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Thomas Jefferson

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This article is about the United States president. For other uses, see Thomas Jefferson (disambiguation).
Thomas Jefferson
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale
3rd President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809
Vice President Aaron Burr (1801–1805)
George Clinton (1805–1809)
Preceded by John Adams
Succeeded by James Madison
2nd Vice President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801
President John Adams
Preceded by John Adams
Succeeded by Aaron Burr
1st United States Secretary of State
In office
March 22, 1790 – December 31, 1793
President George Washington
Preceded by John Jay (Acting)
Succeeded by Edmund Randolph
United States Minister to France
In office
May 17, 1785 – September 26, 1789
Appointed by Congress of the Confederation
Preceded by Benjamin Franklin
Succeeded by William Short
Delegate to the Congress of the Confederation from Virginia
In office
November 3, 1783 – May 7, 1784
Preceded by James Madison
Succeeded by Richard Henry Lee
2nd Governor of Virginia
In office
June 1, 1779 – June 3, 1781
Preceded by Patrick Henry
Succeeded by William Fleming
Delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Virginia
In office
June 20, 1775 – September 26, 1776
Preceded by George Washington
Succeeded by John Harvie
Personal details
Born (1743-04-13)April 13, 1743
Shadwell, Colony of Virginia, British America
Died July 4, 1826(1826-07-04) (aged 83)
Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.
Resting place "Monticello", Charlottesville, Virginia
Political party Democratic-Republican, (first Republican Party)
Spouse(s) Martha Wayles (m. 1772; died 1782)
Children 6, including Martha Jefferson Randolph and Mary Jefferson Eppes
Alma mater College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia
Profession Statesman, planter, lawyer, architect
Religion Christian deism
Signature Th: Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (April 13 [O.S. April 2] 1743 – July 4, 1826) was an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the third President of the United States (1801–1809). He was an ardent proponent of democracy and embraced the principles of republicanism and the rights of the individual. At the beginning of the American Revolution, he represented Virginia in the Continental Congress, and then served as a wartime Governor of Virginia (1779–1781). In May 1785, he became the United States Minister to France and later the first United States Secretary of State, (1790–1793), serving under President George Washington. At the formation of the First Party System in 1792–1793, Jefferson and James Madison, organized the Democratic-Republican Party in opposition to Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party. He was elected the second Vice President in 1796 in the administration of President John Adams. Jefferson secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1798-1799, which attempted to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by the Federalist-controlled United States Congress.

Jefferson was elected the third president in the election of 1800. After peace negotiations with France, the Republican administration reduced military forces. Three years later he waged a brief naval campaign against the Barbary Coast states in North Africa to defend American shipping. Jefferson purchased the vast western Louisiana Territory from Napoleonic France (1803), and sent out the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806) to explore the new West. His second term was beset with troubles at home, such as the failed treason trial former Vice President Aaron Burr. In response to British threats to American shipping jefferson signed the commerce embargo laws of 1807, which backfired on American foreign trade. In 1803, Jefferson initiated a process of Indian tribal removal to the newly organized Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River. In 1807, he signed into law the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves that banned slave importation into the United States.

A champion of the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was a polymath in the arts, sciences, and politics. He was a proven architect in the classical tradition, and designed his home Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, Virginia's state capitol and other important buildings. He was keenly interested in science, invention, architecture, religion, and philosophy, and served as president of the American Philosophical Society. Besides English, he was well versed in Latin and Greek, proficient in French, Italian, and Spanish, and studied other languages and linguistics.[1] He founded the University of Virginia after his presidency. Although not a strong orator, Jefferson was a skilled writer and corresponded with many influential people in America and Europe.

Jefferson consistently opposed slavery, yet owned hundreds of slaves and freed only a few of them. Historians generally believe that after the death of his wife Martha in 1782, Jefferson had a long-term relationship with his younger female slave, Sally Hemings, and fathered at least some of her children. The relationship may not have proceeded with her consent, as a slave, nor could she have effectively objected. Jefferson is in the aggregate ranked as the fifth most successful President.


Early life and career

Tuckahoe Plantation, Jefferson's childhood home for 7 years

The third of ten children, Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 (April 2, 1743 OS) at the family home in Shadwell, Virginia.[2] His father was Peter Jefferson, a planter and surveyor who died when Jefferson was fourteen. His mother was Jane Randolph, daughter of Isham Randolph, a ship's captain and sometime planter. Peter and Jane married in 1739.[3] He showed little interest in learning about his ancestry; on his father's side he only knew of the existence of his grandfather.[4][5][6][a] Jefferson's earliest memory was being handed to a slave on horseback and carried 50 miles away to their new home which overlooked the Rivanna River in current Albemarle County. Jefferson's facial appearance resembled that of his father, but his slim physical form resembled that of his mother's family.[4] He was of English, perhaps as well as Welsh descent.[5]

Before the widower William Randolph, an old friend of Peter Jefferson, died in 1745, he appointed Peter as guardian to manage his Tuckahoe Plantation and care for his four children. That year the Jeffersons relocated to Tuckahoe, where they lived for the next seven years before returning to Shadwell in 1752. Peter Jefferson died in 1757 and the Jefferson estate was divided between Peter's two sons, Thomas and Randolph.[7] Thomas inherited approximately 5,000 acres (2,000 ha; 7.8 sq mi) of land, including Monticello, and between 20 and 40 slaves. He took control of the property after he came of age at 21.[8]


Jefferson began his childhood education with the Randolph children under the direction of tutors at Tuckahoe.[9] In 1752, he began attending a local school run by a Scottish Presbyterian minister. At the age of nine, Jefferson initiated his study of Latin, Greek, and French; he learned to ride horses, and began nature studies. He was taught from 1758 to 1760 by Reverend James Maury near Gordonsville, Virginia while boarding with Maury's family and there studied history, science, and the classics.[10]

Wren Building (rear), College of William & Mary where Jefferson studied

At age 16, Jefferson entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy under Professor William Small. Small introduced him to the British Empiricists, including John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. He also improved his French, Greek, and his skill at the violin. Jefferson displayed an avid curiosity in all fields[11] and graduated in 1762, completing his studies in two years. Through Small he made the acquaintance of law professor George Wythe.[12] Jefferson read the law under the tutelage of Wythe to obtain his law license, while working as a law clerk in Wythe's office. He also read a wide variety of English classics and political works.

Jefferson treasured his books, and in 1770 his Shadwell home, including a library of 200 volumes inherited from his father, was destroyed by fire;[13] nevertheless, by 1773 he replenished his library with 1,250 titles, and in 1815 his collection had grown to almost 6,500 volumes, including some inherited from George Wythe.[14] Jefferson thus accumulated thousands of books for his library at Monticello. After the British burned the Library of Congress in 1814, Jefferson sold more than 6,000 books to the Library for $23,950. After realizing he was no longer in possession of such a grand collection, he wrote to John Adams, "I cannot live without books". He intended to pay off some of his large debt, yet started buying more books.[15] In honor of Jefferson's support, the Library of Congress' website for legislative information is named THOMAS.[16][17]

Marriage and family

On January 1, 1772 Jefferson married his third cousin Martha Wayles Skelton, the 23-year-old widow of Bathurst Skelton.[18][19] Their marriage took place at the house of Martha's father and was conducted by the Reverend William Coutts.[20] She was a frequent hostess for Jefferson, managed the large household and their joyful marriage is considered the happiest period of Jefferson's life.[21] Martha read widely, did fine needle work and was an skilled pianist; Jefferson, who was accomplished on the violin and cello, often accompanied her in music.[22] It is said that she was attracted to Thomas largely because of their mutual love of music.[23][24] During their ten years of marriage, Martha bore six children: Martha, called Patsy, (1772–1836); Jane (1774–1775); an unnamed son (1777); Mary Wayles, called Polly, (1778–1804); Lucy Elizabeth (1780–1781); and Lucy Elizabeth (1782–1785). Only Martha and Mary survived to adulthood.[25] After her father John Wayles died in 1773, Martha and her husband inherited 135 slaves, 11,000 acres (4,500 ha; 17 sq mi) and the debts of his estate. These took Jefferson and other co-executors of the estate years to satisfy, which contributed to his own financial problems.[18]

Later in life, Martha suffered from diabetes and ill health, and frequent childbirth further weakened her. A few months after the birth of her last child, she died on September 6, 1782, at the age of 33. Jefferson was at his wife's bedside and was distraught after her death. In the following three weeks, Jefferson shut himself in his room, where he paced back and forth until he was nearly exhausted. Later he would often take long rides on secluded roads to mourn for his wife.[25][26] Martha's mother had died young, and as a girl Martha lived with two stepmothers. Shortly before her death, she told Jefferson that she could not bear to have another mother raise her children, and pleaded with him to promise never to marry again. Jefferson made and kept this solemn promise.[27][28]


Further information: Monticello and Jeffersonian architecture
Jefferson's home, Monticello

In 1768, Jefferson began construction of his primary residence Monticello (Italian for "Little Mountain") on a hilltop overlooking a 5,000 acre plantation.[b] Construction was done mostly by local masons and carpenters, appreciably assisted by Jefferson's slaves.[30] He moved into the South Pavilion (an outbuilding) in 1770, where his wife Martha joined him in 1772. Turning Monticello into a neoclassical masterpiece in the Palladian style was his perennial project.[31]

Jefferson mastered architecture on his own, from various books and classical architectural designs of the day. His primary authority was Andrea Palladio's The Four Books of Architecture, which exposed him to the principles of classical design.[32][33] While serving as Minister to France, Jefferson had the opportunity to survey the foremost classical buildings he had reviewed in his reading, as well the "modern" trends in French architecture then fashionable in Paris. After working as Secretary of State (1790–93), he began rebuilding Monticello based on the concepts he had acquired in Europe. The remodeling continued throughout most of his presidency, the most notable change being the octagonal dome.[34][35]

Lawyer and House of Burgesses

House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, VA where Jefferson served 1769–1775.

