Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) was America’s third president and the author of our Declaration of Independence. Although he is responsible for a lot of the freedoms and liberties we have today, his own personal life was a contradiction because he and his family owned slaves.
The former president was born on April 13, 1743 at Shadwell, his family’s plantation near present-day Charlottesville, Virginia. He was the third child in his family and had six sisters and one surviving brother. As the eldest male, he inherited the plantation after the death of his father.
Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1762 and then began to study law from a respected attorney. Back then, there were not any official law schools and lawyers learned from others the tools of the trade. He began practicing as a lawyer in 1767 at just 24 years of age.
Jefferson’s ability to write came into play as he served as a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1775. In 1774, he wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which said British Parliament had no right to exercise authority over the American colonies.
On January 1, 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow, and the couple had six children together, although only two daughters survived to adulthood.
In 1775, during the American Revolutionary War, Jefferson became a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and at the age of 33 was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted on July 4, 1776.
Jefferson later returned to the Virginia House of Delegates (formerly the House of Burgesses) and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was a precursor to today’s First Amendment, granting freedom of religion.
In 1768, Jefferson decided to clear a mountain area of his property to build a brick mansion he called Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian.
Jefferson served as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781. In 1785, he took Benjamin Franklin’s place as US minister to France.
In 1789, Jefferson was appointed the nation’s first secretary of state by President George Washington. Unfortunately, he clashed with the U.S. secretary of treasury, Alexander Hamilton, over foreign policy and interpretation of the Constitution. Jefferson believed in strong state and local governments and co-founded the Democratic-Republican Party specifically to oppose Hamilton’s Federalist Party, which strove for a strong national government with broad powers over the economy.
The presidential election of 1796 pitted Jefferson against his good friend John Adams. Although he didn’t win the presidency, he had the second highest number of votes, which made him Adams’ vice president, according to the laws at the time. In 1800, Jefferson and Adams ran against each other again, only this time Jefferson won. However, a flaw in the electoral system had Jefferson tied with fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives broke the tie, choosing Jefferson, and Congress proposed the Twelfth Amendment to separate voting for president and vice president to prevent this from happening again.
Jefferson was sworn into office on March 4, 1801. He was the first president to have the presidential inauguration held in Washington, D.C. One of his greatest accomplishments as president was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million in 1803. The land stretched between the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to present-day Canada, almost doubling the size of the United States. He commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the land: The expedition is known as the Corps of Discovery and took two years (1804-1806) to complete.
He served two terms as president before retiring to Monticello. At the age of 83, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He passed away just a few hours before his friend and rival, John Adams.
Jefferson’s face is on the US nickel and is carved into stone at Mount Rushmore. The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC was dedicated on the 200th anniversary of his birthday.