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Thomas Jefferson was born April 2, 1743, at Shadwell, Albemarle County, Va. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a descendant of a Welsh family which came to Virginia before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. The father's income was derived from a large farm adjoining that of William Randolph, whose daughter, Jane, he married in 1738. Monticello, the future residence of his son Thomas, was a part of this farm. Peter Jefferson was a leader among the men of his day and received expressions of public confidence from the voters of his county. He died in 1759, having directed that Thomas should complete his education in William and Mary College at Williamsburg, then the capital of the colony.
Thomas entered the college and by assiduous application he soon built upon the learning acquired in the public and private schools of his county, an education quite liberal and advanced for that period.
He was tall, and in youth somewhat awkward in manner. What he lacked, however, in personal grace was at once forgotten in the vivacity of his conversation, made doubly charming by the extent and variety of his learning. During his collegiate days he formed a close friendship with Patrick Henry, John Marshall, and others who afterward became distinguished in American history. He was always welcome in the house of Governor Fauquier, from whom he learned much of the social, political, and parliamentary life of the old world. It was here that he first met George Wythe, a gifted and talented young lawyer, who afterward became Chancellor of the State.
After leaving college he entered upon the study of the law in the office of his friend Mr. Wythe, and with this and the management of his father's estate he found himself abundantly occupied.
In 1767 he was admitted to the bar, and for several years devoted himself to the practice of his profession. It is quite probable that, in consequence of his inability to speak and his utter incapacity for forensic controversy, his career at the bar would not have reached the highest distinction. What he lacked, however, in the power of speech, found ample compensation in the strength, beauty, and elegance of expression which he commanded with the pen. This extraordinary talent was destined soon to find abundant employment in defending the rights of the people against the oppressive acts of the mother-country. Patrick Henry had already argued the "Parsons' Cause" in December, 1763, and Jefferson himself, as a college student at Williamsburg, had listened to the impassioned speech of Henry in the Virginia House of Burgesses against the Stamp Act of Parliament. But the fiery eloquence of his friend Henry only fanned a flame that already burned in the breast of Jefferson. Impulsive by nature, by education and training a democrat, he naturally espoused the cause of his countrymen. The peculiar condition of the colonies furnished the opportunity to Jefferson's wonderful faculty for writing. The orator could not be heard by all the people of the colonies; but the products of the pen could be carried to the most secluded hamlet. And truly in Jefferson's hands the pen was "mightier than the sword."
The first year after opening his law office, at the age of twenty-five, he was elected a member of the House of Burgesses from Albemarle, his native county, and on taking his seat the following May, the controversy between the royal governor and the assembly at once began. Jefferson prepared the resolutions in reply to the executive speech; and on the third day of the session the passage of other resolutions, in the form of a bill of rights, caused the governor to dissolve the assembly. Jefferson was again elected to the House of Burgesses, and in 1774, was elected a delegate to the State convention.
On account of illness he failed to reach the convention, but he prepared and forwarded to its president a draft of instructions which he hoped would be adopted for the guidance of those to be sent by the body as delegates to the General Congress of the colonies. For this paper, afterward published as "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," the name of Jefferson was inserted in a bill of attainder brought into the English Parliament.
After a short detention in the House of Burgesses, in which he drafted the reply of Virginia to the "conciliatory proposition" of Lord North, he proceeded to Philadelphia as a delegate to the General Congress, in which he took his seat on June 21, 1775.
When Jefferson entered the Congress, conditions existing between the mother country and the colonies had already reached the point of open rebellion. It is true that the taxes had all been repealed except the import tax on tea, but the repeals had been invariably accompanied with the assertion of an unlimited right to tax without the consent of the colonies. English troops had been quartered in Boston, and English war-ships occupied its harbor. The right of deportation to, and trial in, England for offences committed in America, was still claimed by both king and Parliament. The battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill had now been fought, and Washington had already been commissioned as commander-in-chief of the colonial armies.
In this condition of affairs Massachusetts and Virginia, in which had been most keenly felt the oppressive acts of the mother country, were quite ready for open and avowed rebellion. But in many of the other colonies the sense of loyalty and the ties of friendship were yet sufficiently strong to induce the hope of continued union.