Jefferson was admitted to the bar of the General Court of Virginia in 1767 and then lived with his mother at Shadwell.[36] His law practice included clients from his mother's family, the Randolphs.[37] His work took him up and down the Shenandoah Valley from Staunton to Winchester.[38] In the fire at Shadwell he also lost his legal papers and notes for the coming term of court, and though he was frantic, George Wythe consoled him with a line from Virgil, "Carry on, and preserve yourselves for better times."[39]

While practicing law, Jefferson represented Albemarle County as a delegate in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 until 1775.[40] Jefferson proved more willing to reform slavery in his early career than later when he became a slaveholder. In 1769 he initiated an effort to enact legislation allowing masters to assume full control over the emancipation of slaves, taking the discretion away from the royal Governor and his General Court. Jefferson had persuaded his cousin Richard Bland to take the lead, but the reaction in the House was strongly negative. He recalled Bland was "treated with the grossest indecorum."[41]

Jefferson worked on a number of lawsuits on behalf of slaves seeking their freedom.[42] He took the case of Samuel Howell without charging him a fee.[43] Howell, of inter-racial grandparents, claimed he should be freed without waiting until the statutory age of thirty-one required for emancipation in such a case. Jefferson, using natural law, argued, "everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person and using it at his own will ... This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because it is necessary for his own sustenance." This was Jefferson's first known natural law statement made in public—an idea that he would later use in the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, the judge hearing the case abruptly cut him off and ruled against his client.[44] As a consolation, Jefferson gave Howell some money, presumably used to aid his escape shortly thereafter.[43]

Although earlier discouraged, smallpox inoculation began in 1768–1769 in Norfolk County, Virginia, and precipitated riots. Jefferson defended the riots' victims, including Dr. Archibald Campbell whose house was burned. Jefferson, himself inoculated at age 23, gave up his law practice before the case was resolved, but later served on a General Assembly committee which sought to reduce the 1769 restrictions on the inoculations.[45]

Following the passage of the Intolerable Acts by the British Parliament in 1774, Jefferson wrote a resolution against the acts calling for The day of Fasting and Prayer in protest, and soliciting the help of Reverend Charles Clay. The resolution also called for a boycott of all British goods. These were later expanded into A Summary View of the Rights of British America, in which he expressed his belief that people had the right to govern themselves.[46]

Political career 1775–1800

Declaration of Independence

U.S. Declaration of Independence - 1823 facsimile of the engrossed copy

Jefferson served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress beginning in 1775 soon after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.[47] He sought out John Adams who, along with his cousin Samuel, had emerged as a leader of the Congress.[48] Jefferson and Adams established a permanent friendship which led to Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence. When Congress adopted the Lee Resolution of independence in July 1776, Adams supported Jefferson's appointment to the Committee of Five formed to write the formal declaration in furtherance of the resolution.[49] After discussing the general outline of the document, the committee decided that Jefferson would write the first draft. The committee in general, and Jefferson in particular, thought Adams should write the document, but Adams persuaded the committee to choose Jefferson. Though he was reluctant to take the assignment, he agreed and Adams promised to consult with him upon completion.[c]

Consulting with other committee members over the next seventeen days, Jefferson also drew on his own proposed draft of the Virginia Constitution, George Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and other sources.[50] The other committee members made some changes; most notably, Jefferson had written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable..." which Franklin changed to read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."[51] A final draft was presented to the Congress on June 28, 1776.

Congress debated the Declaration and deleted nearly a fourth of the text, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade.[52] While Jefferson resented the changes, he did not speak publicly about the revisions. [d] On July 4, 1776, the Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence and the delegates signed the document on August 2. The Declaration was considered one of Jefferson's major achievements; his preamble is considered an enduring statement of human rights.[52] All men are created equal has been called "one of the best-known sentences in the English language" containing "the most potent and consequential words in American history".[54] The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive–a view was notably promoted by Abraham Lincoln.[55]

Jefferson viewed the independence of the American people from the mother country Britain as breaking away from "parent stock", and that the War of Independence from Britain was a natural outcome of being separated by the Atlantic Ocean.[56] In Jefferson's view, English colonists were compelled to rely on "common sense" and rediscover the "laws of nature".[56] he also maintained the Independence of the original British colonies was part of a historical pattern following a similar divergence when the Saxons colonized Britain and left their mother country Europe hundreds of years earlier.[56]

Virginia state legislator and Governor

After the colonies declared their Independence, Jefferson returned to Virginia and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for Albemarle County in September 1776.[57][58] Before his return, he commented on the drafting of the state's constitution, saying he supported freehold suffrage, by which only property holders could vote. For nearly three years, he worked on committees writing laws for Virginia. He was especially proud of the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.[59] He served as a Delegate until 1779, as the war continued. He also wanted to disestablish the Anglican church in Virginia, but this was not done until 1786, while he was in France as US Minister.[60] After Thomas Ludwell Lee died in 1778 Jefferson was given the task of studying and revising the state's laws. Jefferson drafted 126 bills in three years, including laws to establish fee simple tenure in land and to streamline the judicial system. Jefferson's statutes abolished primogeniture and provided for general education, which he considered the basis of "republican government."[57] His "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" led to some small changes at the College of William & Mary, and reduced control by clergy.[61]

Governor's Palace - Governor Jefferson's residence in Williamsburg

In 1779, at the age of thirty-six, Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia by the two houses of the legislature for a term of one year; he was re-elected for an additional year.[62] As governor in 1780, he transferred the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond. A range of liberal measures were also introduced by Jefferson during his time as Governor of Virginia, including public education, inheritance laws, and religious freedom.[63] Jefferson served as a wartime governor, as the united colonies continued the Revolutionary War against Great Britain. He prepared Richmond in 1780 for an attack, by moving all military supplies to a foundry located five miles outside of town. In January 1781 General Benedict Arnold captured the foundry during his invasion of Richmond. Jefferson called for the Virginia militia to defend the city, but when the defense arrived, led by Sampson Mathews, it was too late to prevent the siege.[64] Jefferson evacuated Richmond as the armies engaged.[65]

Cornwallis that spring dispatched a 250-man cavalry force commanded by Banastre Tarleton on a secret expedition to capture Governor Jefferson and members of the Assembly at Monticello[15] but Jack Jouett of the Virginia militia thwarted the British plan by warning them. Jefferson escaped to Poplar Forest, his plantation to the west.[66] Jefferson believed his gubernatorial term had expired in June, and he spent much of the summer with his family at Poplar Forest.[67] His tenure as governor in general, and his decision to flee the capital in particular, has been severely criticized.[68] The members of the General Assembly quickly reconvened in June 1781 in Staunton, Virginia across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and considered an official inquiry into Jefferson's actions, as they believed he had failed his responsibilities as governor. Jefferson was not re-elected.[58] In that year also his daughter Lucy died at age one. (A second daughter of that name was born the following year but died as well at age 3.)[69]

Notes on the State of Virginia

In 1780, Jefferson received questions about the geography, history and government of Virginia from French diplomat François Barbé-Marbois, who was gathering data on the United States. Jefferson included his written responses in a book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).[70] Jefferson compiled the book over five years; he included a discussion scientific knowledge, Virginia's history, politics, laws, culture and geography. Jefferson was aided by Thomas Walker, George R. Clark, and geographer Thomas Hutchins.[71] The book is Jefferson's argument about what constitutes a good society, which he believed was embodied in Virginia. It also included extensive data about the state's natural resources and its economy. He wrote extensively about slavery, miscegenation and his belief that blacks and whites could not live together as free people in one society because of resentments over slavery.[72][73] He also expressed that "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had chosen a people."[74][75] In 1785 Jefferson's Notes‍ '​ was anonymously published in Paris in a limited edition of a few hundred copies. Its first public English-language edition, issued by John Stockdale in London, appeared in 1787.[76]

Member of Congress

Independence Hall Assembly Room where Jefferson served in Congress.

Following its victory in the Revolutionary War and peace treaty with Great Britain in 1783, the United States formed a Continental Congress to which Jefferson was appointed as a Virginia delegate. As a member of the committee setting foreign exchange rates, he recommended that American currency should be based on the decimal system and his plan was adopted.[77] Jefferson also recommended setting up the Committee of the States, an idea he introduced in 1776 to be used when Congress was in recess,[78] to function as the executive arm of Congress. When Congress adjourned the following June, the Committee met but within two months disagreements divided the members. Jefferson learned of the ordeal while in France, and spoke to Franklin who compared the Committee to a needed light house and its members to a raging sea, rendering it inaccessible and dysfunctional.[79]

In the 1783–84 session of the Continental Congress Jefferson acted as chairman of several important committees, to establish a viable system of government for the new Republic, and a policy for the settlement of the western territories. Jefferson was the principal author of the Land Ordinance of 1784 whereby Virginia ceded the vast area it claimed northwest of the Ohio River to the national government. He insisted this territory not be used as colonial territory by any of the thirteen states, but that it be divided into sections where each could eventually become states.[80] He plotted borders for nine new states in its initial stages and also wrote an ordinance banning slavery in all the nation's territories. Congress made extensive revisions including rejection of the ban of slavery. Jefferson thought that Congress had "mutilated" his work, but accepted the majority's changes.[81][82] The provisions for ban on slavery, known later as the Jefferson Proviso, were modified and implemented three years later in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and became the law for the entire Northwest.[81]

Minister to France

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson while in London in 1786, by Mather Brown

Jefferson was sent by the Confederation Congress[e] to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as ministers in Europe for negotiation of trade agreements with England, Spain, and France. Some believed the recently widowed Jefferson was depressed and that the assignment would distract him from his wife's death.[83] Taking his young daughter Patsy and two servants, they departed from Boston in July of 1784 and arrived in Paris the next month.[80][84] Jefferson taught himself to read and write Spanish during the nineteen-day voyage, using a copy of Don Quixote.[85]

Four days after his arrival, Jefferson rode out to Passy to greet Franklin.[86] When the French foreign minister, the Count de Vergennes, commented to Jefferson, "You replace Monsieur Franklin, I hear," Jefferson replied, "I succeed him. No man can replace him."[87][88] Franklin resigned as minister to France in March 1785, and departed in July after a ceremony at Passy.[89]

Jefferson had Patsy educated at the Pentemont Abbey; he taught her French and helped her with her studies. In January 1785, Lafayette arrived from America and informed Jefferson his daughter Lucy had recently died of whooping cough.[90] His two youngest daughters were in the care of friends in the United States.[15] To serve the household, Jefferson brought some of his slaves, including James Hemings, whom he had trained as a French chef.[91]

In 1786, Jefferson, through his artist friend John Trumbull, met and fell in love with Maria Cosway, an accomplished, and married, Italian-English musician of 27. They saw each other frequently over a period of six weeks. She returned to Great Britain, but they maintained a lifelong correspondence.[92] Jefferson sent for his youngest surviving child, nine-year-old Polly, in June 1787. She was accompanied by Sally Hemings, a slave and younger sister of James. That year he suffered a fall and fractured his right wrist, requiring him to write with his left hand, at least for a time.[93]

While in France he became a regular companion of Lafayette, who used his influence to help Jefferson procure trade agreements with France. Duties on whale oil were removed, and Jefferson directed more of the tobacco trade directly to France eliminating British intermediaries.[94][95] He often dined with many of the city's prominent people, and stocked up on wines to take back to the United States.[96] Jefferson corresponded with many pivotal supporters of the French Revolution including the Comte de Mirabeau, a popular pamphleteer who repeated ideals that had been the basis for the American Revolution.[97][98] Jefferson wrote a letter to Edward Carrington expressing similar concepts he held of the natural tendencies of government and its relationship to the people, saying in one instance, "the natural process of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground."[99]

France was on the brink of Revolution, and Jefferson allowed his Paris residence, the Hôtel de Langeac, to be used as a meeting place by Lafayette and other republicans; he was in Paris during the storming of the Bastille.[100] Jefferson often found his mail opened and inspected by various postmasters, so he began to write his important messages using a code, and invented his own enciphering device, the "Wheel Cipher".[101] Jefferson continued to write his important communications in codes throughout his career.[102] Jefferson left Paris in September 1789,[103] but was prevented from returning by his appointment as the nation's chief diplomat.[104] He remained a firm supporter of the Revolution, although he was opposed to some of its very violent and bloody elements.[105]

Secretary of State

Thomas Jefferson
Portrait by Charles Peale, 1791

Soon after Jefferson's return from France, he accepted President Washington's invitation to serve as Secretary of State.[106] In his new position, Jefferson strongly opposed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on issues of national fiscal policy, especially the funding of war debts.[107] He later associated Hamilton's Federalist Party with "Royalism," and said the "Hamiltonians were panting after ... crowns, coronets and mitres."[108]

The first major issues to come before the Cabinet were the national debt and the permanent location of the capital. Jefferson had always opposed the mounting debt. Hamilton, desirous of the national government consolidating the States' debts, proposed his Assumption bill to which Jefferson found objection.[109] They also differed on the permanent location of the capital. Hamilton wanted the capital close to the major centers of commerce in the Northeast, whereas Washington and Jefferson, along with the agricultural south, wanted it located further away. After much deliberation, the Compromise of 1790 was struck at a private dinner including Madison. Under the terms of this agreement, the nation's capital was located on the Potomac River, and the federal government assumed the war debts of all 13 states.[110]

Blockading British frigates[f]captured U.S. merchants trading with France while Jefferson was Secretary of State

In May 1792 Jefferson was alarmed at the political rivalries taking shape, and wrote to Washington, urging him to run for re-election as a unifying influence, "The confidence of the whole nation is centred in you. You being at the helm will be more than an answer to every argument which can be used to alarm and lead the people, in any quarter, into violence or secession."[111] He entreated the president to rally the citizenry to a party that would defend democracy against the corrupting influence of banks and monied interests, as espoused by the Federalists. Historians recognize this letter as articulating the principles of the Democratic-Republican Party.[112] In their opposition to Hamilton, Jefferson and other Democratic-Republican organizers favored states' rights and local control, and sought to prevent concentration of power in a central government.[113] He worked with Madison and his campaign manager John J. Beckley to strengthen the party.

