Thomas Jefferson: Life & Major Accomplishments
Thomas Jefferson was one of two men in America’s political landscape (the other being Martin Van Buren) to occupy three top political positions in successive order: Secretary of State; Vice President; and then the President of the United States of America. Additionally, he was a skilled diplomat, a writer and an articulate public speaker.
All over the world, he is most famous for being the main draftsman of the Declaration of Independence (1776). Born in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was elected to the House of Burgesses at age 27. He also served for two terms as governor of Virginia. As president, he helped reduce the national debt by about 30 percent. It was during his tenure that Louisiana was purchased. Before he died, Jefferson successfully left an indelible mark on every sector in America.
Jefferson’s Childhood and Early years
On 13th of April, 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia (present day Albemarle County, Virginia) Thomas Jefferson was born. He grew up on his father’s plantation that was located slightly outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Considering the number of acres his family had, we could say Jefferson was born into a high-standing family that had influence throughout the state.
His mother, Jane, was a Randolph- a wealthy clan that traces its family tree to some royal members in England and Scotland. On the other hand, his father, Peter Jefferson, was a hardworking and accomplished plantation farmer and surveyor. Peter Jefferson was so good in the surveying business that he holds the record of being the first person to come up with a precise map of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson, being the third child of ten, must have had a very lively home and upbringing on his father’s plantation. The tall and slightly lanky Jefferson often spent a great deal of time in the woods around his father’s plantation.
Education and Training
Jefferson was an academically active young kid. He got into music and reading at an early age. The violin was what he played often. At just 9 years old, he was already immersed in subjects such as Latin and Greek. The folks at his local private school, that was run by Reverend William Douglas, certainly must have taken delight in young but very much articulated Thomas.
As he aged into his early teens, Jefferson developed a liking for classical languages. He received guidance and tutelage from “a correct classical scholar” (in the words of Jefferson himself) called Reverend James Maury. During his time under Maury, Jefferson attained considerable successes in Mathematics and literature.
When he turned 17, he went to school at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The college holds the honor of also graduating the 10th President of United States, John Tyler, in 1807.
At college, the young Jefferson was dismayed at the way his fellow classmates completely disregarded their studies. As a result of this, he mostly spent his time interacting with the college’s scholars rather than his mates. He went on to spend two fruitful years at the William and Mary.
Brief Law Career
After graduating from William and Mary in 1762, he proceeded to study law under George Wythe’s supervision. Wythe was a famous lawyer and had cases all across the colonies. This was the norm for all those who wanted to become lawyers at the time. In Jefferson’s case, he was fortunate to study five whole years under someone as good as Wythe.
The two men developed a strong professional relationship, and it culminated in Jefferson gaining admission into the Virginia State bar at the age of 24. By the 1767, he had started to cement his status as a well-read lawyer not just in Virginia but across the American colonies.
Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Jefferson
Prior to meeting Martha Wayles Skelton, the latter was a young widow of about 22 years old. Martha was also the heiress to some properties and an accomplished woman of high public standing. She had lost her firstborn in her early 20s. However, none of those personal tragedies got the better of Martha. She simply held her own and maintained a vibrant life and ideals.
Martha’s passion for music and arts is just one of the numerous things that Jefferson found fascinating about her. As time passed, their relationship grew in leaps and bounds, and on January 1, 1772, the two got married at Martha’s home near Williamsburg.
Jefferson and Martha made a home on the mountaintop in Monticello. The couple’s first child, Martha, was born in September 1772. They also had five more children. However, only two of the children (Martha and Maria) grew past the age of adulthood.
In the course of their marriage, Martha developed some health complications that came as a result of her frequent pregnancies. This began to take a huge toll on not just Martha but Jefferson as well.
Jefferson at some point had to put on hold his political activities in order to take care of Martha. But the complications and stress on Martha never abated. In September 1781, about 5 years from when Jefferson famously drafted the Declaration of Independence, Martha tragically passed away. Her death seriously devastated Jefferson. The records show that Jefferson remained a widower for the remainder of his life.
Early years in Politics
As a trained lawyer, Thomas Jefferson decided to put his skills to good use in the rank and file of the American patriots that fervently fought against Britain’s oppression. He was among the very first people who felt that Britain’s heavy taxes on the American colonies were unjust and a serious violation of the colonies’ rights.
The British carved up several tax schemes to defray the debt it had accumulated from the French and Indian War in 1763. The Stamp Act of 1765, as well as the ensuing chaos from the Boston Tea party in 1773, galvanized the American colonies to revolt against Great Britain.
