercised influence on that body that was unexampled in previous presidential history and was to be rarely matched in later administrations. Because of his own commitment, and that of most of his countrymen, to the doctrine of division of powers between the executive and legislative branches, his leadership, except in foreign affairs, was indirect and generally unadmitted. He also shared with most of his fellows a rather negative concept of the functions of the federal government in the domestic sphere. The policy of economy and tax reduction that the favorable world situation permitted him to follow served to reduce rather than increase the burdens of his countrymen, and it contributed no little to his popularity.
Dispute with the Judiciary
Jefferson restored the party balance in the civil service, but he was relatively unsuccessful in his moves against the judiciary, which had been reinforced by fresh Federalist appointees at the very end of the Adams administration. In the eyes of Jefferson and the Republicans, the federal judiciary constituted a branch of the opposing party and could be expected to obstruct the administration in every possible way. He treated as null and void late appointments by Adams that seemed of doubtful legality, and the Republicans repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 with his full approval. But he was rebuked by Chief Justice John Marshall in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) for withholding the commission of a late-hour appointee as justice of the peace. The effort to remove partisan judges by impeachment was a virtual failure, and the Federalists remained entrenched in the judiciary, though they became less actively partisan.
The Louisiana Purchase
These partial political failures were more than compensated by the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, the most notable achievement of Jefferson's presidency. His concern for the free navigation of the Mississippi River had caused him, while secretary of state, to assume a more belligerent tone toward Spain, which controlled the mouth of the river, than toward any other nation. The retrocession of the province of Louisiana from Spain to France, now powerful and aggressive under Napoleon, aroused his fears and, for the first time in his career, caused his diplomatic friendship to veer toward the British.
The acquisition of an imperial province, rather than the mouth of the river, was a fortunate accident that added the West to the American Union. The treaty that Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe sent home aroused constitutional scruples in Jefferson's mind, which he expressed privately. Because this vast acquisition of territory would inevitably change the character of the Union, it seemed to him that it should be authorized by a constitutional amendment. But the process of amendment was painfully slow, and the treaty had to be ratified by a specified date. Napoleon, who was thought by some to have already repented this transaction, could not have been expected to tolerate any departure from its terms. Recognizing that this was no time for constitutional purism, the president yielded to his friends, while strict constructionist arguments were taken up ineffectually by the New England Federalists. Nearly everybody else enthusiastically approved of the acquisition.
Personal Attacks on Jefferson
During his first term Jefferson was subjected to attacks on his personal character that have rarely, if ever, been matched in presidential history. In 1802 sensational charges against him were publicized by James Thomson Callender, a dissolute and unscrupulous journalist whom he had unwisely befriended and who had turned on him when not given a lucrative federal appointment. These charges were gleefully taken up by Jefferson's political enemies, but he maintained his policy of making no public reply to personal attacks. The abuse he suffered from newspapers weakened his confidence in a free press. He believed that his triumphant reelection in 1804 justified his toleration of his critics and reflected approval of his public conduct.
But the Federalists in their desperation continued to publicize the stories Callender had told, and in 1805 in a private letter Jefferson admitted that, while unmarried, he had made improper advances to the wife of a friend. For this he had made honorable amends, and he denied all the other charges. There appears to be no evidence that he ever again referred to them, and he undoubtedly believed that the best answer to them was the whole tenor of his life.
From an early stage in his public career, Jefferson had been subjected to attacks on religious grounds. While he kept his opinions regarding religion very much to himself, believing that they were a private concern, his insistence on the complete separation of church and state was well known. This gained him the support of "dissenting" groups, notably the Baptists, but it aroused bitter opposition among Congregationalists in those parts of New England where the clergy and magistrates still constituted a virtual establishment. From the presidential campaign of 1796 at least, New England clergymen denounced him from their pulpits as an atheist and as anti-Christ.
Unlike Thomas Paine, who attacked all sects, Jefferson attacked none, and he contributed to many churches, but he was distinctly anticlerical and was as opposed to absolutism in priests and presbyters as in kings. In a private letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800, he said: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." That assertion is properly recognized as one of his most characteristic.
In another strictly private communication to Dr. Rush, made in his first term as president, Jefferson revealed his own religious opinions. He believed in God and immortality and was a Unitarian in theology, though he rarely used the term. Comparing the ethical teachings of Jesus with those of the ancient philosophers and the Jews, he expressed the highest appreciation of the former. He began at this time, and finished in old age, a compilation of extracts from the Gospels in English, Greek, Latin, and French. He carefully excluded miracles from the compilation. Entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, it remained unpublished until the 20th century. While opposed to what he regarded as the corruptions of Christianity, he described himself as a Christian, and he undoubtedly sought to follow the ethical precepts of Jesus.
President: Second Term
On both the domestic and foreign fronts Jefferson encountered greater difficulties in his second term than in his first. But he was relatively successful at home during most of it. Factionalism increased among Republicans. But the revolt of John Randolph, an uncompromising strict constructionist and formerly the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, was contained. Until the last session of Congress in his presidency, Jefferson maintained his influence over that body and his undisputed leadership of his party.
