Thomas Jefferson is a American leader and political philosopher, author of the Declaration
of Independence, and the third president of the United States. (1801-1809)
Jefferson was among the most brilliant American exponents of the Enlightenment, the movement of
18th-century thought that emphasized the possibilities of human reason. A Virginia aristocrat, he had
the time and resources to educate himself in history, literature, law, architecture, science, and
philosophy; as diplomat and friend of French and British intellectuals, he had direct access to
motivation and the opportunity to apply Enlightenment political philosophy to the task of nation-
During his 20s, Jefferson read voraciously in Enlightenment philosophy, 17th-century English
history, political theory, and law. Drawing on this learning, he drafted in1774a Summary View of
the Rights of British America as instructions for Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental
Congress, which met to consider the colonies’ grievances against Great Britain. Virginia leaders
instead adopted a more legalistic set of instructions,, and Summary View was published
anonymously as a pamphlet. As Jefferson’s authorship became widely known, however, he moved
suddenly into the front rank of American political theorists.
In the pamphlet, Jefferson argued that the original settlers of the colonies came as individuals
rather than as agents of the British government. The colonial governments they formed therefore
embodied the natural right of expatriates from one country to select the terms of their subjection a
new ruler. Colonial legislatures and the British Parliament, he asserted, shared power, and both were
responsible for protecting the “liberties and rights” of the people.
The Declaration of Independence, drafted principally by Jefferson in late June 1776 for the
second Continental Congress, drew the implications of this historical view to their logical conclusion,
proclaiming that the tyrannical acts of the British government gave the colonists the right to “dissolve
the political bands” that had connected them with the mother country.
Jefferson was born on April 13, 1773, at Shadwell in Ambermale County, Virginia . His
father was a plantation owner, and his mother belonged to the Randolph family, which was
prominent in colonial Virginia. From his father and from his environment he acquired an intense
interest in botany, geology, cartography, and North American exploration, and from his childhood
teacher love of Greek and Latin. As a student at the College of William and Mary in the early
1760s, he studied under William Small, who knew in depth the Scottish Enlightenment, with its highly
integrated approach to law, history, philosophy, and science. In George With , he found an equally
gifted teacher of the law. Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767 and first elected to the Virginia
House of his home, Monticello. Despite several desultory courtship’s, he did not seriously consider
marriage until 1770, when he met Martha Wayles Skelton, a Wealthy widow of 23. They were
In the election of 1800, Jefferson an his fellow Republican Aaron Burr received an equal
number of electoral votes, thus creating a tie and throwing the presidential election into the House of
Representatives. After 36 ballots, the House declared Jefferson elected.
As had Adams before him, Jefferson faced opposition from an uncompromising faction
within his own party as well as from the Federalists. He steered a steady course between these two
extremes, appointing some qualified Federalists to office and refusing a wholesale purge of
officeholders inherited form the Adams administration. He supported repeal of the Judiciary Act of
1801, which had created a costly tier of federal appeals courts and would have encouraged appeals
from state courts, but he opposed any assault on the independence of the Federalists-dominated
judiciary; Jefferson’s three appointments to the Supreme Court, made between 1804 and 1807,
were all strong nationalists and upholders of judicial independence
During his first term his lifelong interested in the West and in American-French relations
prompted his major presidential achievement, the purchase from France of Louisiana-all the western
land drained by the Missouri and Missisipi rivers-and the organization of an expedition by William
Clark and Meriwether Lewis to explore the British to respect US neutrality on the high seas during
the Napoleonic Wars, he persuaded Congress in 1807 to embargo all trade with Britain-a move that
failed to elicit any concessions, devastated the nation’s economy for a generation, and alienated New
England, which lived by foreign trade.
After leaving office he retired to Monticello where he lived until his death on July 4, 1826,
corresponding with John Adams about the great issues of revolution and constitutinalism, trying to
preserve his declinig estate for his daughters instead of his creditors, and brooding aver the baneful
effects of slavery. He was unwilling, for financial reasons, to free his own slaves, and he disagreed
with abolitionist friends who held that blacks were equal to whites. His paradoxical beliefs in human
dignity and in racial inferiority typified the dilemma of the country he had helped to create.
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