The French minister Citizen Genet said in 1793: "Senator Morris and Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton ... had the greatest influence over the President's mind, and that it was only with difficulty that he [Jefferson] counterbalanced their efforts."[114] Jefferson supported France against Britain when they fought in 1793.[115] Jefferson believed that political success at home depended on the success of the French army in Europe. His views on the violence associated with the French Revolution were mixed, as he sometimes expressed support but opposed its more brutal elements.

During his discussions with George Hammond, first British Minister to the U.S. from 1791, Jefferson tried unsuccessfully to obtain British agreement, 1) to acknowledge their violation the Treaty of Paris, 2) to vacate their posts in the Northwest and 3) to compensate the United States for slaves whom the British had freed and evacuated at the end of the war. In keeping with a passion for his private life, Jefferson resigned the cabinet position in December 1793. He is also said to have considered it an opportune time to bolster his political influence outside the administration. Future developments indeed bore that out.[116]

From his base at Monticello, he organized nationwide opposition to the Jay Treaty of 1794, thereby giving his party a bona fide cause to harness in combatting the Federalists.[117] The treaty was designed by Hamilton and supported by Washington; it aimed to reduce tensions and enhance friendly relations as well as trade with Britain. Jefferson warned that it would increase British influence and subvert republicanism, saying, “Thus it is, that Hamilton, Jay, etc., in the boldest act they ever ventured on to undermine the government...A bolder party stroke was never struck.”[118] The Treaty passed, but he made sure it was not renewed when it expired in 1805. Jefferson continued his pro-French stance; during the violence of the Reign of Terror in France, he declined to disavow the revolution because "To back away from France would be to undermine the cause of republicanism in America."[119]

Election of 1796 and Vice Presidency

1796 Electoral College Vote

After the presidential campaign of 1796 Jefferson lost the electoral college vote to Federalist John Adams by 71–68, and so he was elected as Vice President. He initially intended to forego the swearing in ceremony, which he thought monarchical, but relented.[120] As the presiding officer of the senate, Jefferson assume a more passive role than Adams had as Vice President. He allowed the Senate to freely conduct debates and confined his activity to deciding issues of procedure which resulted in a position that was "honorable and easy" for him. Jefferson was concerned about its lack of rules concerning decisions made by the presiding officer. Years before holding his first office, Jefferson had spent much time researching procedures and rules for governing bodies. As a student he had studied parliamentary law and procedure for almost forty years, and had transcribed notes on parliamentary law into a manual which he entitled Parliamentary Pocket Book, making him very qualified to preside over the Senate.[121] Jefferson had also served on the committee appointed to draw up the rules of order for the Continental Congress in 1776. As Vice President, he was ready to reform Senatorial procedures.

U.S. clashed with France in the Quasi-War with France prompting the Alien and Sedition Acts.

With the Quasi-War underway, the Federalists under John Adams started rebuilding the military, levied new taxes, and enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson believed that these acts were intended to suppress Democratic-Republicans rather than dangerous enemy aliens, although the acts were allowed to expire. Jefferson and Madison rallied opposition support by anonymously writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which formed the basis of State's rights, declaring that the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it by the states.[122] Though the resolutions followed the "interposition" approach of Madison, Jefferson advocated nullification. At one point he drafted a threat for Kentucky to secede.[g]

In writing the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson warned that, "unless arrested at the threshold," the Alien and Sedition Acts would "necessarily drive these states into revolution and blood."[123] The theoretical damage of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions was "deep and lasting, and was a recipe for disunion". George Washington was so appalled by them that he told Patrick Henry that if "systematically and pertinaciously pursued", they would "dissolve the union or produce coercion."[124] The influence of Jefferson's doctrine of states' rights reverberated to the Civil War and beyond.[125][126] In the spring of 1797, he held four confidential talks with the French consul Joseph Letombe. In these private meetings, Jefferson attacked Adams, predicted that he would only serve one term, and encouraged France to invade England. Jefferson advised Letombe to stall any American envoys sent to Paris by instructing him to "listen to them and then drag out the negotiations at length and mollify them by the urbanity of the proceedings." This toughened the tone that the French government adopted with the new Adams Administration. Due to pressure against the Adams Administration from Jefferson and his supporters, Congress released the papers related to the XYZ Affair, which rallied a shift in popular opinion from Jefferson and the French government to supporting Adams.[126]

Election of 1800

1800 Electoral college vote

During the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson worked closely with Aaron Burr, and after rallying support for his party Jefferson, along with Burr, received votes from a majority of the electors, but Jefferson and Burr were tied (the electoral voting at the time did not distinguish between President and Vice President). Therefore, the election was decided in the outgoing Congress, by the Federalist-dominated House of Representatives.

Though the Federalists opposed both Jefferson and Burr to be president, Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalists, convinced his party that Jefferson would be a lesser political evil than Burr and that such scandal within the electoral process would undermine the new constitution.[h]

In 1801 Jefferson negotiated with a moderate Federalist representative from Delaware, James Asheton Bayard II, through Maryland representative, Samuel Smith, to secure Bayard's support in breaking the electoral college deadlock.[127]

On February 17, 1801, after thirty-six ballots, the House elected Jefferson President and Burr Vice President.[128] Jefferson owed his election victory to the South's inflated number of Electors, which counted slaves under the three-fifths compromise.[129][130]

Presidency 1801–1809

Field Portrait of Jefferson 1800

Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office on March 4, 1801, at a time when partisan strife between the Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties was growing to alarming proportions. Jefferson was sworn in by Chief Justice John Marshall at the new Capitol in Washington DC. In contrast to the preceding president John Adams, Jefferson exhibited a dislike of formal etiquette. Unlike Washington, who arrived at his inauguration in a stagecoach drawn by six horses, Jefferson arrived alone on horseback without guard or escort. He was dressed in plain attire and, after dismounting, retired his own horse to the nearby stable.[131]

When Jefferson assumed office he was facing an $83 million national debt.[132] Regarded by his supporters as the 'People's President' news of Jefferson's election was well received in many parts of the new country and was marked by celebrations throughout the Union. After his election some of his political opponents referred to him as the "Negro President", with critics like the Mercury and New-England Palladium of Boston stating that Jefferson had the gall to celebrate his election as a victory for democracy when he won "the temple of Liberty on the shoulders of slaves."[130] As a result of his two predecessors' administrations, as well as the state of events in Europe, Jefferson inherited the presidency with relatively few urgent problems.

During Jefferson's first term of Republican governance he immediately began to dismantle Hamilton's Federalist fiscal system. His Secretary of Treasury, Albert Gallatin, claimed that "if this administration shall not reduce taxes, they never will be permanently reduced."[133] The Swiss born Gallatin was Jefferson's most valued administrator and a critic of Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policy.[134] Jefferson's administration began by eliminating the whiskey excise and all other federal internal taxes, claiming that closing "unnecessary offices", as well as cutting "useless establishments and expenses", allowed for the discontinuation of internal taxes.[135][136] Jefferson and his administration also attempted to dismantle the national bank fearing its central role in increasing the national debt, along with much of the Navy as being unnecessary during peacetime, opting instead to building only gunboats for harbor and river defenses, but was only partially successful.[137] With the exception the Attorney General office, the harmony of Jefferson's Cabinet remained stable for his eight years of presidency.[134] Jefferson nominated moderate Republicans including James Madison Secretary of State, Henry Dearborn Secretary of War, Levi Lincoln Attorney General, and Robert Smith Secretary of Navy.[134]

First Barbary War

Main article: First Barbary War
Map. Barbary Coast of North Africa 1806.
Barbary Coast of North Africa 1806. Map left is Morocco at Gibraltar, center map is Tunis; right, Tripoli stretches east

The First Barbary War was the only declared war that occurred during Jefferson's two terms as president and it marked the first war the United States engaged in on foreign soil and seas.[138] Before Independence, American merchant ships were protected from the Barbary pirates by the naval and diplomatic influence of Great Britain.[139] Then for decades, North African pirates captured American merchant ships, pillaging valuable cargoes and enslaving crew members, demanding huge ransoms for their release.[140] Jefferson had opposed paying tribute to the Barbary States since as far back as 1785.[140]

Before being elected President, Jefferson had opposed funds for a Navy to be used for anything more than a coastal defense, but the continued pirate attacks and the systematic kidnapping of American crew members could no longer be ignored. Two months into Jefferson's office on May 15 the Presidential cabinet voted unanimously to send a fleet of three frigates and a schooner to the Mediterranean under the command of Richard Dale with orders to make a show of force but opt for peace; but Tripoli had already declared war upon the United States.[141] The fleet became the first American naval squadron to cross the Atlantic. The American navy had forced Tunis and Algiers into breaking their alliance with Tripoli which ultimately moved it out of the war. Jefferson also ordered five separate naval bombardments of Tripoli, which restored peace in the Mediterranean for a while,[142] although Jefferson continued to pay the remaining Barbary States until the end of his presidency.[143]

Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana Purchase approximate outline in black. In the early 1800s Mississippi and Ohio Valley trade flowed south to New Orleans in the Purchase territory
Main article: Louisiana Purchase

In 1802, Jefferson had arranged for the purchase of the city of New Orleans and adjacent coastal areas. Napoleon I offered to sell the entire territory for $15 million.[144] Most contemporaries thought that this was an exceptional opportunity, apart from any Constitutional reservations.[145] The Purchase territory proved to be one of the largest fertile tracts of land on the planet, and it marked the end of French imperial ambitions in North America which were potentially in conflict with American expansion west; France was removed as a threat to the United States.[146]

The achievement of the Louisiana Purchase was domestically complicated by the pre-existing establishment of French slaveholders there. Faced with the option to confiscate the slaves of French nationals, Jefferson chose to quickly incorporate resident settlers politically into U.S. territories, allowing for slavery to continue in the newly acquired territory and the adoption of the Code Napoleon. Since the Purchase, historians have differed in their assessments regarding constitutional and slavery issues, but Jefferson is considered as a major architect of America's western growth.[147]

Lewis and Clark and other expeditions

Clark's map of the expedition route to the Pacific Ocean depicting rivers, mountains and locations of Indian tribes.

