Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia, on April 13, 1743. Jefferson’s earliest memory, at the age of 3, was of a 50-mile trek on horseback with
a family slave through the Virginia wilderness, as the Jefferson family relocated to a plantation that Peter Jefferson, his father, was to manage. Peter
Jefferson became a wealthy planter in his own right, and Jane Randolph Jefferson, Jefferson’s mother, held high social standing; both of these parental
characteristics would be of benefit to Jefferson’s education and career.
From an early age, Jefferson exhibited a keen mind and engaged in self-study by reading books. At the age of 9, he began his formal education with a
Scottish minister and teacher, the Reverend William Douglas. Well versed in classical languages, Jefferson enrolled in William and Mary College at the
age of 17, where he took classes in science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature.
After college, Jefferson studied law under George Wythe, also a teacher of John Marshall and Henry Clay. Wythe cultivated a love of British liberties in
Jefferson, who, after concluding his formal studies, practiced law on the Virginia circuit. While traveling on the circuit, Jefferson met his future wife, Martha
Wayles Skelton, a wealthy widow and daughter of a prosperous Virginia lawyer. The two married on January 1, 1772, and lived in Monticello, which was
on Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. In 1782, however, Martha Jefferson died during the birthing of their sixth child.
Jefferson, a tall and slender man, always stood and walked straight with his shoulders square. He was very formal, bowed to everyone he met, and
preferred to be called by his last name. Unlike other gentlemen of his day, however, he never wore a white wig. Instead, he sported his own reddish
brown hair. He never claimed affiliation with any organized religion because he was a devout Deist. Jefferson is sometimes regarded as a contradictory
man, since he had a great love of liberty yet never freed any of his slaves. Furthermore, in recent years, DNA testing has supported the view that
Jefferson fathered several children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.
Jefferson loved music, played the violin, and liked to sing. His voice was thin and he never developed into much of a public speaker, but he was always
eloquent with his pen. For example, as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1774, he seldom spoke, yet he wrote a pamphlet titled
A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), in which he questioned British colonial policies and supported colonial rights. His pamphlet so
impressed other colonials that it gained him a seat in the Second Continental Congress (1775 1776).
In keeping with his shy manner, Jefferson was seldom heard to utter an audible comment in the congressional proceedings; however, his ability to write
led John Adams to recommend Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In this document, which was greatly influenced by the
works of the British philosopher John Locke, Jefferson attempted to justify the colonial point of view in the struggle for independence.
Besides being an effective writer, Jefferson was also an architect, an inventor, and an agriculturalist, and he continued to serve the newly independent
United States in various capacities after 1776. During the American Revolution, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781, and he
drafted the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which called for the separation of church and state.
Of all his achievements, Thomas Jefferson chose three to be inscribed on his gravestone: author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the
Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)
After the war, Jefferson served for a second term in the Continental Congress from 1783 to 1785 and as U.S. minister to France from 1785 to 1789.
During President George Washington’s first term in office, Washington appointed Jefferson secretary of state in 1790.
From 1797 to 1801, Jefferson served as vice president under President John Adams. During Adams’s presidency, the passage of the Alien and Sedition
Acts prompted Jefferson to write the Kentucky Resolutions, which emphasized states’ rights as found in the U.S. Constitution.
In 1801, Jefferson became the third president of the United States, and he held this office until 1809. As president, he oversaw the acquisition of
Louisiana from France, which more than doubled the size of the United States at that time.
After his retirement from politics, Jefferson set up the curriculum, selected the faculty, and designed the buildings for the University of Virginia. Jefferson
died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
See also: Continental Congress, First; Continental Congress, Second; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and
Government (Essay); Revolutionary War; Document: The Declaration of Independence (1776).
Axelrod, Alan. The Life and Work of Thomas Jefferson. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha, 2001.
Bowers, Claude Gernade. The Young Jefferson, 1743 1789. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Hayes, Kevin J. The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Miller, John Chester. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. New York: Free Press, 1977.
Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
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