Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell plantation in western Virginia. His first childhood memory, at age three, was of the fifty-mile horseback ride he took with his father's slave into the Virginia wilderness. This journey was undertaken with his family as they moved to a plantation that Jefferson's father was to manage, acting as executor of a friend's estate. Along with his parents and three siblings—three other sisters and one brother were later born to the family—Jefferson spent the next six years roaming the woods and studying his books.

Intellectual Beginnings

At age nine, Jefferson began his formal studies, boarding with a minister-teacher nine months out of the year. He continued boarding school until age sixteen, excelling in classical languages. In 1760, Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary, taking classes in science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature. The precocious Jefferson fell under the influence of Professor William Small, who had brought the latest Enlightenment thinking to Williamsburg from his native Scotland, and dined frequently with Governor Francis Fauquier and other luminaries in the provincial capital. From 1762 to 1767, Jefferson pursued legal studies under George Wythe, who also taught John Marshall and Henry Clay, two of the most outstanding figures in American history. Under Wythe's tutelage, Jefferson emerged as perhaps the nation's best-read lawyer upon his admission to the Virginia bar in April 1767. For Jefferson, the study of law, as directed by Wythe, was more than just a means of earning a living; Jefferson felt that examining legal issues enabled one to consider many aspects of society, including its history, politics, culture, institutions, and the moral conscience of its people.

During Jefferson's time, few colonial Americans could afford the quality and personal education that he received. He owed his good fortune to the financial success of his father, Peter Jefferson, a planter of some means. By the time of his death in 1757, the elder Jefferson owned 7,000 acres of land in western Virginia. He had also made a name for himself as the commander of the local militia, a talented surveyor, and a country politician. His early death, when Thomas was fourteen, caused his teenage son to look to his teachers for fatherly advice and direction. Little is known about Jefferson's mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, who died in 1776.

Law, Love, and Political Insurgency

As a young country lawyer, Jefferson practiced law on a circuit, following the meetings of the colonial court as it traveled to various district seats throughout Virginia. It was during these unsettled years that he met and fell in love with twenty-three-year-old Martha Wayles Skelton, a wealthy widow and daughter of a prominent Virginia lawyer and landowner. Her first husband and infant son had died two years earlier. Martha and Thomas married on January 1, 1772, moving into a stark one-room brick house at Jefferson's Virginia plantation, which he called Monticello. Over the years, the house would become an architectural gem designed and built by Jefferson and his slave laborers. Much of the fine furniture in the house was built by his slaves, who were highly skilled designers and craftsmen.

A member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1774, Jefferson played an active role in the organization of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence. Colonial resentment against Britain was fomenting, and committees such as this one represented an underground group of political agitators which worked to oppose British domination of the colonies. In presenting his arguments, Jefferson wrote "Summary View of the Rights of British America" in 1774. This document propelled him into the larger spotlight. He became known as a man of immense abilities in articulating the colonial position for independence. Before long, he was known to stand with Patrick Henry as one of the leading radicals who argued that the British Parliament had no authority at all to make laws for the colonies.

Declaring Independence

When the reluctantly revolutionary Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1776, Jefferson found himself appointed with four other delegates to write a declaration of independence. This group of five men was destined to lead the new nation. The other four committee members, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, strategically deferred to Jefferson to draft the document. Jefferson's selection was based upon his powerful writing style and the fact that he represented the interests of Virginia, the most influential southern colony. Virginia's leadership in stating the colonial cause was a key in creating a united front against Britain. The respected Benjamin Franklin backed off from penning a first draft, saying that he would never write anything for others to edit. John Adams handed the task over to Jefferson, expressing his admiration of Jefferson's superior writing skills. Adams said that the young Virginian was unmatched in his eloquence and his penetrating mind. He later regretted not writing the document to his dying day.

Jefferson wrote the draft and defended it before the committee as a simple piece designed to present in plain and firm terms the "common sense" of independence. The document's structure included a statement of principles and then a list of grievances. After deleting Jefferson's biting attack on King George III for trafficking slaves and debating other issues of substance for three days, Congress approved "The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America" on July 4—the Continental Congress never officially called it the Declaration of Independence.

The document's assertion of fundamental human rights provided a compact statement of government that underlies the Republic. In Jefferson's mind, the Declaration of Independence would provide the foundation for the creation of an American society truly representative and egalitarian. Authoring this important document positioned Jefferson as one of the new nation's most important Founding Fathers—equal to Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, and John Adams.

From Beliefs to Actions: The Virginia House of Delegates Years

From 1776 to 1779, Jefferson served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, where he successfully sought to abolish entail and primogeniture, legal devices that preserved land estates and passed them on to eldest sons, exclusive of any other family members, upon the father's death. Jefferson's efforts to abolish primogeniture would strike a blow at inherited concentrations of wealth. It was a difficult fight, but he eventually prevailed.

Jefferson also helped to break the traditional link between religion and government by authoring the famous Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was finally passed into law thanks to the efforts of Jefferson's friend James Madison. As an avowed deist, Jefferson believed in a divine creator who had set creation in motion according to a set of natural laws that required no further intervention by a deity in the universe. For Jefferson, God was not a personal savior, and he looked upon all established religions as cultural artifacts. Accordingly, he opposed the use of religion by government as a means of granting privileges or imposing duty upon the citizenry. Jefferson argued that such a misuse enslaved the human mind and thus violated the principle of liberty upon which a democracy should rest. He also feared that religion would hinder the development of a national elite, a moral and ethical group of aristocrats who would lead the nation.