The British crown simply failed to realize that taxes must come along with some level of representation. Jefferson saw this lack of representation as an affront to the American colonies. Therefore, he got involved in the political movement that fought tirelessly to gain full independence from the British Empire.
In 1769, he won a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses (later known as the Virginia House of Delegates). He would use his position in the House to push for independence. He also wrote and published a lot of political writings advocating for independence. The most famous of such works came in 1774, it was called, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”. His tenure in the House of Burgesses ended in 1775 after the house was dissolved.
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Second Continental Congress (1775 to 1776)
Jefferson’s hard work and sacrifices for the cause of independence did not go unnoticed at the time. He participated in the Second Continental Congress of 1775 in Philadelphia. The Continental Congress was a group of politicians, businessmen and assembly men from 13 American colonies.
As time progressed, the goal of the Continental Congress evolved from one that had the slogan “No taxation without representation” into one that wanted to completely break away from the British crown. Soon, he was part of the elite group of politicians and military men that shared the same views as his. He worked closely with the likes of Patrick Henry, George Washington, Samuel Adams, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
Also, during the Second Continental Congress’s meeting, Thomas Jefferson was selected to be part of the Committee of Five. The committee was tasked to draft the Declaration of Independence. The other four members of the committee were John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin.
Drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776
Prior to beginning work on the draft Declaration, Thomas Jefferson was elected unanimously as the principal draftsman. He was skilled and had the most amount of legal experience among the other four. Jefferson did however consult extensively with John Adams.
In just about three weeks, the five-man committee worked assiduously to produce a brilliant masterpiece. Today, the document is considered as one of the three pillars that hold the United States. The other two are the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights.
The Declaration document has 5 main sections: introduction, a preamble, a body (with two sections) and a conclusion. The drafters of the document purposefully stressed the natural rights that all human beings possessed, and that no person or institution or government can infringe upon those God-given rights. And because King George III and the British parliament had violated those rights, the colonies deemed it fit to sever ties with the British Empire. The five men listed 27 cases of those infringements that justified the American colonies revolting against King George.
Jefferson and his committee members submitted their document to the Continental Congress for further deliberation and minor twitches. The final Declaration document was officially approved on the 4th of July, 1776.
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates (1776 to 1779)
Once his work was done in the Continental Congress, Jefferson went on to serve in his home state, Virginia, as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1776 to 1779. He worked to produce several landmark bills in the house. He changed inheritance laws and made them more just and fair. Another very important thing that Jefferson did for Virginia was to write the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The statute clearly separated church and the state by granting freedom of worship to the people.
Virginia’s Governor (1779 to 1781)
After all the legal work that Jefferson had done for the people of Virginia, it was only befitting that he ran for the Virginia governorship. He was elected on June 1, 1779 to serve as the second governor of Virginia. However, his tenure was marred by difficulties. Jefferson had to balance two very opposing needs. The Continental Army sorely needed resources and men to continue the gains that it was making against the British army. However, his state felt that those resources were better off staying within the state.
Another disappointing event that took place when Jefferson was governor was the attack on Richmond by British forces. Shortly after that, a second deadly attack came close to the home of Jefferson at Monticello on June 1, 1781. His family escaped British bombardment in the nick of time. His political opponents tagged him as a coward for ‘fleeing’ the city. The records do however show that Jefferson had to make that call least he lost his entire family.
Considering all the above misfortunes during his governorship, Thomas Jefferson opted not to remain in office for a third term. It was around this same time that his wife’s health started deteriorating. He planned retiring peacefully to Monticello and continue farming. In this brief and sad period, he authored the Notes on the State of Virginia. It was basically about Virginia’s history, political atmosphere and geography. It also included excerpts of his personal political opinion and his views on liberty and freedom.
After his wife’s death in 1782, he made a comeback into the political arena in 1782. He was elected to serve as the Virginia delegate to the Confederation. His is credited with writing the Congressional report of March 22, 1784 that asked for the cessation of slavery in the western corridor after the year 1800. The report, however, failed to get an approval from Congress.
Thomas Jefferson’s Views on Slavery
Thomas Jefferson’s views on slavery were not very clear cut. Some historians have even called them contradictory. This is a man who wrote the report we made mention about in the previous paragraph, and yet he owned slaves. His family’s plantation had a sizable number of slaves on it. It was on the back of these slaves that the Jeffersons built their massive estate. An estimated 175 slaves were inherited by Jefferson after his father died.
