Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at “Shadwell,” in Goochland (now in Albemarle) co., Va. The vicinity, which at that time was considered a western outpost, was to remain his lifelong home, and from boyhood he absorbed the democratic views of his Western countrymen. After graduating from the College of William and Mary (1762), he studied law under George Wythe.
In the colonial house of burgesses Jefferson was (1769–75) a leader of the patriot faction. He helped to form, and became a member of, the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, and in his paper A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), prepared for the First Virginia Convention, he brilliantly expounded the view that Parliament had no authority in the colonies and that the only bond with England was that of voluntary allegiance to the king. Although never effective as a public speaker, he won a reputation as a draftsman of resolutions and addresses.
A delegate to the Second Continental Congress (1775–76), he served as a member of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. That historic document, except for minor alterations by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and others made on the floor of Congress, was wholly the work of Jefferson. In spirit it reflects his debt to English political theorists, particularly John Locke, and to French and other continental philosophers.
Jefferson returned to the Virginia legislature in the hope of being able to translate his ideals into reality in the establishment of a new state government. He urged the abolition of entail and primogeniture to prevent the continuance of an aristocracy of wealth and birth; both practices were abolished, although primogeniture existed until 1785. His bill for establishing religious freedom, grounded in the belief that a person's opinions cannot be coerced, was not successful until 1786, when James Madison was able to carry part of the Jeffersonian program through to completion.
In 1779, Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as governor of Virginia. He served through the trying last years of the American Revolution when Virginia was invaded by the British, and, hampered by lack of financial and military resources, he experienced great difficulty. His conduct as governor was investigated in 1781, but he was completely vindicated.
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In 1783–84 he was again in the Continental Congress, where he drafted a plan for a decimal system of coinage based on the dollar and drew up a proposed ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory, which, although not then adopted, was the basis for the very important Ordinance of 1787. In 1785 he succeeded Franklin as minister to France, remaining to witness the beginning (1789) of the French Revolution, to which he gave his sympathetic interest. On the other hand, his unsuccessful attempt, with John Adams, to negotiate a trade treaty with England left him convinced of that country's essential selfishness. On his return he became (1790) Secretary of State.
Though absent when the Constitution was drafted and adopted, Jefferson gave his support to a stronger central government and to the Constitution, particularly with the addition of the Bill of Rights. He failed to realize the power that conservative spokesmen had attained in his absence, and he did not seem to be aware at first of the threat to agrarian interests posed by the measures advocated by Alexander Hamilton. He would call himself neither a Federalist nor an Anti-Federalist and was anxious to secure unity and cooperation in the new government.
Jefferson did not begin to differ with Hamilton until they clashed as to the best method to persuade England to release the Northwest Territory forts, which the British still held in violation of the Treaty of Paris of 1783. Jefferson favored the application of economic pressure by forbidding imports from England, but Hamilton objected, fearing that the resulting loss of revenue would endanger his plans for the nation's financial structure. Jefferson next opposed Hamilton by declaring against his Bank of the United States scheme on the ground that the Constitution did not specifically authorize it, rejecting the doctrine of “implied powers,” invoked by Hamilton's supporters. In both these encounters Hamilton, to Jefferson's chagrin, emerged the victor.
Fearing a return to monarchist ideals, if not to actual monarchy, Jefferson became virtual leader of the Anti-Federalist forces. He drew closer to himself a group of like-minded men who began to call themselves Republicans—a group to which the present Democratic party traces its origin. An organization was developed, and the National Gazette, edited by Philip Freneau, was established (1791) to disseminate Republican sentiments.
Jefferson and Hamilton, from being suspicious of each other, became openly antagonistic, and President George Washington was unable to reconcile them. In 1793, Jefferson left the cabinet. Later he bitterly criticized Jay's Treaty, which compromised the issues with Great Britain in ways outlined by Hamilton.
Jefferson's party was able to elect him Vice President in 1796, when that office was still filled by the person who ran second in the presidential race. He took little part in the administration but presided over the Senate and wrote A Manual of Parliamentary Practice (1801). His followers kept up their agitation and under Jefferson's skillful direction extended the party's following both territorially and numerically, while the Federalists drifted into dissension. The passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts immensely stimulated newspaper discussion, and Jefferson drafted, in protest against these laws, the Kentucky Resolutions (see Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions), the first statement of the states' rights interpretation of the Constitution.
President The Republicans triumphed easily at the polls in what is sometimes called “the Revolution of 1800.” Aaron Burr, however, who had been slated for the office of Vice President, was found to have tied Jefferson for President, and the choice was automatically left to the House of Representatives. Jefferson was elected after a long deadlock, largely because Hamilton advised the Federalists to support Jefferson as less dangerous than Burr.
Jefferson was the first President inaugurated in Washington, a city he had helped to plan (and where the Thomas Jefferson Memorial was dedicated in 1943). He instituted a republican simplicity in the new capital, cut expenditures in all branches of government, replaced Federalist appointees with Republicans, and sought to curb the powers of the judiciary, where he felt that the Federalists were attempting to entrench their philosophy. He believed that the Federal government should be concerned mostly with foreign affairs, leaving the states and local governments free to administer local matters.
Despite his contention that the Constitution must be interpreted strictly, he pushed through the Louisiana Purchase, even though such an action was nowhere expressly authorized. His eager interest in the West and in exploration had already led him to plan and organize the Lewis and Clark expedition. He held that West Florida was included in the Louisiana Purchase, but his attempts to secure Spanish recognition of this caused rifts in the party and made him the butt of sarcastic attacks by John Randolph in Congress.
During his second administration, however, the chief difficulties resulted from attacks on the neutral shipping of the United States by the warring powers of Britain and Napoleonic France. Jefferson placed his faith in diplomacy backed by economic pressure as represented first by the Nonimportation Act (1806) and then by the Embargo Act of 1807. To enforce them, unfortunately, meant the impoverishment of classes that had supported him and the infringement of that individual liberty he cherished. Shortly before he left office a rebellious people forced him to yield in his aims, although he maintained that the embargo had not been in effect long enough to achieve its objective.
After 1809, Jefferson lived in retirement at his beloved Monticello, although he often advised his successors, James Madison and James Monroe. One of his cherished ambitions was attained when he was able to bring about the founding of the Univ. of Virginia (see Virginia, University of). President of the American Philosophical Society (1797–1815), the learned Jefferson was a scientist, an architect, and a philosopher-statesman, vitally interested in literature, the arts, and every phase of human activity. He passionately believed that a people enlightened by education, which must be kept free, could under democratic-republican institutions govern themselves better than under any other system.