Similarly, Jefferson advocated a radical system of free public education. All white male Virginians, he argued, should be educated to literacy at lower schools while the naturally superior of mind and talent should be supported in a system of higher education. These intellectually talented men would then become the natural leaders of the nation. Jefferson asserted that the only barrier to a student's admittance to the university should be his own intellectual limits.

Governor of Virginia

During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson served two years as governor of Virginia. The governor had no veto power over legislation and was subject to the decisions of an eight-man council of state that decided policy. When the British overran much of Virginia, the administration was forced to abandon the capitol at Richmond. Jefferson fled from his home at Monticello, barely escaping capture by a British raiding party. Unfortunately, this decision became the object of public ridicule when it was portrayed as a cowardly refusal to stand his ground. The charge followed Jefferson for the rest of his public life.

Notes on Virginia

Feeling rejected, embarrassed, and desperately concerned about the health of his wife, Jefferson retired to Monticello. On November 6, 1782, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson died in childbirth. It was her sixth pregnancy. Completely shattered, Jefferson threw himself into the solitary world of his writing, penning his only book, entitled Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson defended his plans for freedom of religion and universal education while advocating a wide distribution of property as the only means of insuring a free and independent people. At the same time, he expressed his fears for the future of the country. Jefferson worried that after the Revolution, the passion and quest for civility and virtue in public life would be supplanted by greed as men searched for opportunities leading to individual fortune.

Thoughts on Slavery and Statehood

Included in the Notes is a discussion of slavery in which Jefferson states both his opposition to the institution and his belief in the racial inferiority of blacks. Jefferson concluded, although not with absolute certainty—because he had not studied the subject with scientific rigor—"that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." Historians view Jefferson's reasoning as an example of how even the most brilliant of minds can fail to escape the cultural baggage and context of its age.

Virginia sent Jefferson as its representative to the Confederation Congress in 1783, where he worked to establish the decimal system as the nation's basis of measurement. More importantly, in 1784, Jefferson drafted an ordinance providing for the temporary government of western territories under congressional control. The national domain was to be divided into ten districts, and once the population of each district reached 20,000, the residents could call a convention and establish a territorial constitution and government of their own choosing. When the territorial population then reached a size equal to the smallest of the original thirteen states, the residents could petition Congress for statehood. Jefferson's original proposal included a provision prohibiting slavery in the new states, but Congress rejected this part by a vote of seven to six. In 1784, Jefferson also helped draft an ordinance for surveying and selling congressional lands; though superseded by the Land Ordinance of 1785, Jefferson's ordinance established the basic framework of federal land policy. The 1784 Territorial Government Ordinance was replaced with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which did prohibit slavery in those lands organized north of the Ohio River. The ordinance also replaced Jefferson's guarantee of initial self-government with congressionally appointed governors and judges.

Representing America in France

For four years, beginning in 1785, Jefferson served as America's minister to France, a position equivalent to today's ambassador. In this post, he negotiated commercial treaties and closely observed the disorderly events leading up to the French Revolution. As a widower, Jefferson enjoyed his years in France, living there with his two daughters, Martha, age twelve, and Mary, age seven. He partook fully of French culture, intellectual salons, and the like. Upon his departure from France, he was convinced that French Enlightenment thought, as expressed by its philosophers and artists, would eventually prove the foundation for a new world order to the great benefit of all humanity.

It was also during these years that Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings began. Hemings was the daughter of his wife's father and a slave woman in his household. Fourteen years old, Sally accompanied Jefferson's daughter Mary to Europe in 1787.

While fulfilling his duties in France, Jefferson corresponded with members of the Constitutional Convention during 1787 and 1788. In particular, Jefferson communicated with James Madison about the events surrounding the creation of a new form of government. Having kept abreast of the discussions and developments, Jefferson supported the ratification of the U.S. Constitution but also strongly emphasized the need for a bill of rights, amendments to the Constitution that would safeguard basic civil liberties, such as the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, the right to bear arms, and the right to have a speedy trial by a jury of one's peers.

Service under President Washington

Jefferson reluctantly agreed to serve as Washington's secretary of state in the nation's first administration, beginning in 1790. As department head, Jefferson efficiently organized government business, operating with only a handful of employees and a budget of just $10,000. He supported closer relations with France and viewed England with skepticism. At that time, England and France were at war, and Hamilton won Washington's agreement to honor a pro-British policy of neutrality rather than the treaty providing for assistance to France, which Jefferson favored. Thus, Jefferson's effectiveness in foreign policy was blunted by Washington's insistence on a more neutral stance.

Although he enjoyed Washington's complete confidence, Jefferson found that the President was increasingly influenced by Alexander Hamilton, who had been his aide during the war and in the first administration served as his secretary of treasury. As Jefferson's chief rival for the President's attention, Hamilton succeeded in swaying Washington in favor of a strong centralized government. Hamilton's successful policy agenda included federally funding state debts that were incurred during the war with England, creating a national bank, supporting commerce and manufacturing as the economic foundation of the new Republic, and using England as an economic model.