A counter argument to this patchy side of Jefferson is that slavery was normal back then. The abolitionist had yet to gain any reasonable momentum. It was simply business as usual for the hordes of slave owners back then.
However, there have been stories and accounts that claim that Jefferson considered blacks inferior to whites. He held the belief that the famous phrase “all men are created equal” did not necessarily apply to the blacks.
Regardless of this, Jefferson believed that abolishing slavery would avert the dangers of a race problem in America. In his opinion, the freed slaves could then settle in Africa or the Caribbean.
Ambassador to France – 1784 to 1789
His time as a delegate to Congress enabled him to work on several key issues. Aside internal governance and systems, Jefferson also worked on foreign relations and trade activities. He wrote the procedure for negotiating commercial trade and treaties. And in 1785, Thomas Jefferson was appointed as the Minister to France by the Virginia delegation to the Confederation Congress. His predecessor was Benjamin Franklin.
Jefferson admired the good things about European culture at the time. However, he loathed the nobility and aristocratic nature of a society that sponged off the public. His time in Europe saw him patch things up with John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams. He communicated frequently with the latter on a host of topics. He found Abigail Adams very sharp and sophisticated intellectually.
First Secretary of State of the U.S.—1789 to 1793
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1789, Jefferson joined the cabinet of the first president of the United States of America, George Washington. Washington appointed him to the position of Secretary of State – America’s first Secretary of State.
Washington’s government was marred by a number of political infighting and divisions. Two major blocks began to appear: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists’ block was led by Alexander Hamilton, the then Treasury Secretary in Washington’s cabinet. The Federalists believed in having a very strong national government and broader scope in interpreting the constitution. They also believed that America ought to remain neutral in Europe.
On the other hand, the Republican group, headed by Jefferson, advocated exactly the opposite of what the Federalists sought to do. The Republicans maintained that the constitution ought not to be read with such broad definitions, and that the various states under the union must have greater autonomy in the management of their affairs. Jefferson felt that Federalist were hinging on the fringes of a semi-imperial state. He openly supported the French Revolution, individual rights and rights of state.
These two factions clashed on all major projects and initiatives during George Washington’s presidency. The division was palpable; the boat could only accommodate one type of philosophy. Thomas Jefferson therefore made way and resigned his position as the Secretary of State in December 1793. He returned to his family home at Monticello.
Vice President of the United States (1797 to 1801)
Thomas Jefferson was long regarded as the person to succeed George Washington at the helm of affairs. This notion started swelling around 1797. Jefferson back then maintained that he was done with politics and public service. He later reluctantly allowed the head of the Republicans, James Madison, to file in his name for the presidential election.
After the Electoral College had had its vote, he was tipped just by a few votes to the presidency by John Adams, a Federalist. As per the rules of that time, his second finish automatically made him the United States vice president on March 4, 1797. This was the first and only time that the United States had witnessed the president and vice president hailing from different political parties.
During his tenure as vice president, Jefferson and Adams’s relationship went a bit sour. The two hardly checked in with each other on any significant issue because the both had different beliefs. He was left with merely heading the Senate and his Republican Party. It was a dull period for Thomas Jefferson because the position of vice president was not properly defined. However, he did love this position because it was relatively less stressful as compared to the presidency. As a matter of fact, Jefferson never wanted to become president during the election. He hoped for a 2nd or 3rd place finish in the election.
His tenure as vice president saw him restrict his duties to just the legislation. This afforded him the opportunity to fully lead and steer the affairs of the Republican Party. He could also criticize (not in public though) the sitting president, John Adams and his Federalist Party.
Here are three of Thomas Jefferson most notable achievements during his vice presidency:
- Fought against the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
In 1797, France fell hugely out of favor with the United States after the former had made insulting requests from the latter. A group of French officials demanded the United States give $12 million in loans and $250,000 in bribes before France would recognize the United States. News about this request infuriated the American public.
The Federalist senators in the Senate capitalized on these anti-French sentiments and passed a series of acts. Although Jefferson did not condone in anyway what the French officials did, he did strongly feel that the acts passed by the Senate were an affront to the individual’s rights.
The first act, the Sedition Act, was passed on July 4, 1798. This act sought to restrict the public from criticizing the U.S. government. Then, there was the Naturalization Act, which was passed on June 18, 1798, that expanded the eligibility requirements and residency duration for U.S. citizenship from 5 to 14 years. The third act, the Alien Act, gave the president the power to deport any foreigner that unduly criticized the government.
