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Thomas Jefferson - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Wednesday, June 10, 2020

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Birth: April 13, 1743
Death: July 4, 1826 (age 83)
Colony: Virginia
Occupation: Plantation Owner, Lawyer, Politician
Significance: Primary Author and Signer of The Declaration of Independence (at the age of 33); served as the second Governor of Virginia (1779-1781); served as second United States Minister to France (1785-1789); served as the first Secretary of State (1790-1793); served as the second Vice President of the United States (1797-1801); served as the third President of the United States (1801-1809)

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson hanging in the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery

Thomas Jefferson was a Founding Father of the United States of America. Jefferson was the third child born to a wealthy family in Virginia in 1743. Jefferson’s father was a plantation owner and a surveyor who owned a considerable amount of land and slaves. Jefferson received the finest education that money could buy, and he began his studies at the age of five and studied English, mathematics, history, science, and philosophy. Jefferson also studied and became fluent in multiple languages including Latin, Greek and French.
In 1757, at the age of 14, Jefferson’s father died, and large portions of his father’s estate were bequeathed to Jefferson. Jefferson assumed control of 5,000 acres of land which was operated as a plantation using Jefferson’s slaves.
After Jefferson attended the College of William & Mary, he continued to study his diverse and varied scholarly interests. Eventually, Jefferson focused on studying law and continued his legal studies after his graduation from William & Mary in 1762. Jefferson passed the Virginia bar in 1767, and he quickly rose to prominence as a lawyer in Virginia. In 1770, Jefferson moved into Monticello, the large plantation house that he designed himself. While Jefferson enjoyed living there, he continually altered and rebuilt the estate for the rest of his life. In 1772, Jefferson married Martha Skelton, and together they had six children, though tragically only two survived to adulthood. Unfortunately, Martha died at the age of 33 shortly after the birth of their 6th child.

Entrance to Politics

Jefferson served as a delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses beginning in 1769, but it was not until 1774 that politics became his primary concern. Jefferson was outraged by the passage of the Intolerable Acts, and he immediately called for a boycott of British goods. As the First Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia, Jefferson was not invited. Instead, he wrote a pamphlet titled A Summary View of the Rights of British America, and he sent it to the Continental Congress. The pamphlet outlined legal and historical reasoning that the Colonies were independent of British rule, and that attempts by Parliament to tax the Colonists were unlawful. Though the Continental Congress ultimately decided not to endorse Jefferson’s writings and took a more conciliatory approach toward dealing with the British, Jefferson had succeeded in making a name for himself among America’s new political leaders.

The Declaration of Independence

In May 1775, the Colonists again gathered in Philadelphia in May for the Second Continental Congress, and Jefferson was among those Virginians appointed to represent them. The Revolutionary War had already begun with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, igniting the War in Boston, but Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia to find that many delegates were still primarily concerned with resolving their differences with Britain. While Jefferson was not convinced that Independence was the answer, he had made his position clear that the current status quo was unacceptable, and that reconciliation would only be possible if Parliament respected the rights of the Colonists.
Independence Hall where Jefferson spent many long hours as a member of the Second Continental Congress
After over a year of deliberations, arguments, failed peace attempts, and continued warfare, delegates in the Second Continental Congress were finally beginning to come to see that declaring Independence was the only path forward. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia became the first person to formally propose a vote on Independence to the Second Continental Congress.
On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress was still in the midst of an intense debate over whether or not to accept Lee’s proposal and declare Independence, but they nonetheless agreed that if they were to declare Independence, it would be critical to explain their actions to the rest of the world as quickly as possible. For this reason, a Committee of Five was formed to begin writing a formal declaration of independence. The Committee was organized by John Adams of Massachusetts, who had been one of the strongest voices advocating for Independence throughout the Second Continental Congress, and he was joined by Jefferson along with Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Despite the Committee of Five advocating for Adams to write the first draft, Adams felt it would be better if Jefferson wrote the document. Adams feared his unpopular reputation could hurt the chances of Independence, and since the War had started in Massachusetts, he thought it would be better if the call for independence came from a Virginian. 
The Committee of Five discussed roughly what the declaration should entail, but Jefferson alone penned the first rough draft of The Declaration of Independence. In writing The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was attempting to accomplish many tasks at once. Most importantly, The Declaration was to serve as an explanation to the rest of the world. America was in desperate need of allies in their fight against Britain, and The Declaration was designed to show the legitimate reasons why America was forced to declare independence, and that America was within its rights to do so. If America were able to project that they were a legitimate independent nation and the Revolutionary War was not simply a civil war between British subjects, they believed foreign nations would be more inclined to get involved. Additionally, Jefferson needed to explain the decision to declare Independence to his fellow citizens and inspire popular support of the decision.
Reconstructed Graff House or Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence
Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence at the Graff House (also known as the Declaration House) in Philadelphia. The document was subsequently edited by other committee members before being submitted to the Continental Congress. After approving Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for Independence on July 2, 1776, Congress turned their attention to The Declaration of Independence. After much debate and significant edits to the document, Congress approved The Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
While Jefferson decried the edits to The Declaration of Independence, the document has endured and had become a significant text in the history of America and the modern world. The preamble in particular has almost mythic status in America and is frequently held up as the ideal that America strives for:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Declaration of Independence
Years after The Declaration of Independence was signed, countless figures in American history have looked back to this text as they fought to make these lofty words a reality. Most famously, Abraham Lincoln referenced The Declaration of Independence in the Gettysburg Address as justification for the end of slavery:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Revolutionary War