After the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson needed the mostly unknown part of the continent explored and mapped for expanding westward settlement and trade. It was important to establish a U.S. claim before competing Europeans, and perhaps to find the long-sought-for Northwest passage.[148] Knowledge of the western continent was limited to what had been learned from trappers, traders and explorers.[149] Influenced by exploration accounts by Le Page du Pratz on Louisiana (1763) and Captain James Cook to the Pacific (1784),[150] Jefferson along with the American Philosophical Society persuaded Congress in 1804 to fund an expedition to explore and map the newly acquired territory to the Pacific Ocean.[151]

President Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead the Corps of Discovery, to explore and document scientific and geographic knowledge.[152] Lewis had extensive military woodlands experience and proved an apt student of the sciences of mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, and astronomy/navigation.[149] Lewis and Clark recruited their company of 45 men and spent a winter preparing near St. Louis.[153] Guided by Sacagawea and various Native-American tribes along the way, the expedition traced the Columbia River and reached the Pacific Ocean by November 1805. They returned to St. Louis September 23, 1806, having lost only one man to disease. The expedition obtained a wealth of scientific and geographic knowledge, including knowledge of the many Indian tribes.[154]

In addition to the Corps of Discovery, Jefferson organized three other western exploration expeditions including the William Dunbar and George Hunter expedition on the Ouachita River (1804–1805), the Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis expedition (1806) on the Red River, and the Zebulon Pike expedition (1806–1807) into the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest.[155] All of the exploration expeditions sent out under Jefferson's presidency produced valuable information about the American frontier and wilderness.[155]

West Point

Ideas for a national institution for military education were circulated during the American Revolution. In May 1801 the Secretary of War Henry Dearborn announced that the president had appointed Major Jonathan Williams, grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, to direct organizing to establish such a school.[156]

Following the advice of George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others,[157] in 1802 Jefferson and Congress agreed to authorize the funding and construction of the United States Military Academy at West Point on the Hudson River in New York.

On March 16, 1802, Jefferson signed the Military Peace Establishment Act, directing that a corps of engineers be established and "constitute a Military Academy." The Act would provide well-trained officers for a professional army. On July 4, 1802, the US Military Academy at West Point formally started as an institution for scientific and military learning.

Native American policy

BEP Engraved portrait of Jefferson

As governor of Virginia (1780–1781) during the Revolutionary War, Jefferson recommended forcibly moving Cherokee and Shawnee tribes that fought on the British side to lands west of the Mississippi River. Later, as president, Jefferson proposed in private letters beginning in 1803 a policy that under Andrew Jackson would be called Indian removal, under an act passed in 1830.[158] As president, he made a deal with elected officials of the state of Georgia: if Georgia would release its legal claims to "discovery" in lands to its west, the U.S. military would help expel the Cherokee people from Georgia. His deal violated an existing treaty between the United States government and the Cherokee Nation, which guaranteed its people the right to their historic lands.[158] Jefferson believed that Natives should give up their own cultures, religions, and lifestyles to assimilate to western European culture and a European-style agriculture, which was more efficient.[158][159] He believed that assimilation of Native Americans into the European-American economy would make them more dependent on trade, and that they would eventually be willing to give up land that they would otherwise not part with, in exchange for trade goods or to resolve unpaid debts.[160] In keeping with his trade and acculturation policy, Jefferson kept Benjamin Hawkins as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southeastern peoples, who became known as the Five Civilized Tribes for their adoption of European-American ways.

Jefferson believed assimilation was best for Native Americans; second best was removal to the west. He felt the worst outcome of the cultural and resources conflict between European Americans and Native Americans would be their attacking the whites.[161] He told his Secretary of War, General Henry Dearborn (Indian affairs were then under the War Department): "if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi."[162] With the colonial and native civilizations in collision, compounded by British incitement of Indian tribes and mounting hostilities between the two peoples, Jefferson's administration took quick measures to avert another major conflict. His deal with Georgia was related to later measures to relocate the various Indian tribes to points further west.[158]

Refused Haitian recognition

Jefferson refused to diplomatically recognize Haiti, founded in 1804 as the second republic in the world, after its successful slave revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Fearing the success of the "slave republic" would rouse the American South's slaves to rebellion, Jefferson supported an arms and trade embargo against Haiti.[163] But during the Haitian revolution, when Jefferson had wanted to discourage French efforts in 1802–1803 at regaining control (and rebuilding their empire in North America), he had allowed arms and contraband goods to reach Saint-Domingue.[164]

New England, Burr–Wilkinson conspiracies

Further information: Burr–Hamilton duel and Burr conspiracy
Aaron Burr mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804

Frustrated at Jefferson's Republican Party national dominance, a few New England Federalists in 1804 launched a misguided effort to secede northern states from the rest of the Union. [165] Aaron Burr, Jefferson's Vice President, then running for governor of New York, showed interest in and accepted their views, however, Burr lost the election and the New England conspiracy came to nothing.[166]

On July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr mortally wounded Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton in a duel at Weehawken. Jefferson replaced Burr with George Clinton of New York on the 1804 ticket. Burr immediately made plans for a military adventure, headed west plotting to separate the Western territories from the United States.[167] [168]

International tensions surrounding the Spanish in North America preoccupied much of 1805 for the Jefferson administration, revolving around the exact boundaries of the Louisiana Territory with Mexico, and the fate of the Floridas, which Spain refused to cede to the United States.[169] Into this tinderbox strode Aaron Burr, in 1806 spreading numerous rumors of military adventurism, recruiting men, stocking arms and building boats on the upper Ohio River. Joining Burr in the conspiracy was U.S. General and Louisiana Territory governor, appointed by Jefferson, James Wilkinson who acted as a spy for Spain.[170] [171] Burr's plan included the capture of New Orleans, invading Mexico, and uniting the Western part of the United States with the conquered country, all done by an army led by Wilkinson.[172] For obscure self-interested reasons Wilkinson renounced the plot and reported to Jefferson from New Orleans by letter of Burr's treachery. [170] In November Jefferson issued a proclamation warning that persons including "citizens of the United States" were conspiring to take over Spanish territory.[173]

Jefferson sought a law from Congress authorizing him to act, employing the land or naval forces of the U.S. "in cases of insurrection", and in his message to Congress on January 22, 1807, Jefferson declared Burr's "guilt is placed beyond question". By late March 1807, Burr was under arrest, but he was acquitted in a treason trial. Wilkinson, who barely escaped indictment, had deleted from documents submitted to the court of his earlier duplicity and collaboration with Burr. [170] Jefferson did not appear in person to answer Chief Justice John Marshall's subpoena to testify, but sent relevant documents instead, setting a precedent for executive privilege. Burr's acquittal enraged Jefferson, but Burr's career was at an end.[174] Jefferson removed Wilkinson from territorial governor but retained Wilkinson in the U.S. military. [170]


1804 Electoral college vote

Because of his success and popularity during his first term Jefferson was nominated by the Republican congressional caucus in February 1804 for a second term as president.[175] For Jefferson's second term, Burr was replaced as Jefferson's running mate following Burr's duel with and subsequent death of Hamilton in July 1804. Jefferson offered no testimonial or wrote any letter of tribute for Hamilton, his political enemy, and believed a "dignified silence" was best at this time. Jefferson chose George Clinton, also of New York but without the usual gentry family and connections. The Federalist caucus ran Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, who had been John Adam's vice presidential candidate four years before. Jefferson-Clinton won overwhelmingly 162 electoral college votes to 14, running on issues of lower taxes, booming prosperity, and the Louisiana Purchase.[176]

The domestic political split in Jefferson's own party came from fellow Virginian John Randolph of Roanoke in March 1806. Jefferson and Madison backed resolutions to limit or ban British imports in retaliation for British depredations against American shipping. Jefferson's Secretary of Treasury proposed spending $20 million in roads and canals in infrastructure, leading to the National Road west from Maryland. Randolph held that Jefferson had gone too far in a Federalist direction, building a congressional caucus of "Quids", from Latin tertium quid, "a third something", calling for a purity in republican principles and roundly denouncing both Jefferson and Madison.[177]

A handwritten check made out to and signed by Jefferson (during his second term as President)

Jefferson's popularity further suffered in his second term due to problems related to wars in Europe. Relations with Great Britain had always been bad, due partly to the violent personal antipathy between Jefferson and the British Ambassador, Anthony Merry. After Napoleon's decisive victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, Napoleon became much more aggressive in his negotiations over trading rights, and American efforts failed. Jefferson responded with the Embargo Act of 1807, directed at both France and Great Britain. This triggered economic chaos in the US and was strongly criticized at the time, resulting in Jefferson abandoning the policy a year later.[178]

Following the Revolution all the states abolished the international slave trade, but South Carolina had reopened it. Jefferson awaited the results of his second term mid-term elections, and on his annual message of December 1806 he denounced the "violations of human rights" attending the international slave trade, calling on the newly elected Congress to criminalize it on the first day possible.[179] In 1807, congress passed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which Jefferson signed into effect January 1, 1808.[180][181] While the act established severe punishment against the international trade, it did not regulate the domestic slave trade.

Attempted annexation of Florida

John Randolph led Tertium quids opposition to Jefferson.

Riding on the popularity of his successful Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson confidently desired to annex Florida from Spain brokered by Emperor Napoleon.[182] In an attempt to secure annexation Jefferson authorized Congress to secretly appropriate money, known as the $2,000,000 bill, for the project.[182] The Congressional funding however drew criticism from Jefferson's opposition in the House Republican representative John Randolph, who believed the money would wind up in coffers of Napoleon.

The bill was signed into law by Jefferson, however, negotiations failed and the funded project fell though. The $2,000,000 bill and the failure to acquire Florida caused Jefferson to lose clout among fellow Republicans while Jefferson's use of unofficial Congressional channels remained unpopular.[182] Although Jefferson retained Republican leadership the unity and trust among Republicans declined.[182]

Chesapeake–Leopard Affair

Jefferson tried to prepare for war following the HMS Leopard attack on the USS Chesapeake off the Virginia coast in June 1807. He issued a proclamation banning armed British ships from entering U.S. waters. He then unilaterally without Congressional prior approval called on the governors of the states to prepare quotas for a total of 100,000 militia, and he ordered purchase of arms, ammunition, and supplies. Said the former Virginia governor who had fled Tarlton without calling out Virginia militia during the Revolution, "The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation [than strict observance of written laws]". The USS Revenge sent to receive an answer from the British government was itself fired upon, including its passenger, Vice President George Clinton. July 31, 1807 Jefferson called for a special session of Congress in October to prepare for war, embargo or do nothing. Jefferson hoped for embargo.[183]

In December news arrived of Napoleon extending the Berlin Decree banning British imports everywhere, including the U.S. In Britain, George III ordered redoubling efforts at impressment including American sailors. But war fever of the summer had faded, Congress was in not in a mood to prepare the U.S. for war. Jefferson asked for and received the Embargo Act, the least bad option for him, and it gained time for building up defensive works, militias, and naval forces. Legislation passed December 1807, a projection of power and enforcement which historian Jon Meacham called surpassing even the hated Alien and Sedition Acts. Downturning economic consequences especially in New England and widespread negative reaction led to an end to the embargo in time for Jefferson's Secretary of State James Madison to win the 1808 presidential election.[184]


Main article: Embargo Act of 1807
A political cartoon showing merchants dodging the "Ograbme", which is 'Embargo' spelled backwards (1807)