In what he believed as defending the civil liberties of Americans, Jefferson worked assiduously to nullify those acts in the various states. He maintained that the individual states had the right to suspend any federal laws that it deemed as unconstitutional. Kentucky and Virginia were the only two states that passed resolutions to repeal those three Federal Acts. The records show that Jefferson played a key role in the resolution that Kentucky passed.
- American Philosophical Society
Jefferson took delight in being the head of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. He gave several addresses to them. He remained president of the society until 1815.
- Established Parliamentary proceedings for both the Senate and the House of Representatives
Jefferson authored “A Manual of Parliamentary Practice,” as a guide to legislative proceedings in the Senate. To date, this guide remains relevant to the U.S. Senate. It serves to prevent disorder and dictatorship on the part of the presiding officer of the Senate.
Jefferson drew a lot of inspiration from sources such as the notes he took while studying under his former mentor, George Wythe; and the British House of Commons’s procedural rules. The latter source was crucial because it protected the minority in the British parliament against bullying and rights’ abuses from the majority.
In the U.S., Jefferson believed that such a manual would enable the minority senators to have a voice in important decisions of the House. Jefferson’s manual came out in 1801. And in 1837, the House of Representatives adopted the manual as well.
Third U.S. President (1801 to 1809)
Just like his predecessor, Washington, John Adams’s tenure as president was plagued by a lot of divisions. This time around, the division was within his Federalist party itself. At the heart of this conflict was none other than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton and his supporters felt that Adams was too moderate on the ideals of the Federalist Party. As a result of this, Hamilton withdrew his support for Adams in the following election.
Hamilton’s withdrawal meant that Jefferson and his Republicans had an easy way into the Presidency. Jefferson and another Republican, Aaron Burr, tied in the first round of voting. The House later voted Jefferson to be the President with his Aaron Burr serving as vice president.
Jefferson was inaugurated in Washington D.C. as the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801. After a very successful first term in office, Jefferson was reelected a second time in 1804 after defeating Charles Pinckney.
Achievements during his Presidency
Jefferson has been credited with numerous feats of achievement during his first term. Here some of the major accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson:
- Jefferson successfully cleaned the office of any philosophical remnants of royalty and monarchy. He had always felt that his predecessors were a bit too pro-Britain and a bit neo-monarchical in their philosophy.
- He drastically cut down the armed forces’ size. Due to his Republican policy of little interference in both state and world affairs, Jefferson reasoned that a large U.S. Armed forces served no purpose.
- He also reduced the number of bureaucratic hurdles at public offices.
- The National debt was 30 percent smaller as at when he left office in 1809.
- He will most famously be regarded as someone who liberally read the U.S. Constitution.
- He played a vital role in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 from France for $15 million. This additional land area of 820,000 square miles tremendously increased the land area of the United States.
- He eradicated the Tripoli pirates and menace on the Mediterranean shipping routes
- He supported the Lewis and Clark expeditions into the newly acquired American territories.
Challenges during his Second term
Jefferson was largely successful during his first term. A number of reforms took place and the American economy was very much growing. However, his second term was a bit inconsistent.
One of his biggest shortcomings occurred when he passed the Embargo Act of 1807. The act was in response to the Napoleonic wars between France and Great Britain. Both of those European countries sought to intimidate America from trading with the other.
Jefferson exhausted all channels of remaining neutral in the war. However, in 1807, Jefferson decided that the constant provocation by the two countries on American merchant ships was too much to bear. Therefore, he passed an act that halted all trading activities with Europe. This move seriously affected the American economy.
By the time Jefferson had left office, America’s export had drastically fallen from $108 million to around $22 million. And eventually, what the President Jefferson had fought to prevent with the Embargo Act failed. By 1812 America and Great Britain was locked in fierce war with each other.
Post-Presidency and Retirement
By the year 1808, Jefferson had gotten exhausted and declined to run for a third term. After the completion of his second tenure in 1809, he retired to his home at Monticello and spent most of his time writing, gardening, playing music and reading. It was during this period that he planned and designed the construction of the University of Virginia.
On July 4, 1826, Jefferson passed away at his home in Monticello. He was 83 years old. He was survived by only Martha “Patsy” who would later die in 1836. His other daughter Mary Wayles “Polly” had already died in 1804. As at the time of his death, he was neck deep in debt. As a result, some of his property and holdings had to be auctioned off.
Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy and Memorials
Thomas Jefferson was unquestionably one of the greatest presidents of the United States. His influence stretched beyond politics into areas such as science, education and constitutional law. It is for those reasons that Jefferson has been honored and memorialized in several U.S. postage, currency and buildings.
His face appears, along with George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, on the magnificent carving on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. This beautiful national memorial of about 60-foot-high was constructed by Gutzon Borglum (with the help of his son Lincoln Borglum) in the early 1940s.
Additionally, Jefferson’s face appears on the front of the $2 bills. The back of the bill has the Declaration of Independence that he helped write.
There is also a 19-foot (6 meters) high statue of Jefferson at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Memorial was unveiled on April 13, 1943, exactly 200 years after Jefferson’s birth.
Also, he sold his personal library of books to Congress for $23,950 in an effort to rebuild the Library of Congress. This was after Congress had been burnt down by British Forces during the 1812 War.
Thomas Jefferson, like all men, was not without his fair share of shortcomings. For example, his legacy came under scrutiny during the American Civil War. His message of greater state powers was somehow miscued by the two warring sides during the War. Conservatives criticized his philosophy because they believed that it created a conducive atmosphere for populist movement. The progressives and liberals, on the other hand, reasoned that Jefferson’s philosophy of a decentralized federal government and a strong state with a vibrant local government in some way could jeopardize the Union.
During his brief hiatus from politics (prior to his presidency), Jefferson took interest in a slave girl called Sally Hemings. Sally was the half-sister of Martha Jefferson. Although no concrete evidence exists, some historians believe that Jefferson and Sally had 6 children together. DNA results confirmed categorically that the Sally’s children’s father had to be a Jefferson. Because there were three other Jeffersons on the estate at that time, the verdict is still out there as to which of the Jeffersons fathered Sally’s children. It is possible it could have been Thomas Jefferson himself. Or perhaps his two other brothers.
Regardless of the above, Jefferson continues to feature extensively on most polls Top 5 U.S. Presidents of all time. For example, the Brookings Institution in 2015 ranked him the 5th greatest U.S. President.
Coincidentally, the date that Jefferson died was the same day his friend (sometimes bitter foe) John Adams also died. These two founding fathers died exactly on the 50th anniversary (i.e. July 4, 1826) of the Declaration of Independence.
Before their deaths, the two men smoked the peace pipe and made up. Their brief correspondence started after “Polly”, Jefferson’s daughter, died in 1804. And from 1812 until their deaths, the two former presidents went on to exchange about 158 correspondences on a host of different topics. Adams’s famous last words on his death bed were: “Thomas Jefferson survives”.
Frequently asked questions about Thomas Jefferson
These FAQs provide an overview of Thomas Jefferson’s life, contributions, and legacy in American history.
When and where was he born?
This American founding father was born on April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, which is now part of Albemarle County.
What role did Thomas Jefferson play in the American Revolution?
Jefferson was a key figure in the American Revolution. He authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which declared the American colonies’ independence from British rule.
What were his political beliefs?
Jefferson was a proponent of limited government, individual liberty, and agrarianism. He believed in states’ rights and was a strong advocate for religious freedom.
What is Thomas Jefferson’s most famous achievement?
Thomas Jefferson’s most famous achievement is the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, which outlined the principles of liberty and equality upon which the United States was founded.
What did Thomas Jefferson do during his presidency?
As President from 1801 to 1809, Jefferson is known for the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which explored the newly acquired territory. He also reduced the national debt and advocated for a smaller federal government.
What is Monticello, and why is it significant?
Monticello is the name of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home in Virginia. It is significant as an architectural masterpiece and a reflection of Jefferson’s interests and ideas, including his love of horticulture and science.
Did Thomas Jefferson own slaves?
Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned enslaved people, and this is a complex aspect of his legacy. He advocated for the abolition of slavery but struggled to reconcile his beliefs with his personal life.
What was his role in founding the University of Virginia?
Jefferson is often referred to as the “Father of the University of Virginia” because he designed and founded the institution, which became a model for American higher education.
When did Thomas Jefferson die, and where is he buried?
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He is buried at Monticello, his Virginia estate.
As one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson will be remembered for devoting a great chunk of his career and life in service to the State of Virginia as well as to the budding United States of America. His selfless accomplishments with regard to democracy and civil liberties in general will forever be held dearly by generations to come.