It was therefore not until June 7, 1776, that Virginia, through Richard Henry Lee, introduced into Congress at Philadelphia the resolutions for a final separation; and a few days thereafter a committee was appointed to prepare the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was placed at the head of this committee, his colleagues consisting of Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. The declaration was prepared by Jefferson, and when submitted to Dr. Franklin and John Adams for criticism, some verbal amendments suggested by them were made. It was then reported to Congress on June 28th, and after debate and other slight amendments by the body itself, it was adopted and signed on July 4, 1776.
Whatever the merits or demerits of the paper, it is essentially the work of Jefferson. It has been much criticised, both in its substance and its form. It is quite certain, however, that since its promulgation there has been, not only in the United States but abroad, a continually increasing tendency to accept and apply its principles in the practical affairs of government. As an eloquent arraignment of tyranny, a denunciation of oppression and an inspiration to resistance, it stands perhaps unequalled among the products of human intellect. As appropriately said by another, the paper is "consecrated in the affections of Americans and praise may seem as superfluous as censure would be unavailing."
So soon as the colonies had become united in the cause of forcible resistance, Jefferson returned to his own State to commence perhaps the most useful and beneficent work of his life. He had again been elected to Congress, but with the prescience of the seer, he chose the seemingly less important place of representative to the Legislature of his State. He took his seat on October 7, 1776. On the 11th of the same month he asked leave to present a bill to establish courts of justice in the State of Virginia; on the next day, to authorize tenants en tail to convey their estates in fee simple. This was immediately followed by other bills for the utter overthrow of primogeniture and the whole law of entails.
His reformatory spirit did not stop with these radical measures. He found another danger in the conservatism and aristocratic tendencies of the established church of the State. In his judgment the whole body of law and custom inherited from England must be thoroughly exterminated, to the end that English influence might be driven from the land. In his judgment English institutions had been cunningly devised in the interest of monarchy. Their purpose, he believed, was to create and maintain distinctions in society, and to perpetuate and strengthen an aristocratic caste as the ally and support of the crown. So long as they existed there was constant danger of relapse from the high purposes of the rebellion. In Jefferson's regard, they were inconsistent with the principles of the revolution now proclaimed, and sooner or later would be found its open or secret enemies.
For these reforms the old aristocracy of his State denounced him as a Jacobin, and the established church denounced him as an infidel.
Jefferson continued to serve in the House of Delegates during the years 1777 and 1778, and in addition to the measures already named, he secured laws to establish elementary and collegiate education in the State, and to prohibit the further importation of slaves into Virginia. He also sought to inaugurate a system of gradual emancipation; but slavery was already so thoroughly engrafted on the social system of the people, that even Jefferson, Wythe, and Mason could not dislodge it. Jefferson, in 1821, referring to his failure in this regard, said: "it was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition, nor will it bear it, even to this day; yet the day is not distant, when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will, follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."
On retiring from the Legislature he was elected governor of the State. The period of his service in this position was unfortunate for his fame. He was essentially a civilian, neither having, nor pretending to have, military skill or knowledge. The war had now been transferred to the Southern States. Cornwallis had overrun Georgia and South Carolina, defeated Gates at Camden, and was pushing north for the desolation of Virginia. The State had already become impoverished by its liberal contributions of money, men, and arms to the general cause, and was now powerless for its own defence. The hated Benedict Arnold was able to ascend the James River to Richmond, dispersing the Legislature and burning the town. Tarleton afterward penetrated as far as Charlottesville--Jefferson and the Legislature narrowly escaping capture. Jefferson felt keenly the situation, and at the expiration of his term retired to Monticello, humiliated and overwhelmed by unjust criticism and undeserved censure. His gloom and melancholy were made still more sad at this period, by the death of his wife, whom he had married in 1772. But the privilege of neither obscurity nor rest was reserved for him. The winter session of 1783 found him again in the General Congress abolishing the English system of coinage and providing for the government of the Northwestern territory, which had been ceded to the confederation by Virginia.