In 1806 and 1807 British raids on American shipping and kidnapping seaman were increasing, with thousands of Americans being impressed into service. In 1806 Jefferson responded with a call for a boycott on British goods, and on April 18 Congress passed the Non-Importation Acts, but they were never enforced and the date was postponed. Later in 1806, Jefferson asked James Monroe and William Pinkney to negotiate with Great Britain hoping to end the harassment of American shipping, but Britain showed no signs that it wanted to improve relations with the United States. After months of negotiations, a treaty was finalized but it lacked any provisions to end the impressment of United States citizens. Shortly thereafter the situation was compounded with the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair which all led up to the embargo of 1807.[185][186]

Prompted by a letter from his friend John Page Jefferson on December 18 encouraged passage of the Embargo Act of 1807[187] to maintain American neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars.[185] Jefferson's Secretary of State James Madison supported the embargo with even more vigor than Jefferson, while his Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin opposed the embargo because of its indefinite time frame and foreseeing correctly the impossibility of enforcing it without risking American neutrality.[188] Subsequently criticism grew and the economy suffered, with Jefferson's party losing support. Instead of retreating, Jefferson sent federal agents to secretly track down smugglers and violators.[189] Three acts were passed in Congress during 1807 and 1808. The acts were called the Supplementary, the Additional, and the Enforcement acts.[186] Though the government could not prevent American vessels from trading with the European belligerents once they had left American ports, the embargo triggered a financial disaster because of declining exports. Shortly before leaving office in March 1809, Jefferson signed the repeal of the Embargo. In its place the Non-Intercourse Act was enacted, but it proved no more effective than the Embargo.[186]

Jefferson believed that the failure of the embargo was due to traders and merchants who showed a lack of self-sacrificing "republican virtue" by not complying with it.[185] Historians have generally noted that Jefferson's embargo act was ineffective and harmful to American interests[190] yet it was also noted as an innovative non violent measure to aid France with its war with Britain while preserving American neutrality.[185][191] Jefferson maintained that, had the embargo been widely observed it would have avoided war in 1812.[192][193] The War of 1812 could also be considered the logical extension of the embargo to end impressment, but that by de facto entering the Napoleonic Wars on anti-British side, the United States gave up the advantages of neutrality.[194]

Other involvements

He pardoned several people imprisoned under the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in John Adams' term. He repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which removed nearly all of Adams' "midnight judges" from office. This quickly led to the Supreme Court deciding the important case of Marbury v. Madison. This also repealed a provision in the act that freed supreme court justices from having to constantly travel the country to serve as circuit court judges. This provision wasn't reinstated for another century, and its repeal under Jefferson ensured that justices would continue to bear heavy travel burdens throughout the nineteenth century. Jefferson also signed into law a bill that officially segregated the U.S. postal system by not allowing blacks to carry mail.[why?][195]

Judicial and Supreme Court appointments

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

Administration and Cabinet

Sully's portrait of Jefferson at West Point (1821)
The Jefferson Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Thomas Jefferson 1801–1809
Vice President Aaron Burr 1801–1805
George Clinton 1805–1809
Secretary of State James Madison 1801–1809
Secretary of Treasury Samuel Dexter 1801
Albert Gallatin 1801–1809
Secretary of War Henry Dearborn 1801–1809
Attorney General Levi Lincoln, Sr. 1801–1804
John Breckinridge 1805–1806
Caesar A. Rodney 1807–1809
Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert 1801
Robert Smith 1801–1809

States admitted to the Union

  • Ohio – March 1, 1803

As president, Jefferson used his influence to bring Ohio into the Union on April 30, 1802, the first state under the Northwest Ordinance prohibiting slavery. In Congress, Jefferson had authored the Ordinance of 1787 in Congressional committee under the Articles of Confederation. He was therefore instrumental in prohibiting slavery not only to new territories, but in the new states to come beginning with Ohio.[196]

American Philosophical Society

Founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson was a member of the American Philosophical Society for 35 years. Through the Society he advanced the sciences and Enlightenment ideals, emphasizing that knowledge of science reinforced and extended freedom.[197] He was elected into the Society in January 1780 while Governor of Virginia and the following year was elected a Counsellor. During his long tenure he served on many committees. He was elected as the Society's third President on March 3, 1797, only days after he was elected Vice President under Adams.[198][199] Upon his acceptance Jefferson stated:

I feel no qualification for this distinguished post but a sincere zeal for all the objects of our institution and an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may at length reach even the extremes of society, beggars and kings.[197][199]

Jefferson presided over the Society's meeting for the first time during that same month.[200] During this time he was compiling data for his Notes on the State of Virginia which he later shared with the Society. He served as the Society's president for the next eighteen years through both terms of his presidency.[198] Along with topics on science and discovery, he often discussed ideas of abolition with dedicated abolitionist Society members including Comte de Volney and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.[200][201] Jefferson also introduced Meriwether Lewis to the Society where various scientists tutored him in preparation for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.[198][202] He offered his letter of resignation on three separate occasions, with the Society refusing his resignations each time, but remained active through correspondence. He attended his last Society meeting in person on May 2, 1800. The Society finally accepted his resignation at the meeting of January 20, 1815 "with great reluctance".[203] After Jefferson's death in 1826 the Society draped the chair he had occupied in black for six months.[198] Jefferson was also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences having been elected in 1787,[204] he became associated member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands in 1809,[205] and was a member of the American Antiquarian Society, elected on June 1, 1814.[206][207]

Later years

In the years following Jefferson's political career he spent most of his time and energy pursuing educational interests, selling his vast collection of books to the Library of Congress, and founding and building the University of Virginia.[208]

As he settled into life at Monticello, Jefferson developed a daily routine. He would rise early, once remarking, "Whether I retire to bed early or late, I rise with the sun." He would spend several hours writing letters, with which he was often deluged. In the midday, he would often inspect the plantation on horseback, visiting the fields and the nailery. In the evenings, his family ate dinner and often recreated in the gardens; finally, late at night, Jefferson would retire to bed with a book. He once wrote, "I never go to bed without an hour, or half hour's previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep."[209]

University of Virginia

Winter landscape of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia
The Rotunda, University of Virginia

After leaving the Presidency, Jefferson continued to be active in public affairs. He wanted to found a new institution of higher learning free of church influences (in contrast to Great Britain) where students could specialize in many new areas not offered at other universities. Jefferson believed educating people was a good way to establish an organized society and that schools should be paid for by the general public in order to be accessible to students from all social strata.[210]

In 1800, Jefferson wrote a letter to Joseph Priestley about his proposed University.[211] In 1819, the 76-year-old Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. He initiated and organized the legislative campaign for its charter and with the assistance of Edmund Bacon, procured and purchased the location. Jefferson was the principal designer of the buildings. Their innovative design was an expression of his aspirations for both state-sponsored education and an agrarian democracy in the new Republic. He also planned the University's curriculum and served as the first rector. Upon its opening in 1825, it was the first university to offer a full slate of elective courses to its students. With no campus chapel included in the original plans, the university was notable for being centered about a library rather than a church, reinforcing the principle of separation of church and state.

Stylistically, Jefferson was a proponent of the Greek and Roman styles, which he believed to be most representative of American democracy by historical association. Each academic unit is designed with a two-story temple front facing the quadrangle, while the library is modeled on the Roman Pantheon. The university was one of the largest construction projects to that time in North America, and a survey of members of the American Institute of Architects identified Jefferson's campus as the most significant work of architecture in America.[citation needed] In his vision, any citizen of the state could attend school with the sole criterion being ability.[212]

Jefferson's educational ideas were expressed in the configuration of his campus plan, which he called the "Academical Village". Individual academic units were defined as distinct structures, each housed classrooms, faculty offices, and residences. Gardens and vegetable plots are placed behind and surrounded by serpentine walls, affirming the importance of the agrarian lifestyle.

After Jefferson died in 1826, James Madison replaced him as the University Rector.[213] In a codicil to his last will, Jefferson left most of his library to the University.[214] Until his death, Jefferson invited students and faculty of the college to his home.

Lafayette's visit

In the summer of 1824 while Jefferson was making final plans for the opening of the University of Virginia, he learned that Lafayette had accepted an official invitation from President James Monroe to visit the United States and would be arriving soon. He knew this meant that he would soon be reunited with an old friend and consultant that guided him around France when he was Minister there. They had not seen each other since 1789. After visiting friends and dignitaries in New York, New England, and Washington, Lafayette finally arrived at Monticello on November 4 in a carriage provided by Jefferson with a military escort of 120 men. Jefferson, informed of and anticipating Lafayette's approach up the mountain to Monticello, waited outside on the front portico. By this time some 200 friends and neighbors had also arrived for the event. Lafayette's carriage pulled up to the front lawn where a bugle sounded the arrival of the procession with its revolutionary banners waving. Lafayette, advanced in age, slowly stepped down from the carriage. Jefferson, who was now 81 years old and in ill health, slowly descended the front steps and began making his way towards his old friend. Jefferson's grandson Randolph was present and witnessed the historic reunion: "As they approached each other, their uncertain gait quickened itself into a shuffling run, and exclaiming, 'Ah Jefferson!' 'Ah Lafayette!', they burst into tears as they fell into each other's arms." Everyone in attendance stood in respectful silence, many of them stifling sobs of their own. Jefferson and Lafayette then retired to the privacy of the house and began reminiscing the many events and encounters they shared years before. The next morning Jefferson, Lafayette and James Madison rode to the Central Hotel in Charlottesville in Jefferson's landau. They were escorted by mounted troops and followed by the local townspeople and other friends. After being greeted and honored with speeches they departed the hotel at noon and set out for a banquet at the University of Virginia which Jefferson was anxious for Lafayette to see. There were no students or faculty present as Jefferson had postponed the commencement of classes for the event beforehand. In the rotunda of the university with Jefferson seated between Lafayette and Madison, they enjoyed a fine dinner, complete with French wine which Jefferson had personally selected from the cellar at Monticello. It was the first public function at the University. After a three-hour dinner Jefferson had someone read a speech he had prepared for Lafayette, as his voice was weak and could not carry very far. This would prove to be Jefferson's last public speech. Lafayette later accepted Jefferson's invitation for honorary membership to the University's Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. After an eleven-day visit Lafayette bid Jefferson goodbye and departed Monticello on November 15.[215][216][217]

Final days

Obelisk at Thomas Jefferson's gravesite
Jefferson's gravesite

Jefferson's health began to deteriorate in July 1825, from a combination of various illnesses and conditions probably including toxemia, uremia, and pneumonia.[218] By May 1826 Jefferson's health was so frail that he was virtually a shut-in and by June he was confined to bed. He spent most of his waking hours going over his finances and debts. On May 22 Jefferson made his last entry in the 'Farm Book', noting the price of lamp oil at a dollar twenty five cents a gallon and the cost of lighting his estate for the last month. On June 24 Jefferson wrote his last letter, to Roger Weightman of a Washington newspaper, the National Intelligencer,[219] where he once more reaffirmed his faith in the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence. On July 3 Jefferson was overcome by fever. Realizing he would never leave Monticello again, he was forced to decline an invitation to Washington to attend a fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Declaration.