After the signing of The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned home to Virginia and served in the Virginia House of Delegates where he was a crucial figure in the finalization of the Virginia Constitution.

In 1779, Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia, and he was re-elected the following year. Jefferson struggled to govern Virginia in the midst of the Revolutionary War, but he was able to make progress on many of his goals including guaranteeing religious freedom for Virginians, strengthening public education, and economic reforms. In 1781, the Virginia capital of Richmond was burned to ground by British forces led by Benedict Arnold. Jefferson was able to escape Richmond and travel to Monticello, but he faced criticism for his decision to return home amidst the chaos and was not elected to a third term.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Minister to France

In 1783, Jefferson was elected to the Continental Congress (Congress of the Confederation) and began serving just as the United States secured victory in the American Revolutionary War. In 1784, Jefferson was appointed by Congress to travel to Paris to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in negotiating treaties with European nations. In 1785, when Benjamin Franklin left France to return to Philadelphia after many years of being abroad, it was Jefferson who was chosen to succeed Franklin in the important position of Minister to France.

Jefferson remained in France for years and was still in Paris in 1789 when the storming of the Bastille set off the French Revolution. Jefferson remained in Paris during the beginning of the French Revolution, and he even offered advice to the Marquis de Lafayette, an American Revolutionary War Hero who had become a major figure in the French Revolution. Jefferson even consulted the Marquis de Lafayette as he wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, an enormously influential document that was designed as a basic charter of human liberties and the principles of the French Revolution.

While Jefferson was in Paris and while the United States Constitution was written in Philadelphia in 1787, Jefferson was still able to influence America's new government through his correspondence with James Madison, who is considered the primary author of the Constitution. Madison had faced criticism from some members of the Constitutional Convention for not including a Bill of Rights in his proposed new government which would protect the rights of individuals and states from the enhanced powers of a stronger federal government. Members of the Constitutional Convention led by George Mason even refused to sign the United States Constitution over this dispute. Jefferson was among those who favored the addition of a Bill of Rights and used his influence with Madison to convince Madison to support the addition of a Bill of Rights, which Madison himself would go on to write.

Secretary of State

While Jefferson was working abroad, back in America, a new government was established under the Constitution of the United States, and George Washington was elected President of the newly established Federal government. Jefferson returned to Monticello in 1789 and was named the first Secretary of State under the Constitution by President Washington.

Jefferson quickly became a rival of fellow cabinet member of Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson opposed Hamilton’s ambitious economic plans which included the Federal government taking on all of the Revolutionary War debts accumulated by the states and the establishment of a national bank.  Jefferson fought against Hamilton's goals, but in the end, Washington sided with Hamilton and proceeded with his economic plans.

Jefferson became increasingly aligned with fellow Virginian James Madison who was also concerned with increasing Federal authority, and that Hamilton's proposals such as The First Bank of the United States, would provide an avenue for the wealthy to corrupt American politics. Together, Jefferson and Madison formed the Democratic-Republican party, and they sought to oppose Hamilton’s Federalist Party.

While no longer in Paris, Jefferson still supported the cause of the French Revolution from afar and when Britain began clashing with revolutionary France, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans were firmly on the side of the French. Jefferson grew frustrated that Washington and his cabinet were aligning themselves with Britain instead. As it became clear that his influence in Washington’s cabinet was limited, Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State at the end of 1793, and he returned to Monticello.

Vice President of the United States

Back in Virginia, Jefferson remained involved in politics and increasingly criticized Washington’s foreign policy decisions. In particular, Jefferson felt that the Jay Treaty with Britain was far too conciliatory and was afraid the Federalists were too aligned with the British Monarchy.

As it became clear that President Washington would not seek a third term in office, the stage was set for an intense 1796 election between his Federalist Vice President, John Adams, and Democratic-Republican leader Thomas Jefferson, two old friends who had grown into political rivals. The bitter election of 1796 was further complicated by fighting within the Federalist Party between Adams and Hamilton. Hamilton tried to bypass Adams and elect Adams’ Vice President candidate, Thomas Pinckney, as President.