The Burr Conspiracy
Meanwhile, the conspiracy of former Vice President Aaron Burr was foiled. It is still uncertain whether that adventurer proposed to separate the western states from the Union or to invade Mexico, but his expedition down the Mississippi River was unquestionably a threat to national unity and domestic security. Heeding the warning of Gen. James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson took steps in the fall of 1806 that led to the seizure of most of Burr's boats on the Ohio River and his later apprehension on the Mississippi. Burr's trial for treason and afterward for a misdemeanor, in the federal circuit court presided over by John Marshall, became a fiasco when Marshall's rulings made conviction impossible.
Jefferson erred gravely in saying in advance that Burr's guilt was beyond dispute, but his conduct in connection with the trial did not support the charge of persecution made by Burr's lawyers and the Federalists. Jefferson was more justly criticized for his support of Wilkinson, to whom he was grateful for the exposure of the conspiracy, but whose actions against alleged supporters of Burr in New Orleans was high-handed.
Jefferson's persistent efforts to acquire West Florida, which he continued to claim as part of the Louisiana Purchase, may be regarded as an exercise in futility. But he was properly concerned to round out the territory of the United States, and he contributed significantly to its exploration. In his first term he projected the expedition to the Pacific that was concluded by Lewis and Clark during his second term. Other expeditions that he sent out failed or had slight geographical and scientific significance, but his title as the chief presidential patron of exploration remains unchallenged.
The situation of the United States as a neutral nation became increasingly hazardous as the conflict between Britain and France, which embraced the whole Western world, increased in ruthlessness and desperation. Both powers trampled on neutral rights, but Britain, because it commanded the sea, was the greater offender. Despite reiterated protests by the U.S. government, the British policy of impressing American seamen was pursued with increased vigor. The attack of the British man-of-war Leopard on the American frigate Chesapeake in 1807 could have been regarded as an act of war. It was the subject of negotiations, but proper atonement for it was not made in Jefferson's administration.
American commerce was caught in the crossfire between British Orders in Council and Napoleonic decrees. Recognizing the impossibility of coping with both blockades, but undisposed to take sides in this conflict and convinced that peace was in the best interest of his young country, Jefferson and his government sought to safeguard American life and shipping and to bring pressure on the rival powers by suspending commerce. The embargo, adopted in December 1807 and strengthened by later legislation, was regarded by Jefferson as the only alternative to war and submission. The act barred all exports to Britain and France. But it had less effect abroad than had been expected and caused economic difficulty at home. This was especially true in New England, heavily reliant on commerce, where it was strongly opposed from the outset by pro-British Federalists and was resisted more extensively and more successfully than elsewhere.
In the effort to enforce the embargo, the government was drawn step by step into infringements on the liberties of individuals that were inconsistent with Jefferson's most cherished principles. He exercised no authority that was not vested in him by law, and, distrustful of power as he was, he did not seize it for its own sake. He believed that individuals should accept financial sacrifice on patriotic grounds. Many did so, but there was little glamour in this commercial warfare and the negative heroism it required. Toward the end of his administration, he assented to the embargo's repeal, to save the Union, he said. A more moderate measure was adopted, but it did not avert war with Britain in 1812.
Jefferson, meanwhile, was succeeded as president in 1809 by his loyal lieutenant, James Madison. During the last 17 years of his life, Jefferson remained in Virginia. His failures tended to be forgotten, and as the "Sage of Monticello" he engaged in a vast and rich correspondence with John Adams and others. He abandoned newspapers for Tacitus and Thucydides, he said, and until his dying day he feasted on classical writings. He read them in the original, as he did authors in French, Spanish, and Italian. Toward the end of the War of 1812, he sold his magnificent collection of books to the government for the Library of Congress, of which he has been regarded ever since as the virtual founder.
Jefferson resigned the presidency of the American Philosophical Society, which he had held for many years, but maintained his interest in all branches of human learning. He kept charts of the temperature. He personally directed the operations of his mills and farms into his 70s. He never ceased his efforts to advance agriculture. Jefferson's last great public service was the founding of the University of Virginia, which was chartered in 1819. He inspired the legislative campaign for a university, got it located in his own county, planned the buildings, and served as the first rector.
He gave much attention to the education of his grandchildren, chiefly the offspring of his daughter Martha and Thomas Mann Randolph. His daughter Maria, who married John W. Eppes, died during his first term as president. For her son Francis, he built a gem of a house at Poplar Forest in Bedford county. This served him as a retreat from the host of visitors at Monticello.
Jefferson had long been troubled by debt, and the failure of a friend whose note he had endorsed brought him to virtual bankruptcy. But he was rich in honor, friendship, and domestic happiness when he died at Monticello on July 4, 1826 just hours before John Adams, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.