During the last hours of Jefferson's life he was accompanied by his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph and his doctor, Robley Dunglison, and other family members and friends. He was at ease with the idea of death and was ready to die. When his doctor entered his room he said, "Well Doctor, you see I am still here yet." After he was checked by the doctor, a family member and a friend offered words of hope that he was looking better to which Jefferson impatiently replied, "Do not imagine for a moment that I feel the smallest solicitude as to the result," at which point he calmly gave directions for his funeral, forbidding any sort of celebration or parade. Moments later Jefferson called the rest of his family and friends around his bedside and with a distinct tone he uttered:

I have done for my country, and for all mankind, all that I could do, and I now resign my soul, without fear, to my God, – my daughter to my country.[220]

After falling back asleep, Jefferson later woke at eight o'clock that evening and spoke his last words: "Is it the fourth yet?" His doctor replied, "It soon will be."[221]

On July 4, at ten minutes before one o'clock in the afternoon, Jefferson died at the age of 83, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and a few hours before John Adams, whose own last words were, "Independence forever," and "Thomas Jefferson survives."[220][221]

Jefferson's funeral was held July 5, performed by Reverend Charles Clay. The funeral was a simple and quiet affair, by his own request. No invitations were sent, but some friends and visitors came to the ceremony and burial to pay their respects. Jefferson's remains were carried by "servants, family and friends" to the family grave site at Monticello.[222][i]

Jefferson wrote his own epitaph, which reads:

Though born into a wealthy slave-owning family, Jefferson had many financial problems and died deeply in debt, unable to pass on his estate to his heirs.[223] He gave instructions for disposal of his assets in his will,[224] and after his death, his estate, possessions, and slaves were sold off in public auctions starting in 1827.[225][226] In 1831 Monticello was sold by Martha Jefferson and the surviving Jefferson heirs to James Turner Barclay, and in 1834 Barclay in turn sold the house and remaining land to Uriah P. Levy.[227]

Historical reputation

Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC

Jefferson has often been seen as a major American icon of liberty, democracy, and republicanism.[228] Some have hailed him as one of the most articulate spokesmen of the American Revolution, and as a renaissance man who promoted science and scholarship. Abraham Lincoln called Jefferson "the most distinguished politician in our history."[229] Jefferson is widely championed for writing the Declaration of Independence and for being a prolific letter writer, having written more than 18,000 letters during his life.[230] Many recent historians however have noted his views on race and slavery were inconsistent, his controversial tenure as governor of Virginia, his disloyalty under Washington and Adams, his advocacy of nullification and secession, his personal spending excesses, and his troubled second term as president.[231] Some historians have criticized other aspects of his presidency, such as the harsh treatment of Native Americans during his presidency.[232] Others yet have noted that by most accounts Jefferson was a kind and generous master, and expressed deep moral convictions against slavery his entire life.[233][234] while still others maintain that many of the criticisms levied at Jefferson overlook much and are motivated by political and racial considerations.[235]

Jefferson's legacy as a champion of Enlightenment ideals has been challenged by various modern historians, who find his continued ownership of hundreds of slaves at Monticello to be in conflict with his stated views on freedom and the equality of men.[236] Cogliano says, "No single issue has contributed as much to the decline of Jefferson's reputation since World War II as the slavery question."[237] During the progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th century, when scholars saw revolutionary America as a struggle between "haves" and "have nots", Jefferson's reputation reached new heights as his presidency was seen as the final defeat of the moneyed classes. Jefferson's legacy in recent decades has come under further scrutiny and criticism.[238] However though Jefferson has been criticized for owning slaves, scholarly surveys continue to rate him among the top ten presidents.[239][240]

Political philosophy and views

Jefferson's political ideals were greatly influenced by the writings of John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton,[241] whom he considered the three greatest men that ever lived.[242] He was also influenced by the writings of Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, Bolingbroke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire.[243] Jefferson idealized the independent yeoman as the best example of republican virtues, distrusting cities and financiers, and often favoring decentralized power. He believed that most of the tyranny and misfortunes that had plagued the common man in Europe were due to inflated and corrupt political establishments and monarchies. Having had supported efforts to disestablish the Church of England,[244] and authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he called for a wall of separation between church and state at the federal level.[245] The Republicans under Jefferson were strongly influenced by the 18th-century British opposition writers of the Whig Party, who believed in limited government.[246] His Democratic-Republican Party became dominant in early American politics and his views became known as Jeffersonian democracy.[247]

Society and government

Jefferson's 1818 letter to Mordecai Manuel Noah
In his May 28, 1818, letter to Mordecai Manuel Noah, Jefferson wrote of faith in humanity and the nature of democracy.

Jefferson believed that each man has "certain inalienable rights" and "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others..."[248] A proper government, for Jefferson, is one that not only prohibits individuals in society from infringing on the liberty of other individuals, but also restrains itself from diminishing individual liberty as a protection against tyranny from the majority.[249] Influenced by Isaac Newton, Jefferson considered social systems as analogous to physical systems. In the social world, Jefferson likens love to a force similar to gravity in the physical world. People are naturally attracted to each other through love, but dependence corrupts this attraction and results in political problems. Removing or preventing corrupting dependence by banking or royal influences would enable men to be equal in practice.[250]

In political terms, Americans thought that virtue was the "glue" that held together a republic, whereas patronage, dependency and coercion held together a monarchy. "Virtue" in this sense was public virtue, in particular self-sacrifice. Americans reasoned that liberty and republicanism required a virtuous society, and the society had to be free of dependence and extensive patronage networks, such as banking, government, or military.[251] While Jefferson believed most people could not escape corrupting dependence, the franchise should be extended only to those who could, including the yeoman farmer. He disliked inter-generational dependence, such as national debt and unalterable governments.[250] Jefferson believed that individual liberties were the fruit of equality and that they and were threatened only by government.[252] Excesses of democracy for Jefferson were caused by institutional corruptions rather than human nature. He remained less suspicious of working democracy than many of his contemporaries.[250]

As president, Jefferson tried to re-create the balance between the state and federal governments as it existed under the Articles of Confederation. He tried to shift the balance of power back to the states, taking this action from his classical republican conception that liberty could only be retained in small, homogeneous societies. He believed that the Federalist system enacted by Washington and Adams had encouraged corrupting patronage and dependence.[250] Many of Jefferson's apparent contradictions can be understood within this philosophical framework. For example, he opposed women's right to vote or any participation in politics because he believed that a government must be controlled by the economically independent. Instead he argued: "our good ladies ... are contented to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning ruffled from political debate."[253]


Jefferson's influence on democracy was felt by the 1804 elections, increasing voter turnout. In this 1850 painting a seated party worker is writing a ballot for the shirtsleeved voter (center), the newspaper reader shares (right). 1804 candidates also offered free libations at the polls (left).

Jefferson is often cited as an important figure in early American democracy.[254] He envisioned democracy as an expression of society as a whole, and called for national self-determination, cultural uniformity, and education of all males of the commonwealth.[255] Jefferson believed that public education and a free press were essential to a democratic nation: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and never will be. ... The people cannot be safe without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe".[256]

By the end of his career, Jefferson was critical of his home state for violating "the principle of equal political rights", meaning the social right of universal male suffrage.[257] But he arrived at that position by stages. Initially, with the onset of the Revolution, Jefferson accepted Blackstone's principle that property ownership would lead to the independent will required from voters in a republic, but he sought to further expand the suffrage by land distribution to the poor.[258] Beginning in the Revolutionary Era and afterward, an alternative to property requirements was legally established by several states expanding the eligible voters from landed gentry to include male Euro-American tax-paying citizens, those owning either their own houses or their own tools and paying taxes on them.[259]

After leaving Washington's cabinet as Secretary of State, by mid-October 1795 Jefferson's thoughts turned on the electoral bases of Republican and anti-Republican (Federalist) political coalitions. The "Republican" classification of the United States for which he would advocate included: 1. "the entire body of landholders" everywhere, and 2. "the body of laborers" without land, whether agricultural or mechanical.[260] Beginning with Jefferson's electioneering for the "revolution of 1800", his democratic efforts were based on egalitarian appeals.[261]

Republicans united behind Jefferson as Vice President, president of the Senate. The election practices of 1796 expanding democracy were extended nationwide, with local committees and correspondence networks set up. County committees framed local Republican tickets, and initiated partisan Republican newspapers.[262] Privately, Jefferson promoted Republican candidates to run for local state offices.[263] He sought an aristocracy of merit, not birth including his vice presidential candidate a New Yorker, George Clinton, the child of Irish immigrants.[264] Jefferson in his later years referred to the 1800 election as the "revolution of 1800", "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of '76 was in its form", one "not effected indeed by the sword ... but by the ... suffrage of the people."[265] Voter participation grew in Jefferson's two terms, exploding to "unimaginable levels" compared to the Federalist Era, with doubling turnouts.[266] John Quincy Adams noted following Jefferson's 1804 election, "The power of the Administration rests upon the support of a much stronger majority of the people throughout the Union than the former Administrations ever possessed."[264]

Jefferson continued his campaign to expand the electorate in his retirement correspondence. In response to a pamphlet advocating a Virginia Constitutional Convention, he went further than the radical convention promoters. He sought a "general suffrage" of all taxpayers and militia-men, as well as equal representation by voter population in the state legislature, not skewed to favor slave-holding regions of the state. He also favored a reform of Virginia's country courthouse system to more nearly resemble that of the more democratic townships of New England.[267]


First Bank of U.S., Philadelphia, 1791–1811

Jefferson expressed a dislike and distrust for banks and bankers, and opposed borrowing believing it created long-term debt, monopolies, invited dangerous speculation, as opposed to productive labor,[268][269] all to Republicanism.[270] He once argued that each generation should pay back its debt within 19 years, and not impose a long-term debt on subsequent generations.

In 1791, President Washington asked Jefferson, who at the time was Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, if the Congress had the authority to create a national bank. While Hamilton believed Congress had the authority, Jefferson believed that a national bank in its capacity would ignore the needs of individuals and small farmers, would assume powers not granted to the federal government by the States, and therefore would violate the Tenth Amendment and the laws of Mortmain, Alienage, Forfeiture, Distribution, and Monopolies.[271][272][273] But Jefferson was not dogmatic on these issues, even during Washington's administration. He knew funding Revolutionary debt was important, and agreed to Hamilton's nationalization plan in return for relocating the capital to Washington, DC. In his letter to Washington opposing Hamilton's proposal for a United States Bank, Jefferson suggested that if Washington were of a divided mind, he should follow the recommendation of the majorities in Congress supporting establishment of a national bank which had voted three to one in favor.[274]

Nevertheless, Jefferson used the agrarian opposition to banks and speculators to become the first defining principle in organizing an opposition party, recruiting candidates for congress on the issue as early as 1792.[275] In retirement, Jefferson wrote John Taylor in 1816 that he and Taylor had ever hated the banks which could destroy the state constitutions, already suffering from speculators who "sweep away the fortunes and morals of our citizens". Banks were more dangerous than standing armies, as funding by posterity is but "swindling futurity on a large scale".[276][277]

Foreign policy

Jefferson was a strong supporter of the French Revolution and played a major role in its early days. He soured on France after Napoleon became its dictator in 1799.[278] After 1774 he always distrusted Britain as an enemy of Republicanism. He said of the Wars of the French revolution, "The liberty of the whole world was depending on the issue of the contest".[279] Jefferson once argued that America would become the world's great "empire of liberty"—that is, the model for democracy and republicanism.[280] On departing the presidency in 1809, he described America as:

Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.[281]

Rebellion and individual rights

During the French Revolution, Jefferson advocated rebellion and violence when necessary. In a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787, Jefferson wrote, "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. ... It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."[282] Similarly, in a letter to Abigail Adams on February 22, 1787 he wrote, "The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all."[282] Concerning Shays' Rebellion after he had heard of the bloodshed, on November 13, 1787 Jefferson wrote to William S. Smith, John Adams' son-in-law, "What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."[283] In another letter to Smith during 1787, Jefferson wrote: "And what country can preserve its liberties, if the rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms."[282]

From his initial viewpoint in Paris at the time of the Constitution's ratification, Jefferson was transformed in office as president under a challenge which both strengthened the Union and Jefferson's commitment to it.[284]

As late as 1804 before his second term began, Jefferson seemed at ease with the prospect of dividing the nation into separate democracies. In view of a prospective republic in the Mississippi River Valley, they would be "as much our children and our descendants" alongside any coastal confederacy remaining. "I feel myself as much identified with that [western] country ... as with this [United States].[285][j]

But midway through his second term, the idealistic internationalist yielded to the nationalist politician. "A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. ... The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation."[286] The challenge of a filibustering Aaron Burr and the U.S. General James Wilkinson in Spanish pay, combined with English, Spanish, and Creek Amerindian threats led to a rationale later echoed by Lincoln. "To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.[286][k]

Slaves and slavery

Jefferson's 1795 Farm book, page 30, lists 163 slaves at Monticello.

