Jefferson, Thomas

Born: 1743-04-13 Albemarle County, Virginia

Died: 1826-07-04 Charlottesville, Virginia

Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, gained admission to the bar in 1767, and won election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. Not long after his election, he became radicalized against the British Parliament’s efforts to control its American colonies. He married Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772, and the couple had six children before her death in 1782. In 1775 and 1776, Jefferson represented Virginia at the Second Continental Congress. In July 1776, he produced his most famous document: the Declaration of Independence. It was as that document’s author that politicians of Abraham Lincoln’s generation so often evoked his name. Jefferson served as the second governor of Virginia (1779-1781), represented Virginia in the Confederation Congress (1783-84), and was U.S. minister to France (1785-89). After the Constitution was ratified, he became the first U.S. secretary of state (1790-93) under George Washington. His ideological clashes with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton precipitated the creation of first two party system, with the Democratic-Republicans backing Jefferson and the Federalists backing Hamilton. Jefferson was the second vice president of the United States (1797-1801) under John Adams, and became the third president after defeating Adams in the 1800 presidential election. Jefferson easily won re-election in 1804. During his two terms, he was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was also responsible for the Embargo Act and other trade restrictions directed at Great Britain that became catalysts for the War of 1812. The Embargo Act and other supposed anti-British policies tarnished the last few years of his presidency, but he remained popular when he retired in 1809. He had a long-term relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman he owned, and fathered several children with her, all of whom he also enslaved. After a long and active retirement, Jefferson died at the age of eighty-three at Monticello, the home he had designed and built in the style of a Palladian villa.

Merrill D. Peterson, “Jefferson, Thomas,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 11:909-18; Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, 6 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1948-1981); Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); Noble E. Cunningham Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).