Thomas Jefferson, one of the finest minds of the 1700’s, was born in Albermarle County, Virginia on April 13, 1743 into one of the most prominent families of Virginia’s planter elite. He was the third of six children. He began his formal education at age 9 under Reverend William Douglas, and at age 14 he took up a more in depth study of the classical languages, literature, and mathematics with Reverend James Maury. In 1760, at age 17, he left his home to attend the College of William and Mary (in Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital).
While at the College of William and Mary, he was mentored lawyer George Wythe, under who he “read law” for five years before being examined by the bar in 1767. From 1767 until 1774, Jefferson practiced law very successfully, and married a very wealthy widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, who gave him six children.
Up to this point, one would never imagine that someone with this background would eventually author the Declaration of Independence, but the beginning of his professional life coincided with many changes in the British American colonies, facilitating this. In 1763, at the conclusion of the French and Indian War, Great Britain raised and created new taxes on the American colonies in order to raise revenue. One of the most infamous of these is the Stamp Act of 1765 which imposed a tax on printed and paper goods, which led to the American revolutionary slogan “no taxation without representation”. Then, in December of 1773, colonists protesting a British tea tax threw 342 chests of tea into the Boston Harbor in the notorious “Boston Tea Party”.
Finally, on April 19, 1775, American militiamen clashed with British soldiers in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, and the “shot heard around the world” began the American Revolutionary War. The colonial militia were outnumbered and initially forced to retreat. The British army pressed to Concord where the American militia regrouped, and drove the British back. As more American reinforcements arrived, they forced the British army to Boston, and blocked the land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, beginning the Siege of Boston.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of American independence from Great Britain. In 1768 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and joined its radical bloc, led by Patrick Henry and George Washington. In 1775, he attended the Second Continental Congress, which created the Continental Army, and appointed George Washington as its commander-in-chief.
In June 1776, Congress tasked Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston to draft a Declaration of Independence. This five-man committee then appointed Jefferson to author the first draft, which he did over the subsequent 17 days. In his original draft, Jefferson explained why the 13 colonies wanted to be free of British rule, and detailed the importance of individual rights and freedoms. Having finished this, Jefferson returned to Virginia to serve as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1776-1779, where he revised Virginia’s laws to fit the American ideals he had so carefully outlined in the Declaration of Independence. In 1777, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of his proudest life accomplishments, which established separation of church and state in Virginia.
On June 1, 1779, Jefferson was elected by the Virginia legislature as the state’s second governor. This was a low point in his career, finding himself torn between the Continental Army’s needs and the Virginian’s desire to keep resources for their own defense. As the war moved south, Jefferson moved the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, only to later evacuate the latter. One day before his second term as governor (June 1781), he was forced to flee his home to avoid capture by the British cavalry. After his second term as governor, he returned to his home with the intention of giving up public life.
However, in 1783, a few months after the death of his 34 year old wife, Jefferson returned to Philadelphia to lead the Virginia delegation to the Confederation Congress, which later appointed him as U.S. minister to France. After 5 years in Paris, Jefferson arrived in Virginia to find George Washington waiting for him with news that he had been elected the first president of the United States of America, and was appointing Thomas Jefferson as his secretary of state. On January 5, 1794, frustrated by the endless conflicts with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton who had opposing views on most of the issues of the day, Jefferson resigned as secretary of state.
In spite of Jefferson’s claims that he was through with politics, in 1797 he was selected by the Republicans to succeed Washington as president. However, Jefferson finished second to John Adams (vice president at the time) which by the rules of those days, made Jefferson vice president. At the time, the vice president had no real role in government other than presiding over the Senate, so Jefferson occupied his time by authoring “A Manual of Parliamentary Practice”.
In the presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for first place, leaving it to the House of Representatives to select Jefferson to serve as the 3rdU.S. president with Aaron Burr as his vice president. In his first term as president, Jefferson stripped the presidency of all the trappings of European royalty, reduced the size of the armed forces government bureaucracy, and lowered the national debt from $80 million to $57 million in his first two years. However, some might argue that his most significant accomplishments as president were the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the undeclared war against Barbary pirates.
Thomas Jefferson won re-election in 1804, but his second term was not nearly as productive. He unsuccessfully attempted to impeach Federalist judges and passed the Embargo Act of 1807 which destroyed the American economy and eventually led to the War of 1812 with Great Britain.
After his succession as president by James Madison, Jefferson returned to his Virginia home where he organized the nation’s first secular university, the University of Virginia, which opened on March 7, 1825.
On July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson died. A few hours later his close friend, John Adams, uttered his last words, “Thomas Jefferson survives”, and passed away as well.