Former President Thomas Jefferson was a true role model to the American people during his time. He provided the governed people an incredible amount of hope, prosperity, and dignity. He fought for the British Colonies’ independence, for certain unalienable rights, and for the prohibition of slavery. Serving as the author of the Declaration of Independence as well as holding numerous political offices nationwide, Jefferson is a prime example of what we call today a “founding father.” Indubitably one of the most influential politicians in American history, he is still studied today as a symbol of America’s birth and a good model for true democracy. He is an icon that almost every American knows. Through countless monuments as well as the insignia on United States nickel coinage, Jefferson remains well-respected for his morality, diligence, and passion which helped to sculpt the integrity of our government, and is still recognized for the incredible feat.
Thomas Jefferson was born to a wealthy family of Virginia on April 13, 1743. His father, Peter Jefferson, whose skills were developed after decades of work at the family’s five-thousand-acre Shadwell plantation, was a successful planter and surveyor. The surrounding area of the plantation today is known as the city of Charlottesville. Jefferson’s mother, Jane Rudolph Jefferson, came from a prominent Virginia family and was conditioned to be a stay-at-home mother, as was common at the time. As the third child of the couple and the eldest son, Jefferson was a sibling to seven other children, including only one brother. Thomas was survived by his brother and three of his sisters.
Attending the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Thomas studied both Greek and Latin. He also developed a strong understanding of philosophy through his schooling; this ultimately provoked his interest in politics. He also took numerous English courses to improve his verbal fluency and writing skills. The scholarly aptitude that his education provided was very inclined despite the high standards for scholarship at the time. The era in which Jefferson and others, including Paine and Franklin, lived depicts these standards by the term “the age of reason,” used in modern study.
A truly dedicated student, Jefferson would study for some fifteen hours per day. After this, and until his evening retirement, he would practice violin, generally adding a few hours to the already gruesome routine. After graduating from the prestigious school in 1762, he went on to study law. He did this under the tutelage of a respected Virginia attorney due to there being no official law schools in the colonies at that time. Some 5 years later, Jefferson began work as a practicing attorney.
Short-lived, his career as a lawyer ended in 1768 after the death of his father. With the inheritance of the Shadwell property and a very keen interest in architecture, Jefferson began clearing mountaintop on the land in preparation for the elegant brick mansion he would later construct called Monticello, literally meaning “little mountain” in Italian. The man designed all of the home and its elaborate gardens himself. Over the course of Jefferson’s life, Monticello was remolded and expanded multiple times and filled with things he collected such as fine art, exquisite furnishings, and interesting gadgets.
His extensive library, which contained thousands of books that towered shelves in the mansion’s study, was also a key part of the home, as it contained the most influential books through which Jefferson had obtained his extraordinary intelligence. To further conduct his organized fashion, Jefferson kept records of everything that happened at the estate, including a daily report of weather, a gardening journal, and an assortment of notes pertaining to everything from the animals inhabiting the land to his slaves.
The philosophical roots of Jefferson are to be found in the ideas of enlightenment and natural law that he expounded in the Declaration of Independence. In 1775, the gifted writer was asked to write its first draft. At the time, he was a member of the Continental Congress and on well-acquainted terms with both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. This work of law was an effort to explain why the thirteen colonies wished to part from British rule and detailed the importance of individual rights and freedoms. “To secure these certain unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Jefferson continued, “men set up governments to keep order.” He further said that all governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed. Jefferson, above all other points, mandated that when a government fails to protect those certain unalienable rights, the people have the right to change or to abolish that government and to set up a new one.
In a continued attempt to excuse the colonies from British rule, he went as far with his point as to set forth a list of specific charges against King George III. In the declaration, Jefferson portrayed the King as a ruthless tyrant and an erratic hypocrite. He thoroughly pronounced that it was rightful of the colonies to end their association with British government, which had clearly failed to secure those deeply unalienable rights inscribed earlier in the document. On Friday, June 26, 1776, Jefferson presented his draft to congress for the first time. Congress modified the draft in a merely stylistic manner, toning down some of Jefferson’s overly-heated language towards the King. Although some changes were substantial, such as the removal of the accusation that the King promoted illegal slave trade and was engaged in the importation of African-Americans into the colonies, most of Jefferson’s original draft survived. A polished version of the document was drafted nearly one week after Jefferson’s proposal. As the declaration was finally publicized on July 4, 1776, the term “Independence Day” was coined.
Later after this feat, Jefferson joined the Virginia House of Delegates in the fall of 1776. In an effort to protect the people’s right to worship as they please, he promoted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a forerunner to the constitutional first amendment. These laws that Jefferson wrote proclaimed that no man should be forced to attend any religious service or to support any religion at all, which was required for the Church of England by Britain before the Declaration of Independence was promulgated, and that one’s religious beliefs should not affect his civil liberties.
He soon became governor of Virginia in 1779. He worked to raise soldiers and supplies for the Continental Army and to develop the Virginia Militia. Later while holding office, he barely managed to escape capture by the British army when they showed force at Monticello just as they had done across the countryside under General Lord Cornwallis. Returning to private life, Jefferson declined reelection in 1781. In retirement, he remained focused on repairing his estate from its destroyed majority. Also, he was able to complete a work known as “Notes on Virginia,” which gained him an international reputation for scientific scholarship. The book was written to document the landscape of Virginia, including etymology of the many plants and animals inhabiting the former colony.