While Hamilton’s scheming failed, it did succeed in creating a mess in which Thomas Jefferson lost to John Adams, but he secured more votes than his running mate, and thus became John Adams’ Vice President. This awkward situation was part of the reason for the creation of the 12th Amendment which would simplify the process by which the President was elected and ensured that the running mate of the winning Presidential Candidate would win the Vice Presidency.

While serving as Vice President, Jefferson worked against President John Adams and publicly attacked many of Adams’ decisions, including his entrance into a Quasi-War with France, and the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made certain type of dissent against the government illegal.

During this time, Jefferson was also named President of the American Philosophical Society, a scholarly society formed by Benjamin Franklin over half a century earlier. The Philosophical Society was located in Philadelphia where Jefferson was served as Vice President of the United States, but Jefferson remained its president, even after he left Philadelphia. Jefferson eventually resigned as the leader of the American Philosophical Society before finally resigning in 1815.

In the meantime, Jefferson prepared for the 1800 election, in which Jefferson once again faced off against John Adams. The election was highly contentious with both parties attacking the other, but this time, it was Jefferson who defeated Adams and became America’s third President.

Congress Hall where Thomas Jefferson Presided over the Senate from 1797-1800

President of the United States

Once in office, Jefferson set about dismantling and shrinking many of the governmental offices and institutions established by Washington and Adams. Among the cuts were Hamilton’s Federal financial system that had been developed over the previous two administrations, as well as the military which Jefferson greatly reduced.
While Jefferson set about shrinking the size of the American government, at the same time he greatly expanded the size of America. Under Jefferson’s presidency, America purchased almost a million square miles of French Territory for fifteen million dollars. Known as the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson’s deal with the French effectively doubled the size of America and cleared a path for continued westward expansion. After the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson funded an expedition to explore and map a path through the new territory and to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson choose Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to be the leaders of the of the expedition and their two year journey was a success.
With the Federalists still fighting amongst themselves, Jefferson easily won re-election in 1804. In Jefferson’s second term, he continued to deal with Britain’s unending war with France, but despite his best efforts, relationships with both countries declined. Jefferson’s decision to punish Britain with the Embargo Act was particularly disastrous and was a major reason for the War of 1812, which broke out after Jefferson left office. In December 1807, Jefferson announced his intention to follow George Washington’s lead and not seek a third term.
Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Later Years

Jefferson retired to Monticello following his presidency, but he remained actively engaged in politics and was a respected adviser to his successor James Madison, and then to Madison’s successor, James Monroe as well.
In 1819, Jefferson made a long standing goal of his, a realty, he founded his own university, the University of Virginia. Most universities of the day were founded by a religious institution and religion was often intertwined with education. The University of Virginia was however intended to be an educational institution free of religious influence. Jefferson himself planned the school’s curriculum and even designed many of its buildings.
In his later years, Jefferson also rekindled what had been a longstanding friendship with John Adams. The two had an acrimonious split following the election of 1800, and neither of them spoke to the other for years. But then in 1812, John Adams wrote to Jefferson and Jefferson responded, starting an unending correspondence that continued for the rest of their lives. Both men died on July 4th, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the country both men had been so crucial in founding.

Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia

Jefferson first came to Philadelphia in 1775 as a Delegate to the Second Continental Congress which met at Independence Hall. While in Philadelphia, Jefferson was chosen to write The Declaration of Independence and did so while living at the Declaration House. After The Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress, Jefferson signed The Declaration of Independence before returning home to Virginia where he served as Governor.

Interior of the reconstructed Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence - Photo Credit: NPS

Jefferson returned to Philadelphia in 1783 to serve in the Congress of the Confederation before leaving again to serve as a diplomat in Paris, France. In 1790, Jefferson again returned to Philadelphia where he continued to serve as President George Washington's Secretary of State. After a brief trip to Virginia, Jefferson returned to Philadelphia after being elected Vice President in 1797. While Vice President, Jefferson presided over the U.S. Senate, which met on the second floor of Congress Hall while the Capital city was in Philadelphia. During this time, Jefferson also served as the President of the American Philosophical Society, which met at Philosophical Hall in Philadelphia.

Great Essentials Exhibit in Independence Hall displaying original Dunlap Broadside print of The Declaration of Independence - Photo Credit: National Park Service

Inside the West Wing of Independence Hall, is an exhibit titled "Great Essentials," which contains original copies of the historic documents that were signed in Independence Hall, including Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. A plaque commemorating Jefferson for signing The Declaration of Independence can be found on Signers' Walk on the 600 block of Chestnut Street (between 5th and 6th Street). Signers' Garden pays tribute to the Founding Fathers, including those such as Jefferson who signed The Declaration of Independence. Today, Independence Hall, the Declaration House, Congress Hall, American Philosophical Society, Signers' Walk and Signers' Garden are all stops visited along The Constitutional Walking Tour!

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