The Path to the Presidency

Jefferson entered politics in 1769, serving as a member of colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses, a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia in the American Revolution, U.S. Minister to France, the new nation's first Secretary of State, and Vice President under John Adams before being elected the third president in 1801.

Timeline: Jefferson's Political Career
Timeline: Jefferson's Political Career

“When I retired from this place and the office of Secretary of state, it was in the firmest contemplation of never more returning here...The second office of this government is honorable and easy. The first is but a splendid misery.”

- Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, writing from Philadelphia, May 13, 1797

Jefferson's First Term

“Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.”
-Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801

Jefferson's First Inauguration
Jefferson's First Inauguration

Watch as first-person interpreter Bill Barker shares the story of bitter political rivalry, an election thrown into the House, and the ultimate peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another.

Jefferson' Landslide: The Election of 1804

Jefferson's well-organized Democratic-Republican Party faced little opposition from the Federalist Party, leaderless and disorganized after Alexander Hamilton's death in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. Jefferson easily defeated Federalist Charles C. Pinckney, winning almost 73% of the popular vote. He accounted for his success as the result of his administration's policies to improve foreign relations, eliminate internal taxes, and double the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. Despite this electoral triumph, Jefferson's second term ended with the nation divided and on the brink of war.

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Jefferson's Second Term

“As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers”
- Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806



Jefferson's two terms as president left behind a mixed legacy. The first Barbary War ended in victory, yet that peace did not last. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country and provided the natural resources to make the U.S. a world power, but displaced and disrupted the culture of Native Americans. Unresolved issues with Great Britain would lead to the War of 1812 and the problem of slavery would eventually tear the nation apart. In Jefferson's words: "the boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave" and the experiment in self government begun in 1776 remains a never ending work in progress.