Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826), third president of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was highly accomplished in many fields—politics, diplomacy, science, architecture, education, farming, and music, to name only a few. He was a brilliant writer and a philosopher of democracy—on behalf of the American cause in the Revolution and as the foremost advocate of popular rule in the young republic.
Jefferson attended William and Mary College, graduated in 1762, then studied law, being admitted to the bar in 1767. In 1770, he began building Monticello, the home near Charlottesville, Va., that he had designed. In 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton. Only 2 of their 6 children survived infancy.
In 1769, Jefferson entered the House of Burgesses, Virginia's colonial assembly. As relations with Britain deteriorated, he joined the revolutionaries' cause. A radical democrat, he believed men should be free to govern themselves, and opposed aristocracy of birth or wealth. His writings made him one of the leading political theorists in the colonies. In 1776, as a delegate to the Continental Congress, Jefferson was named to a 5-man committee to prepare a declaration justifying independence; Jefferson wrote most of it. It is considered the most eloquent statement of his views on democracy and government. The Continental Congress adopted the declaration on July 4, 1776.
Jefferson returned to Virginia's legislature, then became governor in 1779. In 1783, he was elected to the new U.S. Congress.
Service to the nation
Jefferson served as the U.S. minister to France (1785–89) and as the first U.S. secretary of state (1789–93). Although President George Washington disliked the idea of political parties, 2 parties formed around Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury. Jefferson's followers became known as Democratic-Republicans (or Republicans) and Hamilton's as Federalists. Jefferson believed in the rationality of man and saw the nation's future as an egalitarian, agricultural society of small landholders. He opposed the idea of strong, central government, believing that all governments should be kept from gaining too much power. Hamilton considered the people “a great beast” and wanted the nation to develop into a commercial and industrial one led by a strong national government and a wealthy aristocracy. Washington was unable to settle the dispute between his 2 top advisers; Jefferson resigned in 1793. Three years later, the Democratic-Republicans persuaded him to run against Federalist John Adams for the presidency. Jefferson lost by a narrow margin, thus becoming Adams's vice president. In 1800, Jefferson and running mate Aaron Burr ran against Federalists John Adams and John C. Pinckney. Jefferson and Burr received equal electoral votes, so the House of Representative had to decide who would be president. It chose Jefferson.
Jefferson's greatest diplomatic coup was the Louisiana Purchase (1803), which doubled the size of the nation. The following year, he sent Lewis and Clark to explore the new territory. Their expedition led to the settlement and eventual incorporation of the West into the nation.
Under Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans balanced the budget, built a surplus, and reduced the national debt. Jefferson's personal popularity carried him and running mate George Clinton to an overwhelming victory in the 1804 presidential election, but his second term was beset by foreign-affairs problems, particularly a conflict between Britain and France. Hoping to avoid war, Jefferson established an embargo forbidding the export of U.S. products and prohibiting U.S. ships from sailing to foreign ports. The embargo, however, hurt U.S. traders far more than it did Europe. Jefferson's presidency ended under a cloud of unpopularity.
Jefferson retired to Monticello. Active to the end, he pursued his many interests and founded the University of Virginia. He died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the same day as his old friend and rival, John Adams.