Jefferson lived in a Virginia planter economy largely dependent on slavery. As a wealthy slave owner, he used slave labor to run his household, plantation, tobacco fields, and various shops. Over the course of his life he owned some 600 slaves, buying and selling them as necessary for the management of his affairs, and maintaining about 130 at any one time.[287][288] Several times Jefferson purchased slaves in order to unite families.[289][290] The first known record Jefferson made in regards to slave ownership was in 1774, when he owned 41.[291][292]

Jefferson's views on slavery and African slaves were complex, maintaining that the institution of slavery was harmful to both slave and master while working many slaves for his own profit.[293][294] historians are divided on whether he truly opposed the institution largely because he was publicly silent on emancipation during his presidency and only freed a few slaves on his Monticello plantation.[295][296] Some researchers suggest Jefferson's slave ownership contradicted his philosophy of "all men are created equal".[295] Other historians, however, maintain that the sentiment in this statement is what actually inspired and drove Jefferson to advance legislation to abolish slavery and that[297] he believed slavery was "contrary to the laws of nature" where everyone had a right to personal liberty.[298]

In the 1790s, Jefferson opened his own nail manufactory where slaves from ten to sixteen years old worked to manufacture nails. However, while machinery in the nailery allowed Jefferson's slaves to work more efficiently, he failed in his ultimate goal, which was to convince southern farmers that machinery could replace slavery. Instead of eliminating the need for slaves, he realized just how dependent on slave labor the south was.[299] In 1816, Jefferson wrote that "where the disease is most deeply seated, there it will be slowest in eradication. In the Northern States it was merely superficial, and easily corrected. In the Southern States it is incorporated in the whole system."[299]

Jefferson accepted conventional thought during his lifetime that Africans were an inferior race. However, a section on slavery was actually included in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, where he stated, "[The King] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither."[300] This section of the Declaration was removed because it alarmed people from the south, who did not agree with such a bold statement.[300] In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), he expressed a "strong suspicion" that the Negro was inferior to whites in both the endowments of body and mind but wasn't sure if it was because they were a "distinct race" or were so because of "time and circumstances".[301]

Historians have generally described Jefferson as a benevolent slaveowner,[302][303][304] though some historians have expressed doubts about that.[305] Jefferson did not allow his slaves to be overworked and gave them Sundays, Christmas, and Easter off.[302][303][304] According to a former Monticello slave, slaves were seldom punished except for stealing or fighting or other extreme offenses, though there were some cases of excessive whippings at the hand of overseers.[306][307] Slaves were provided with log cabins with a fireplace, good clothing and food and were allowed to have their own gardens and raise chickens which, along with eggs and produce, were sold by more than half the adult slaves to the Jefferson household.[308]

Throughout Jefferson's political career he opposed the international slave trade. In his annual message to Congress in 1806, President Jefferson called for outlawing the trans-Atlantic slave trade, asking Congress to "withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights ... which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe." Congress complied and on March 2, 1807, Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves into law; it took effect January 1, 1808, the earliest date permitted by the Constitution.[309] The abolition of the slave trade was a major achievement of Jefferson's presidency.[310] Southern contemporary critics viewed Jefferson was opposed to slavery for his Notes on the State of Virginia, his letter to Benjamin Banneker in 1791, and his reference to St. George Tucker's federal plan to purchase and free slaves.[311] Jefferson's 1803 Louisiana Purchase treaty allowed slavery to continue as the French were assured that there would be no interference with their interests when the purchase was made.[312]

Attempts at abolition and colonization

Although Jefferson owned many slaves during his life, it is widely held that he was opposed to the institution of slavery on both moral and practical grounds.[313] He made several attempts to advance legislation to abolish slavery, and later proposed colonization of freed slaves to an independent country of their own in Liberia.[314][315] Starting in 1779 Jefferson proposed a gradual emancipation plan of voluntary training, sponsorship, and resettlement for slave families to the Virginia legislature. In 1782 Jefferson helped draft legislation to make it easier for owners to manumit slaves; owners would only need a written manumission, whereas before, owners had to pay to transport their slave out of state, and the slave could only be freed for doing an act of public service, or with permission from the Governor or the legislature.[300] In 1784 Jefferson proposed to the United States Congress legislation that would cease slavery in the Western Territories in the year 1800, however, this legislation was defeated by one vote. In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, a partial victory for Jefferson, that ceased slavery in North West Territory. During Jefferson's lifetime much of Virginia society, as proven by Robert Carter's slave emancipation in 1791, was strongly opposed to freed slaves becoming citizens, while their colonization was viewed as an acceptable alternative. Following the Gabriel Prosser rebellion in the summer of 1800, Jefferson again proposed a colonization plan for freed slaves to prevent a violent race war.[316][317] Colonization became popular throughout the early 19th Century. While President, Jefferson privately attempted to colonize emancipated Virginia slaves to Sierra Leone off the coast of Africa through British and Portugal companies; these efforts were unsuccessful.[318] The idea of recolonization was met with mixed reactions from proponents and critics among different political and religious groups of the day.[319]

While Jefferson on occasion had expressed reservations about releasing unprepared slaves into freedom, it was something he had always wanted to do according to his main overseer of slaves, Edmund Bacon and his slave Joseph Fossett. Jefferson freed five slaves in his will providing a monetary endowment and trade tools to aid in making a living. Jefferson also successfully petitioned the Virginia legislature to allow freed slaves to remain in Virginia. Jefferson's encumbered debt from an agricultural depression and the mortgaging of his slaves legally prevented him from freeing the remaining slaves who were later auctioned locally by his surviving family to pay his creditors and avoid their confiscation by Virginia debt law.[320][321][322][323]

The Haitian slave revolt along with Gabriel's slave rebellion in Virginia four years earlier, led Jefferson to remain quiet on U.S. domestic emancipation of slaves during his presidency.[324]

Jefferson–Hemings controversy

For two centuries, the claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings, has been a matter of discussion and disagreement. In 1802, the journalist James T. Callender, after being denied a position as postmaster by Jefferson, published allegations that Jefferson had taken Hemings as a concubine and had fathered several children with her.[325] Sally's father was John Wayles, who held her as a slave, and he was also the father of Jefferson's wife Martha. Sally was three-quarters white and strikingly similar in looks and voice to Jefferson's late wife.[326]

In 1998, in order to establish the male DNA line, a panel of researchers conducted a Y-DNA study of living descendants of Jefferson's uncle, Field, and of a descendant of Sally's son, Eston Hemings. The results, published in the journal Nature,[327] showed a Y-DNA match with the male Jefferson line. In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) assembled a team of historians whose report concluded that, together with the DNA and historic evidence, there was a high probability that Jefferson was the father of Eston and likely of all Hemings' children. W. M. Wallenborn, who worked on the Monticello report, disagreed, claiming the committee had already made up their minds before evaluating the evidence, was a "rush to judgement," and that the claims of Jefferson's paternity were unsubstantiated and politically driven.[328]

Since the DNA tests were made public, it is widely held that most biographers and historians have concluded that the widower Jefferson had a long-term relationship with Hemings.[329] Other scholars, including a team of professors associated with the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, maintain that the evidence is insufficient to conclude Thomas Jefferson's paternity, and note the possibility that other Jeffersons, including Thomas's brother Randolph Jefferson and his five sons who often fraternized with slaves, could have fathered Hemings' children.[330][331]

Hemings' first child was conceived while she and Jefferson were in France while he was there as the US Ambassador. Since slavery had been abolished in France, Hemings only agreed to come home with Jefferson on the condition that their children would be freed at the age of 21 years; Jefferson kept this promise.[300] There is no written record or oral history of Sally Hemings ever claiming Jefferson fathered any of her children.[332] Jefferson freed two slaves of the extended Hemings family in the 18th century. He allowed two of Sally Hemings's children to leave the Monticello estate without formal manumission when they came of age; five other slaves, including the two remaining sons of Sally Hemings, were freed by his will upon his death. Although not legally freed, in Jefferson's will, Hemings was actually freed by Jefferson's daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph after Jefferson's death.[300] She then left Monticello with her sons. They were counted as free whites in the 1830 census.[333][334]


Further information: Thomas Jefferson and religion
Jefferson's Bible featuring only the words of Jesus from the evangelists, in parallel Greek, Latin, French and English

Jefferson's religious and spiritual beliefs were a combination of various religious and theological precepts. Around 1764, Jefferson had lost faith in "orthodox" Christianity after he had tested the New Testament for the consistency of its teachings, and found it to be severely lacking. Jefferson later wrote that he found two strains within the Bible, one that was as "diamonds" of the "purest moral teaching",[335] and one that was as a "dunghill" of "priestcraft and roguery".[336] After leaving "Christian orthodoxy" behind, he continued to refer to himself as a "Christian," though no longer as an "orthodox Christian".

Jefferson praised the morality of Jesus and edited a compilation of his teachings, omitting the miracles and supernatural elements of the biblical account, titling it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.[337] This book is now most popularly known as the Jefferson Bible. He claimed that Christianity possessed, "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."[338] Jefferson was firmly anticlerical saying that in "every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty ... they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes."[339]

Jefferson's form of Christianity included a stern code of personal moral conduct and also drew inspiration from classical literature.[340] While his new belief system retained some Christian principles it rejected many of the orthodox tenets of Christianity of his day and was especially hostile to the Catholic Church as he saw it operate in France. Jefferson advanced the idea of Separation of Church and State, believing that the government should not have an official religion while at the same time it should not prohibit any particular religious expression. He first expressed these thoughts in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut.[341]

Throughout his life Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, biblical study, and morality. As a landowner he played a role in governing his local Episcopal Church; in terms of belief he subscribed to the moral philosophy of Jesus, but he did not subscribe to much of what he described as the "dung" of popular Christian theology.[342] When he was home he attended the Episcopal church and raised his daughters in that faith.[343][344] Over time, some have described Jefferson as a Deist;[345] however, due to his belief in a God which is actively involved in the guidance of human history,[346] the modern understanding of the word "Deism" may not entirely describe Jefferson's system of beliefs.