In 1783, he served a second stint in Congress (then officially known, since 1781, as the Congress of the Confederation). Later in 1785, he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as the United States minister to France. Due to his duties in Europe, Jefferson was not able to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Despite this, however, he was kept informed of the proceedings to draft the new national constitution and later was able to advocate for a bill of rights and influenced the development of term limits of presidents.
In the fall of 1789, Jefferson resolved his duties in France and returned to the United States. He was then asked by President George Washington to become the nation’s very first secretary of state. Accepting the position, Jefferson clashed with United States Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, over foreign policy. Their differing interpretations of the newly-developed constitution showed the first sign of bipartisan non-agreement in the United States. In an address in 1790, Jefferson reiterated his faith in the “sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs” by stressing, “The will of the majority, the only natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man.” In opposition of Hamilton’s Federalist Party, which advocated strong national government with strict powers over the economy, Jefferson co-founded the Democratic – Republican Party, which favored strong state and local governments as well as a free-trade economy. With an obvious affection for diplomacy and a fear of strict government, United States citizens favored Jefferson over Hamilton several times over.
The presidential election of 1796 was a clear win for John Adams, yet the polling system of the time called for the candidate with the second-highest amount of votes to be vice president. Escalating his political prestige, Jefferson took this position on. In his four-year term, Jefferson’s fondness grew dramatically across the nation. In the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson, once again, ran against Adams in the midst of the increasingly bitter battle between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. In a tie with fellow party member Aaron Burr, he defeated Adams. This was a surprise to all three candidates because Jefferson had not campaigned for presidency at all; his mere popularity resulted in the appearance of his name on the polls. The House of Representatives broke the tie between the two Democratic-Republicans in favor of Jefferson; Burr accepted the position of vice president. To fix the flaw in the electoral system, Congress proposed the Twelfth Amendment to the United States constitution. Ratified in 1804, it called for separate ballots for the office of president and vice president.
To the very first presidential inauguration held in Washington, D.C., Jefferson chose to break with the tradition of arriving in horse-drawn carriage like Washington and Adams had previously done in New York City and Philadelphia, respectively, and instead walked to the ceremony. The best and most succinct statements concerning “Jeffersonian Democracy” were provided in his inaugural address of March 4, 1801. In the speech, he reaffirmed his commitment to an “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority” as a vital principal to republicanism.
This faith in the people was basic to the creed he enunciated in the election of 1800 and implemented as president. Further adding, Jefferson declared that the majority prevails in all cases, rightfulness is always reasonable, and that laws are equally protected and that to violate them would be considered oppression. He made it obvious that he sought for a close association of the government with the people. The government that Jefferson promised was rigorously frugal and simple, yet organized and democratic as a whole. As president, he wished to reduce the army and navy in reflection of the republican fear of standing armies that had roots in radical English thought. He also made sure that the reduction of these arms would provide crucial savings, which he planned to use for discharging the already-pronounced national debt.
One of the most significant achievements for Jefferson’s presidential administration was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. For $15 million, the addition of the 820,000-square-mile area produced a United States that was double in size. Jefferson then commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the uncharted land. Later called the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the voyage provided valuable information about the geography, animal and plant life, and American-Indian culture of the continent’s west.
Although Jefferson was an advocate for individual liberty and one who went as far as to promote one of the first plans to emancipate African-American slaves in the United States, he owned slaves throughout his entire life. While he is quite notorious for the famous lines inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” he believed that African-Americans were biologically inferior to whites. A common view at the time, he believed that slaves were property, not men. The inheritance of over 175 slaves was the cause of a truly controversial issue in Jefferson’s life. He suggested that white men and slaves could not coexist peacefully without threatening the freedoms of the latter party. By some, he was considered a hypocrite. Furthermore, Jefferson was not supportive of the freedom of slaves in America, but instead he insisted throughout his political career that African-Americans should be removed from the continent.
In retirement after a second term as president, Jefferson continued the simplistic life he once before enjoyed. He pursued interests such as architecture, music, reading, and gardening. Also, with its first classes held in 1825, the University of Virginia, located near Monticello in modern-day Charlottesville, was co-founded by Jefferson, who was specifically involved in the development of the school’s curriculum and the designing of the school’s buildings. Also because of the influence of Jefferson, the University of Virginia was unlike all other colleges in the United States at the time due to its inattention to religious affiliations. He also served as the school’s first rector.
At age 83, Jefferson passed away at Monticello on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Coincidentally, John Adams, friend, political rival, and fellow signer died later that same day. Jefferson remains an American icon today. His face appears on the United States nickel and is carved into stone at Mount Rushmore. The Jefferson Memorial, located near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated on April 13, 1943, the two-hundredth anniversary of the third president’s birth. Hundreds of thousands of visitors see the monument and millions of Americans are reminded of the founding father by their coinage every year. Jefferson is considered by many to have been a very remarkable man. He was not a politician with a greed for power, he was a true father of the country; he nurtured the United States with all of his will and prevailed in keeping its intended integrity by successfully antagonizing the Federalist party. Thomas Jefferson’s unmatched passion for rightfulness helped to grow the roots of these great United States and he will never be forgotten for his unrivaled contribution.
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