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 the Federalists. 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 triumphantreturn, 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 in Monticello. 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.