People & Events
Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton despised -- and feared -- him. The diplomats who called on him in the new capital at Washington were shocked by his casual behavior. But Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, saw himself as an important bulwark between the people and the Federalists. Jefferson feared that Hamilton and his Federalist colleagues were bent on stripping away the individual liberties guaranteed in the Constitution.
Born in Virginia in 1743, Jefferson grew up with an appreciation for learning. He attended the College of William and Mary, then studied law privately and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. Throughout his life, he devoted himself to learning. He read Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, and Anglo-Saxon. He took a keen interest in science as well, and conducted numerous experiments in agriculture.
In 1769 Jefferson was elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses. Soon after, he made himself a national reputation with his eloquent defenses of Colonial freedom. In 1774 he wrote "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," which asserted that the British Parliament had no right to make laws for the Colonies.
In 1775 Jefferson was appointed a member of the Virginia delegation to the Second Continental Congress. When the Congress decided to break with Britain, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams were among a committee of five chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the document's principal author.
Jefferson's commitment to representative government was a passionate one. As a representative in Virginia, he advocated for policies that would give more people access to land ownership, provide for higher education, and officially sever the connection between church and state.
Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia in 1779. He generally served well, but was criticized publicly after Virginia failed to repel invading British troops in 1780. An investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, and he served out his term. But a lingering stain on his reputation, as well as the terminal illness of his wife Martha caused him to withdraw from politics in 1781.
Jefferson soon returned to the political world, however, representing Virginia in the Continental Congress of 1783. Although he owned slaves himself, and believed blacks inherently inferior to whites, he proposed a bill to outlaw slavery in all new territories the federal government should acquire. The proposal failed by one vote.
In 1784 Jefferson traveled to France to replace Benjamin Franklin as ambassador. There, Jefferson witnessed the opening throes of the French Revolution, and he became a passionate supporter of it.
Jefferson returned to the U.S. in 1789 and became George Washington's first secretary of state. During his tenure, Jefferson clashed repeatedly with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson thought Hamilton's monetary policies exceeded the authority granted in the Constitution and favored the rich. In addition, Jefferson's favored closer ties with the French, while Hamilton backed closer ties with the British.
Both Jefferson and Hamilton left their offices during Washington's first term. Jefferson became the leader of the Republican Party, Hamilton of the Federalist. Jefferson was elected vice president in 1796 and served under President John Adams, a Federalist.
Under Adams, Federalist judges began to use the Alien and Sedition Acts to stifle Republican support for France in its war against Britain. The Alien Act gave the U.S. the power to expel foreigners deemed hostile to the government. The Sedition Act made it a crime to slander officials of the federal government. In response to these Acts, which he opposed, Jefferson wrote the Kentucky resolutions, a treatise declaring that a state had the power to "nullify" a bad law passed by Congress. Due in large part to the Alien and Sedition Acts' unpopularity, the Republicans enjoyed a rise in power.
Jefferson was elected to the presidency in 1800. A critical element of the campaign was choosing New York power broker Aaron Burr as his vice president, which enabled the Republicans to secure New York's electoral votes. In fact, the race for the presidency ended in a tie between Jefferson and Burr. Jefferson was chosen the winner by a vote in Congress.
In his first term, Jefferson eased the rift between the Federalists and the Republicans, although he did attempt to loosen the Federalist hold on the federal judiciary by the use of impeachment. Ironically, he was thwarted by his own vice president, Aaron Burr. Jefferson barred Burr's nomination for a second term as vice president. This helped turn Burr into an adversary.
In 1803 Jefferson's reputation was damaged by the allegation that he fathered five children by ones of his slaves, Sally Hemings. But his popularity was restored when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France. The purchase added 828,000 square miles to the new nation and secured an untold wealth of resources that would help America expand. In the end, however, one of Jefferson' main goals -- that of creating a purely democratic, agricultural nation in America -- would fail.
After he left office, Jefferson retired to Monticello, his Virginia estate. There, he continued his lifelong pursuits in the arts and sciences. He also founded the University of Virginia, designing its buildings and even planning its curriculum. On July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died -- just hours before John Adams.