In 1784 he was named as a minister plenipotentiary to Europe at large, to assist Adams and Franklin in the negotiation of commercial treaties. In 1785 he became minister to France in the place of Dr. Franklin, who had resigned; and in March, 1790, in pursuance of a previous acceptance, he entered the Cabinet of President Washington as Secretary of State.
Already the germs of two great conflicting parties had been sown. The debates in the convention that framed the Constitution, and still more manifestly the controversies in the State Conventions called to consider the adoption of the instrument, had developed the differences, which, in theory at least, have distinguished political parties ever since. The colonies had been chiefly settled by Englishmen. No people are more tenacious than they of preconceived opinions, or more averse to the abandonment of ancient forms and customs. A strong attachment to the institutions of England still remained with the people of the colonies. With many of them the whole object of the revolution was political separation from the mother country. They heartily desired independence and freedom, and they had willingly risked their lives to secure them. But the freedom they sought was the right, if they chose, to establish and perpetuate those cherished institutions of the mother-country for themselves. They would enjoy them still, and make them a lasting inheritance for their posterity, but free from the power and dominion of Europe.
Such persons had revolted not against England, but against England's wrongful acts; not against the authority of law, but against the perversion of law. To them the Declaration of Independence was a splendid piece of rhetoric intended only to inflame the mind with a sense of injury, and to nerve the heart to determined resistance. Like the Marseillaise hymn, it was merely to be repeated on entering the battle. Like the bugle blast, it served only to stimulate the soul and shut out all other sounds while the contest lasted. Not so with Jefferson and his followers. The Declaration of Independence truly reflected their political sentiments. To them the revolution meant something more than mere separation. It looked to the total repudiation of the English system of government, and the substitution of the rule of the people. They admitted the inefficiency of the articles of confederation, and were willing to accept nationality in a modified form. But to them the Constitution as framed in 1787 was armed with the most dangerous powers. They accepted it merely as a choice of evils, trusting by strict construction and future amendment to give it eventually the form and mould of their own views.
The President, in selecting his ministers, sought to compromise these antagonisms by giving the parties equal representation in his Cabinet. Between two such men, however, as Jefferson, his Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, there could be no permanent co-operation. So eager, indeed, was Jefferson to inaugurate the controversy, that he really began the battle of strict construction before his peculiar principles had been seriously invaded. Time has long since demonstrated that, in his opposition to Hamilton's financial measures, he was clearly wrong. The truth seems to be, that in this branch of politics, Jefferson was without knowledge or practical skill.
In his discussions with the English minister touching violations of the late treaty of peace, and in the controversy with Spain in respect to the right of navigating the Mississippi River through her territory to the Gulf, Jefferson displayed his usual ability.
The declaration of war by France, now a republic, against England, precipitated upon the Government of the United States a number of difficult and troublesome questions of international law. They were especially irritating because of the personal feelings involved in their discussion and settlement. A profound sense of gratitude to France for assistance in the late revolutionary struggle, was felt by all classes in America, while the Republicans were especially open and undisguised in their expressions of sympathy for the French people. And but for the imprudent conduct of the French minister, Genet, the supremacy of the Federal party might have been seriously jeopardized in the beginning of Washington's second term. The conduct of this functionary was so insolent and exacting as to excite disgust for himself, and to cool in a marked degree the zeal of the Republicans in their support of the new republic.
While Jefferson's sympathy with France was perhaps too manifest, and while his personal conduct in the Cabinet touching this question was not altogether kind to the president, and in other respects liable to criticism, his correspondence with the French Government, when finally published, was found to have been based upon the highest principles of international right and dictated by a proper sense of the dignity and character of his own country.
Jefferson's proud nature had for several years, chafed under the continued success of Federal measures. Washington had manifestly ignored his counsel in the Cabinet, and favored Hamilton in the administration of the Government. Jefferson was piqued and chagrined beyond further endurance. He hated Hamilton with an intensity due only to an open enemy of the country.
