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Thomas Jefferson, A Brief Biography

(Born April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, Virginia; died July 4, 1826, Monticello)

Miniature portrait of Jefferson (1788) by John TrumbullThomas Jefferson -- author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia -- voiced the aspirations of a new America as no other individual of his era. As public official, historian, philosopher, and plantation owner, he served his country for over five decades.

His father Peter Jefferson was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother Jane Randolph a member of one of Virginia's most distinguished families. Having inherited a considerable landed estate from his father, Jefferson began building Monticello when he was twenty-six years old. Three years later, he married Martha Wayles Skelton, with whom he lived happily for ten years until her death. Their marriage produced six children, but only two survived to adulthood. Jefferson, who never remarried, maintained Monticello as his home throughout his life, always expanding and changing the house.

Jefferson inherited slaves from both his father and father-in-law. In a typical year, he owned about 200, almost half of them under the age of sixteen. About eighty of these lived at Monticello; the others lived on adjacent Albemarle County plantations, and on his Poplar Forest estate in Bedford County, Virginia. Jefferson freed two slaves in his lifetime and five in his will and chose not to pursue two others who ran away. All were members of the Hemings family; the seven he eventually freed were skilled tradesmen.

Having attended the College of William and Mary, Jefferson practiced law and served in local government as a magistrate, county lieutenant, and member of the House of Burgesses in his early professional life. As a member of the Continental Congress, he was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, which has been regarded ever since as a charter of American and universal liberties. The document proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that the government is the servant, not the master, of the people.

After Jefferson left Congress in 1776, he returned to Virginia and served in the legislature. Elected governor from 1779 to 1781, he suffered an inquiry into his conduct during his last year in office that, although finally fully repudiated, left him with a life-long pricklishness in the face of criticism.

During the brief private interval in his life following his governorship, Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia. In 1784, he entered public service again, in France, first as trade commissioner and then as Benjamin Franklin's successor as minister. During this period, he avidly studied European culture, sending home to Monticello, books, seeds and plants, statues and architectural drawings, scientific instruments, and information.

In 1790 he accepted the post of secretary of state under his friend George Washington. His tenure was marked by his opposition to the pro-British policies of Alexander Hamilton. In 1796, as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Republicans, he became vice-president after losing to John Adams by three electoral votes.

Four years later, he defeated Adams and became president, the first peaceful transfer of authority from one party to another in the history of the young nation. Perhaps the most notable achievements of his first term were the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and his support of the Lewis and Clark expedition. His second term, a time when he encountered more difficulties on both the domestic and foreign fronts, is most remembered for his efforts to maintain neutrality in the midst of the conflict between Britain and France; his efforts did not avert war with Britain in 1812.

Jefferson was succeeded as president in 1809 by his friend James Madison, and during the last seventeen years of his life, he remained at Monticello. During this period, he sold his collection of books to the government to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Jefferson embarked on his last great public service at the age of seventy-six, with the founding of the University of Virginia. He spearheaded the legislative campaign for its charter, secured its location, designed its buildings, planned its curriculum, and served as the first rector.

Jefferson's obelisk gravemarker at MonticelloJefferson died on July 4, 1826, just hours before his close friend John Adams, on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. He was eighty-three years old, the holder of large debts, but according to all evidence a very optimistic man.

It was Jefferson's wish that his tomb stone reflect the things that he had given the people, not the things that the people had given to him. It is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson's epitaph reads:

 

HERE WAS BURIED
THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE
DECLARATION
OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
FOR
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826

Many good biographies of Jefferson are available. Perhaps the single most respected Jefferson scholar was Dumas Malone, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning six-volume biography, Jefferson and His Time. In 1993 the Thomas Jefferson Foundation published Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Biography, an essay written by Malone. Titles are available from the Shop at Monticello

 


Pictured: miniature portrait of Jefferson (1788) by John Trumbull; base of Jefferson's grave marker at the Monticello Graveyard.

 

Discussion

says

Where was Peter Jefferson Born

says

Rich,

According to an article in our Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Peter Jefferson was born in Henrico County, VA.

says

I enjoyed my Recent Visit to Monticello
I took the behind the scenes tour and was
very nice. I love Visting Monticello

says

what month and day was this written on.

says

what was going through your head when you first thought of an idea as the declaration of independence?

says

May Sarton's poem "Monticello" is a wonderful affirmation of the inestimable value of Jefferson's home to our nation. Wow!

says

If you really want to learn about Thomas Jefferson. Then you should go on a tour of his home, Monticello. It is well worth the $22 it costs for the tour. You learn so much about him and the house is beautiful. So is the land it's on.

says

T.J. is awesome

says

I always wish, when I explain this to folks, that the O.S. stood for Old School instead of Old Style. How funny would that be? Thomas Jefferson, kicking it old school. I think Jefferson and others alive around the calendar change should have gotten to celebrate their birthday twice every year.

says

A great question from SusanMarie regarding Jefferson's birth date. April 2 is Jefferson's birthday according to the Julian calendar. England and her colonies switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one in 1752 when Jefferson was 9 years old. The change necessitated "skipping" over 11 days to bring the calendar year into step with the astronomical year. Therefore Jefferson's birthday was April 2 (Old Style, a.k.a. the Julian calendar) and April 13 (New Style, a.k.a. the Gregorian calendar). Today we recognize April 13 as his birthday. More information about the calendar switch is located here: http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/old-style.

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