Thomas Jefferson served as the primary draftsman of the United States Declaration of Independence, as the nation’s first secretary of state, and as the nation’s second vice president during his time in the presidency (under John Adams). Jefferson continued to serve as the third president of the United States, during which he stabilized the country’s economy and defeated pirates from North Africa during the Barbary War. By successfully brokering the Louisiana Purchase, he was credited with more than doubling the size of the United States of America. In addition, he was the founder of the University of Virginia.
Virginia native Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at the Shadwell plantation, located just outside of Charlottesville. Jefferson was born into the most influential families among Virginia’s planter elite, and his father was a prominent planter himself. Her son’s mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, was descended from the illustrious Randolph family, who claimed direct lineage from English and Scottish royalty.
About being a successful farmer, his father, Peter Jefferson, was also a skilled surveyor and cartographer responsible for making the first accurate map of the Province of Virginia. Jefferson was the third of ten children, and he was the youngest.
Jefferson’s favorite childhood activities included playing in the woods, learning to play the violin, and reading books. At nine, he started his proper education when he enrolled in a local private school operated by the Reverend William Douglas and studied Latin and Greek.
Jefferson continued his classical language studies with the Reverend James Maury, whom he later described as “a correct classical scholar,” when he was 14 years old in 1757. He also studied literature and mathematics with Maury.
Becoming a Lawyer
Jefferson spent three years at William & Mary chose to study law under Wythe, one of the colonies’ preeminent lawyers. At the moment, there were no law schools; instead, aspiring attorneys “read law” under the supervision of an established lawyer before sitting for the bar examination.
Wythe guided Jefferson through an unusually rigorous five-year course of study (more than double the typical duration); by the time Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767, he had already found himself as one of the most learned lawyers in America.
Jefferson’s professional life began at a time of significant change in Britain’s 13 American colonies.
Following the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British Crown imposed a slew of new taxes on its American colonies. With the Stamp Act of 1765, the colonists were outraged, leading to the revolutionary slogan “No taxation without representation.”
Protesting a British tea tax, colonists threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. The Battles of Lexington and Concord began in April 1775, marking the start of the Revolutionary War.
Jefferson was an early and ardent supporter of American independence from Britain. In 1768, he joined the radical Virginia House of Burgesses led by Patrick Henry and George Washington.
Jefferson’s 1774 publication of A Summary View of the Rights of British America cemented his reputation as one of the most elegant advocates for the American cause.
Jefferson attended the Second Continental Congress, which established the Continental Army and named George Washington commander-in-chief. Jefferson did the essential work for Congress in 1775.
Declaration of Independence
The Congress appointed a five-member committee (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston) to select a Declaration of Independence in June 1776.
The committee then chose Jefferson to start writing the declaration’s first draft, citing his “happy talent for composition and singular felicity of expression,” as Adams put it. Jefferson spent the next 17 days writing one of the most beautiful and powerful declarations of liberty and equality in world history.
The document began with a proclamation of all human beings’ natural rights. It then detailed specific grievances against King George III, effectively absolving the American colonies of loyalty to the British Monarchy.
Even though the Declaration of Independence adopted on July 4, 1776, underwent several revisions from Jefferson’s original draft, its immortal words remain primarily unchanged: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, among which are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Jefferson returned to Virginia after authoring the Declaration of Independence, where he served as a delegate from 1776 to 1779, the Virginia House of Delegates. He sought to amend Virginia’s laws to conform to the American ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson successfully abolished the doctrine of entail, which mandated that only a property owner’s heirs could inherit his land. The philosophy of primogeniture demanded that a property owner’s oldest son inherited his entire estate in the absence of a will.
John Adams’ presidency exposed the Federalist Party’s deep divisions between moderates like Adams and Washington and more radical Federalists like Alexander Hamilton.
The Federalists refused to support Adams in the 1800 presidential election, allowing Republican candidates Jefferson and Aaron Burr to tie with 73 electoral votes each. The House of Representatives selected Jefferson as the third president of the United States, with Burr as his vice president, following a lengthy and contentious debate.
Jefferson’s election in 1800 was a watershed moment in world history, marking the first peaceful transfer of power in a modern republic.
On March 4, 1801, Jefferson delivered his inaugural address, emphasizing the fundamental similarities that unite all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation. “Not every difference of opinion is a fundamental disagreement,” he stated. “We have referred to brethren of the same principle by various names. Each of us is a Republican, and each of us is a Federalist.”
According to historical records, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, only just a few hours before John Adams died in Massachusetts, on the same day as Jefferson.
“Thomas Jefferson survives,” Adams said in his final words, which are eternally true even if they are not meant in the literal sense in which he intended them: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”