Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, spent his childhood roaming the woods and studying his books on a remote plantation in the Virginia Piedmont. Thanks to the prosperity of his father, Jefferson had an excellent education. After years in boarding school, where he excelled in classical languages, Jefferson enrolled in William and Mary College in his home state of Virginia, taking classes in science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature. He also studied law, and by the time he was admitted to the Virginia bar in April 1767, many considered him to have one of the nation's best legal minds.

Shaping America's Political Philosophy

Jefferson was shy in person, but his pen proved to be a mighty weapon. His pamphlet entitled "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," written in 1774, articulated the colonial position for independence and foreshadowed many of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, the work for which he is most famous. By 1774, Jefferson was actively involved in organizing opposition to British rule, and in 1776, he was appointed to the Second Continental Congress. As a powerful prose stylist and an influential Virginia representative, Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. This document is a brilliant assertion of fundamental human rights and also serves as America's most succinct statement of its philosophy of government.

Before becoming the nation's third President, Jefferson served as delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he drafted legislation that abolished primogeniture, the law that made the eldest son the sole inheritor of his father's property. He also promoted religious freedom, helping to establish the country's separation between church and state, and he advocated free public education, an idea considered radical by his contemporaries.

During the Revolution, Jefferson served two years as governor of Virginia, during which time he barely escaped capture by British forces by fleeing from Monticello, his home. He was later charged with being a coward for not confronting the enemy. After the war, Jefferson served as America's minister to France, where he witnessed firsthand the dramatic events leading up to the French Revolution.

While abroad, Jefferson corresponded with members of the Constitutional Convention, particularly his close associate from Virginia, James Madison. He agreed to support the Constitution and the strong federal government it created. Jefferson's support, however, hinged upon the condition that Madison add a Bill of Rights to the document in the form of ten amendments. The rights that Jefferson insisted upon—among them were freedom of speech, assembly, and practice of religion—have become fundamental to and synonymous with American life ever since.

Presidential Politics

Jefferson served as secretary of state under Washington, but quarrels with Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton over his vision of a centralized national bank caused Jefferson to resign his post in 1793. In the election of 1796, Jefferson was the favorite of Democratic-Republican opponents of the Washington administration. He came in second to Federalist John Adams in electoral college votes and became Adams's vice president.

In 1800, however, the political tide had turned against the Federalist Party of Adams and Hamilton. After a bitterly contested election, a tie vote in the electoral college, and a protracted deadlock in the House of Representatives, Jefferson finally emerged as the winner—thanks, in part, to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which gave states with large slave populations additional votes. In his inaugural address, Jefferson pled for national unity in an attempt to heal the wounds of a vicious campaign and to gain support from the Federalist-controlled Congress. Due to a relatively placid first term, prosperity, lower taxes, and a reduction of the national debt, Jefferson won a landslide victory in 1804.

Defining the Powers of the Government

Jefferson believed in a "wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another" but which otherwise left them free to regulate their own affairs. In an effort to minimize the influence of the central government, he reduced the number of government employees, slashed Army enlistments, and cut the national debt. Similar to his predecessor, John Adams, Jefferson had to deal with the political war waged between his Republican Party and the Federalists. The battles were focused on the nation's judiciary branch. The landmark ruling in Marbury v. Madison, which established the independent power of the Supreme Court, was handed down during Jefferson's presidency.

Foreign affairs dominated his day-to-day attentions while President, often pushing him toward Federalist policies that contrasted with his political philosophy. To ensure the safety of American ships on the high seas, Jefferson attempted to put an end to the bribes that the United States had been paying to the Barbary states for many years. This resulted in a war with Tripoli, in which Jefferson was forced to use his navy and to rethink his policy of reducing the U.S. military. While the United States at first enjoyed an economic boom due to the war between England and France, the British navy's practice of forcing American sailors into British service led to Jefferson's disastrous suspension of trade with both France and England. This trade war devastated the economy, alienated the hard-hit mercantile Northeast, and propelled America into war with England.

His brilliant negotiation and ties to France led to the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million, doubling the size of the nation. Nonetheless, the deal troubled Jefferson, who did not wish to overstep the central government's powers as outlined by the Constitution, which made no mention of the power to acquire new territory. It was Jefferson who authorized the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), led by Meriwether Lewis, a military officer who was Jefferson's clerk at the White House.

A Private Portrait of Contradictions

Jefferson preferred to live a simple lifestyle during his time in office, often greeting his dinner guests in old homespun clothes and a pair of worn bedroom slippers. Having lost his beloved wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, in 1782 to childbirth, Jefferson relied on his two married daughters and the wife of his secretary of state, Dolley Madison, as his official hostesses. Although he disliked pomp and circumstance, Jefferson knew how to live well; his wine bill upon leaving the presidency exceeded $10,000. In 1809, Jefferson retired to his Virginia plantation home, Monticello, where he continued pursuing his widely diverse interests in science, natural history, philosophy, and the classics. Jefferson also devoted himself to founding the University of Virginia.

Contemporary debates continue to rage—as they did during Jefferson's own lifetime—concerning his relationship with Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson's slaves, after Martha's death. Recent DNA evidence presents a convincing case that Jefferson was indeed the biological father of Heming's children, and most historians now believe that Jefferson and Hemings had a long-term sexual relationship. Jefferson was ambivalent about slavery throughout his career. As a young politician, he argued for the prohibition of slavery in new American territories, yet he never freed his own slaves. How could a man responsible for writing the sacred words "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal" have been a slave owner? He never resolved his internal conflict on this issue.

After carrying on a long and fascinating correspondence with John Adams while both men were in the twilight of their lives, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826—exactly fifty years to the day from the signing of the Declaration of Independence.