In a private letter to Benjamin Rush in 1803 Jefferson explained some aspects of his own personal belief system regarding Christianity: "To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence..."[347] Jefferson noted both benevolence and contradictions in Christian doctrine.[348]

In an 1820 letter to his close friend William Short, Jefferson stated, "it is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus] in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it." In 1824, four years later, Jefferson had changed on his view of the "materialism" of Jesus, clarifying then that "... the founder of our religion, was unquestionably a materialist as to man."[349][350]

In 1777, Jefferson drafted Virginia's An Act of Establishing Religious Freedom. Submitted in 1779, the Act was finally ratified in 1786 by the Virginia legislature. The Act forbade that men be forcibly compelled to attend or donate money to religious establishments, and that men "shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion."[351] Jefferson initially supported restrictions banning clergy from holding public office, however, later in life he changed this view believing the clergy had the same rights as others to hold public office.[352]

Interests and activities

Jefferson was a farmer, with a lifelong interest in mechanical innovations, new crops, soil conditions, his gardens, and scientific agricultural techniques. His main cash crop was tobacco, but its price was usually low and it was rarely profitable. He tried to achieve self-sufficiency with wheat, vegetables, flax, corn, hogs, sheep, poultry, and cattle to feed and clothe his family, slaves, and employees, but he had cash flow problems and was always in debt.[353][354]

Jefferson was an accomplished architect who helped popularize the Neo-Palladian style in the United States through designs for the University of Virginia and his own home, among others.[355][356] He was interested in birds and wine, and was a noted gourmet; he was also a prolific writer and linguist, and spoke several languages.[357] As a naturalist, he was compelled to purchase the Natural Bridge.[358]

Language and linguistics

Jefferson had a lifelong interest in language and linguistics, could read and write in a number of languages and was conversant in several, including Greek, Italian, French, and German. He claimed to have taught himself Spanish in nineteen days, using only a grammar guide and a copy of Don Quixote, though colleagues were skeptical of his claims; John Quincy Adams, for example, dismissed Jefferson's account as one of the exaggerative "large stories" he was inclined to tell.[359] Jefferson also collected and understood a number of American Indian vocabularies and instructed Lewis and Clark to record and collect various Indian dialect during their Expedition.[360] He also studied the ancient Anglo-Saxon language in a linguistic and philosophical capacity. In his early years Jefferson excelled in classical language while at boarding school[361] where he received a classical education in Greek and Latin[362] and was known to keep his Greek grammar book with him everywhere he went. He later came to regard the Greek language as the "perfect language" as expressed in its laws[363] consequently becoming keenly interested in linguistics and political philosophy altogether. While attending the College of William & Mary he taught himself Italian.[364] Here Jefferson first became familiar with the Anglo-Saxon language, especially as it was associated with English Common law and system of government. So interested in the subject that, while pursuing law, he set aside time to devote to its study, as the college offered no such curriculum. This is where Jefferson's interest in linguistics began rivaling his interest in law.[365][366] He owned 17 volumes of Anglo-Saxon texts and grammar and later wrote an essay on the Anglo-Saxon language.[367]

The study of language and linguistics played a significant role in how Jefferson modeled and expressed political and philosophical ideas. He believed that the progression of language provided a good model for the progression of political thought, that change in language was the result of common sense, natural law and consequently public acceptance and usage.[368] He believed the study of ancient languages was essential in understanding the roots of modern language. While criticizing the British for not adapting or recognizing various colonial dialects Jefferson wanted the English language largely left intact, and taught that way to American school children.[368] He owned a number of English language dictionaries, including Webster's A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, 1806.[369] Included in his library were a number of other dictionaries, vocabularies and grammars, published in several languages.[370] Interested in ancient language he also learned Gaelic to translate Ossian, and corresponded with James Macpherson for the original manuscripts.[357] Much of Jefferson's correspondence is earmarked with Greek and Latin quotations and other references to language.[363][371] Jefferson later included Italian and Anglo-Saxon among the languages taught at the University of Virginia.[364][367]

Although his political career and private activities required him to speak in public and his writing on a wide range of topics was regarded as brilliant, Jefferson was not known as a good orator and preferred to remain silent if possible. Instead of delivering his State of the Union addresses himself, Jefferson wrote the annual messages and sent a representative to read them aloud in Congress. This started a tradition which continued until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson chose to deliver his own State of the Union address.[372]


Portable writing desk used writing the Declaration

Jefferson invented many small practical devices and improved contemporary inventions. These include the design for a revolving book-stand to hold five volumes at once to be viewed by the reader. Another was the "Great Clock", powered by the Earth's gravitational pull on Revolutionary War cannonballs. Its chime on Monticello's roof could be heard as far as the University of Virginia. Louis Leschot, a machinist, aided Jefferson with the clock. Jefferson invented a 6 in (15 cm) long coded wooden cipher wheel mounted on a metal spindle, to keep State Department messages secure, while he was Secretary of State. The messages were scrambled and unscrambled by 26 alphabet letters on each circular segment of the wheel. He improved the moldboard plow, an idea he never patented and gave freely to posterity,[373] and the polygraph, in collaboration with Charles Willson Peale.[374] As Minister to France, Jefferson was impressed by France's military standardization program known as the Système Gribeauval. As president, he initiated a program at the Federal Armories to develop interchangeable parts for firearms. Jefferson's curiosity about devices and machines was insatiable. He made improvements and introduced innovations on an English printing press he had brought back with him. He also improved the pedometer, a device for counting the number of steps taken while walking, and gave one to James Madison. For Jefferson's inventiveness and ingenuity he received an Honorary Doctor of Law degree from Harvard University, receiving two such others before that.[375]

Although not realized in Jefferson's lifetime, the concept of interchangeable parts eventually led to modern industry and was a major factor in the United States' industrial power by the late 19th century. Jefferson can also be accredited as the creator of the swivel chair, the first of which he created and used to write much of the Declaration of Independence.[376]

Memorials and honors

Rudulph Evans' statue of Jefferson with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence to the right
Jefferson Memorial statue by Rudulph Evans, the preamble of the Declaration of Independence at right
Sculpture of Thomas Jefferson by Hiram Powers

Jefferson has been memorialized in many ways, including buildings, sculptures, and currency. The Jefferson Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. on April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth. The interior of the memorial includes a 19-foot (6 m) statue of Jefferson and engravings of passages from his writings. Most prominent are the words inscribed around the monument near the roof: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."[377] During the New Deal era of the 1930s, Democrats honored Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as their party's founding fathers and continued inspiration. He was portrayed by them as the spokesman for democracy and the common man. President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the effort to gain approvals for his monument in Washington.[378]

Jefferson has been honored on U.S. postage since the first Jefferson postage stamp was released in 1856. Jefferson was the second president to be featured on U.S. Postage.[379] His portrait appears on the U.S. $2 bill, nickel, and the $100 Series EE Savings Bond, and a Presidential Dollar which released into circulation on August 16, 2007.[380]

His original tombstone, now a cenotaph, is located on the campus in the University of Missouri's Quadrangle. A life mask of Jefferson was created by John Henri Isaac Browere in the 1820s.[381]

Jefferson, together with George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, was chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum and approved by President Calvin Coolidge to be depicted in stone at the Mount Rushmore Memorial.[382]

Other memorials to Jefferson include the commissioning of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship Thomas Jefferson in Norfolk, Virginia on July 8, 2003, in commemoration of his establishment of a Survey of the Coast, the predecessor to NOAA's National Ocean Service. A bronze monument to Jefferson was erected in Jefferson Park, Chicago along Milwaukee Avenue in 2005.


In other media

Video games

  • Thomas Jefferson appears in the 2013 video game Assassin's Creed III, voiced by John Emmet Tracy. He only appears in the game's DLC, The Tyranny of King Washington, as a supporting character who helps the assassin Connor and Samuel Adams fend off the forces of King Washington, who seeks to impose tyranny on the United States. Connor soon escapes the dimension and comes back to the real time, revealing it to be only but a vision. However, it is unknown if Connor ever met Jefferson in the game's reality.[383]

See also


  1. ^ Malone, p. 5, notes that he "had a place on the Fluvanna River which he called Snowden after a mountain in Wales near which the Jeffersons were supposed once to have lived." TJ's knowledge of this was imperfect.
  2. ^ His other properties included Shadwell, Tufton, Lego, Pantops, and his retreat, Poplar Forest He also owned an unimproved mountaintop, Montalto.[29]
  3. ^ Adams recorded his exchange with Jefferson on the question: Jefferson asked, "Why will you not? You ought to do it." To which Adams responded, "I will not – reasons enough." Jefferson replied, "What can be your reasons?" And Adams responded, "Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can." "Well," said Jefferson, "if you are decided, I will do as well as I can." Adams concluded, "Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting."see Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life (1992), ch. 9.
  4. ^ Franklin, seated beside the author, observed him "writhing a little under the acrimonious criticisms on some of its parts."[53]
  5. ^ the immediate successor to the Second Continental Congress
  6. ^ HMS Thetis is here pictured capturing two French merchants while on blockade duty. She later captured the U.S. merchant Caroline, see List of ships captured in the 18th century
  7. ^ Jefferson's draft said: "where powers are assumed [by the federal government] which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact, (casus non fœderis) to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits." See Jefferson's draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
  8. ^ This electoral process problem was addressed by the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1804.
  9. ^ The cemetery is separately owned and operated by the Monticello Association, a lineage society that is not affiliated with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation that runs the estate as a public history site.
  10. ^ Quoting from Jefferson's letter to Joseph Priestley, January 29, 1804, Library of Congress.
  11. ^ Quoting from Jefferson's letter to John B. Colvin, September 20, 1810, held at the Library of Congress.


  1. ^ Stanley R. Hauer, 1983. "Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language," PMLA, 98(5), p. 879.
  2. ^ Tucker, 1837, v.1, p.18
  3. ^ Malone, 1948, pp. 13–14
  4. ^ a b Brodie, 1974, pp. 33–34
  5. ^ a b Malone, 1948, pp. 5–6
  6. ^ Jefferson, 1853, p. 1
  7. ^ Malone, 1948, pp. 31–33
  8. ^ Malone, 1948, pp. 437–40
  9. ^ Tucker, 1837, v.1, p.19
  10. ^ Peterson, 1970, pp. 7–9
  11. ^ Thomas Jefferson on Wine by John Hailman, 2006
  12. ^ Tucker, 1837, v.1, p.20
  13. ^ Tucker, 1837, v.1, p.42
  14. ^ Ferling, 2000, p. 48
  15. ^ a b c Liggio 1999, Vol. II, No. 1 part 3
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  17. ^ Ellis @ LOC: American Sphinx
  18. ^ a b Tucker, 1837, v.1, p.47
  19. ^ Roberts, Gary Boyd (April–May 1993). "The Royal Descents of Jane Pierce, Alice and Edith Roosevelt, Helen Taft, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Barbara Bush". American Ancestors. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society. Retrieved 18 October 2014. ...Mrs. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (1748–82), wife of Bathurst Skelton and Thomas Jefferson, was a third cousin of her second husband... 
  20. ^ Meacham, 2012, p. 57
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  381. ^ Hart, 1899, pp.xiii, 17, 36
  382. ^ NPS: Mt. Rushmore
  383. ^ "Thomas Jefferson - Assassin's Creed 3 Wiki Guide". IGN. Retrieved 2015-09-29. 


Scholarly studies


  • Cogliano, Francis D. ed. A Companion to Thomas Jefferson (2012), 648 pp; 34 essays by scholars focusing on how historians have handled Jefferson. online

Web site sources

Primary sources

  1. ^ There are numerous one-volume collections; this is perhaps among the best available.

External links

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