Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson is remembered in history
not only for the offices he held, but also for his belief in the natural
rights of man as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and his faith
in the people’s ability to govern themselves. He left an impact on his
times equaled by few others in American history.
Born on April 13, 1743, Jefferson was the
third child in the family and grew up with six sisters and one brother.
Though he opposed slavery, his family had owned slaves. From his father
and his environment he developed an interest in botany, geology, cartography,
and North American exploration, and from his childhood teacher developed
a love for Greek and Latin. In 1760, at the age of 16, Jefferson entered
the College of William and Mary and studied under William Small and George
Wythe. Through Small, he got his first views of the expansion of science
and of the system of things in which we are placed. Through Small and Wythe,
Jefferson became acquainted with Governor Francis Fauquier.
After finishing college in 1762, Jefferson
studied law with Wythe and noticed growing tension between America and
Great Britain. Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767. He successfully
practiced law until public service occupied most of his time. At his home
in Shadwell, he designed and supervised the building of his home, Monticello,
on a nearby hill. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in
1769. Jefferson met Martha Wayles Skelton, a wealthy widow of 23, in 1770
and married her in 1772. They settled in Monticello and had one son and
five daughters. Only two of his children, Martha and Mary, survived until
maturity. Mrs. Martha Jefferson died in 1782, leaving Thomas to take care
of his two remaining children.
Though not very articulate, Jefferson proved
to be an able writer of laws and resolutions he was very concise and straight
to the point. Jefferson soon became a member in a group which opposed and
took action in the disputes between Britain and the colonies. Together
with other patriots, the group met in the Apollo Room of Williamsburg’s
famous Raleigh Tavern in 1769 and formed a nonimportation agreement against
Britain, vowing not to pay import duties imposed by the Townshend Acts.
After a period of calmness, problems faced
the colonists again, forcing Jefferson to organize another nonimportation
agreement and calling the colonies together to protest. He was chosen to
represent Albermarle County at the First Virginia Convention, where delegates
were elected to the First Continental Congress. He became ill and was unable
to attend the meeting, but forwarded a message arguing that the British
Parliament had no control over the colonies. He also mentioned the Saxons
who had settled in England hundred of years before from Germany and how
Parliament had no more right to govern the colonies than the Germans had
to govern the English. Most Virginians saw this as too extreme, though.
His views were printed in a pamphlet called A Summary of the Rights of
British America (1774). Jefferson attended the Second Virginia Convention
in 1775 and was chosen as one of the delegates to the Second Continental
Congress, but before he left for Philadelphia, he was asked by the Virginia
Assembly to reply to Lord North’s message of peace, proposing that Parliament
would not try to tax the settlers if they would tax themselves. Jefferson’s
“Reply to Lord North” was more moderate that the Summary View. Instead
of agreeing with Lord North, Jefferson insisted that a government had been
set up for the Americans and not for the British.
The Declaration of Independence was primarily
written by Jefferson in June 1776. Congress felt that the Declaration was
too strong and gave Dickinson the responsibility of redrafting the document,
but the new version included much of Jefferson’s original text and ideas.
In 1779, Jefferson became governor of Virginia,
guiding Virginians through the final years of the Revolutionary War. As
a member of the Second Continental Congress, he drafted a plan for decimal
coinage and composed an ordinance for the Northwest Territory that formed
the foundation for the Ordinance of 1787. In 1785, he became minister to
France. Appointed secretary of state in President Washington’s Cabinet
in 1790, Jefferson defended local interests against Alexander Hamilton’s
policies and led a group called the Republicans. He was elected vice-president
in 1796 and protested the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts by writing
The Kentucky Resolutions.
In 1800, the Republicans nominated Jefferson
for president and Aaron Burr (A Buh. hahaha) for vice-president. Federalists
had nominated John Adams for president and Charles Pinckney for vice-president.
Federalists claimed that Jefferson was a revolutionary, an anarchist, and
an unbeliever. Jefferson won the presidency by receiving 73 electoral votes
(Adams received 65). Supporters celebrated with bonfires and speeches,
only to find out that Jefferson and Burr received an equal number of electoral
votes, creating a tie and throwing the election to the House of Representatives.
After 36 ballots, the House declared Jefferson as president. As did Adams
before he, Jefferson faced opposition from his own party as well as from
As mentioned earlier, Jefferson had an
interest in North American exploration. He used his presidential power
to purchase Louisiana from France and gave Meriwither Lewis and William
Clark the opportunity and the responsibility to explore this vast territory.
After their triumphant return, the hostile Aaron Burr engaged in a conspiracy
either to establish an independent republic in the Louisiana Territory
or to launch an invasion of Spanish-held Mexico. Jefferson acted promptly
to arrest Burr and brought him to trial for treason. Burr was acquitted,
however. Foreign policy during his second term was rather unsuccessful.
In an effort for the British to respect the United States’ neutrality during
the Napoleonic Wars by passing the Embargo Act, he persuaded Congress to
stop all trade with Britain, a move that failed to gain any respect from
Britain, alienated New England (who lived by foreign trade), and shattered
the nation’s economy. Fifteen months later, he repealed the Embargo Act.
In the final years of his life, Jefferson’s major accomplishment was the
founding of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He conceived
it, planned it, designed it, and supervised both its construction and the
hiring of the workers. He also hired the first professors and came up with
its first course of study.
Jefferson wished to be remembered by three
things, which consisted of a trilogy of unrelated causes: freedom from
Britain, freedom from conscience, and freedom maintained through education.
On the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died
Though not flawless, given Jefferson’s
contributions to the shaping of American society then and how it is today,
it is nearly impossible to find him morally weak and coarse. He has truly
defined true American culture as it is today and has shaped the lives of
many Americans both of his time and our time alike.