In this state of mind, on December 31, 1793, he resigned from the Cabinet, and again sought the seclusion and quiet of his farm at Monticello. But his pen was never idle. He was untiring in the dissemination of his peculiar views of government. With emotions intensified by strong convictions of right his contributions to the political literature of the day were vigorous and peculiarly attractive. He continued to be the acknowledged leader of the Republican party, and was promptly named as its candidate for president in 1796, to succeed General Washington, who had declined a third term. Between him and John Adams, the candidate of the Federal party, the vote was very close, Adams receiving 71 electoral votes and Jefferson 68. Under the provisions of the Constitution as they existed at the time, Adams became President and Jefferson Vice-President.
During Adams' term were passed the Alien and Sedition laws, as well as others, unnecessary and of doubtful constitutionality, which proved to be fatal and ruinous mistakes of the Federal party. Jefferson and Madison's threats of State repudiation against Federal legislation, as enunciated in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, furnished good arguments, of course, for the continued existence of a truly national party. But the seeds of decay had been sown. Adams was vain, impulsive, rash, and violent. Jefferson was far more deliberate, with larger views of statesmanship and a better knowledge of the people. He had abundant cunning and the ready adaptation of partisan skill.
In a contest of four years between such leaders, it is not strange that when the election of 1800 came on, Jefferson should receive 73 electoral votes while Adams received but 65.
Although Jefferson was elected over Adams, he was not yet elected over Aaron Burr, who had received an equal number of votes for president with himself. In reality no vote had been intended for Burr as President--the purpose being to elect Jefferson President and Burr Vice-President.
Under the constitutional provision already referred to, the election was remitted to the House of Representatives. Finally, by the aid of Hamilton, who only hated Jefferson less than he hated Burr, the controversy was decided in favor of the former.
The moment Jefferson became president his whole character seemed to be changed. Instead of the relentless partisan of the past, he became the apostle of benevolence and charity. His inaugural address, in that florid rhetoric of which he was master, enunciated principles of government to which no friend of human liberty could object. The spirit of conciliation breathed in every sentence. "Every difference of opinion," he said, "is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans--we are all Federalists.... Let us then, with courage and confidence, pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to our Union and representative government."
The short-lived peace of Europe had re-established American commerce on the ocean, and general prosperity pervaded all departments of business. Indeed, the wise moderation of the president had brought the most agreeable disappointment to his enemies. Federalists were not removed from office for political reasons, and the country settled down into the conviction that Republican success after all, might prove to be a beneficent change.
As already stated, the Northwest territory, extending from the Ohio to the Mississippi River, had formerly belonged to Virginia, and perhaps no public man of his day so well understood as did Jefferson, the importance and needs of that vast domain. Spain, as the owner of Louisiana, held supreme control of New Orleans and the lower Mississippi.
While Secretary of State under Washington, Jefferson would have been content with the acquisition of the Island of New Orleans, and the free navigation of the Mississippi River. Circumstances had now changed. He was himself president. Spain had suddenly conveyed Louisiana to France, and Napoleon was meditating the abrogation of the peace of Amiens and the declaration of war against England. In such a war France could not well retain her distant possessions against the superior naval power of her old and grasping enemy. Napoleon had a property which in case of war, he was likely to lose. He had resolved on war, and for that purpose needed money, which, fortunately, the American Treasury could furnish at once.
Instead of the Island of New Orleans the President's dream now embraced the whole of the Louisiana purchase, extending from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Livingston, of New York, the associate of Jefferson, in 1776, on the Committee to frame the Declaration of Independence, was now Minister to France, but he was unfortunately embarrassed by his committal to the acquisition of New Orleans alone. Monroe's term, as Governor of Virginia, had just expired. He had formerly served the country most acceptably at the French court. He was the devoted friend, personally and politically, of Jefferson. They were both committed to the "strict construction" theory of the Constitution. This narrow view of the instrument, on which their party had come into power, absolutely forbade the acquisition of territory by purchase. But Louisiana was necessary not only to the growth, but to the maintenance of the Union. It mattered not that the professions of the Republican party had to be violated. The prize outweighed the virtue of party consistency. Jefferson himself was forced to admit the want of power, but having resolved on the act, he said: "The less that is said about any constitutional difficulty the better." Again he said: "It will be desirable for Congress to do what is necessary in silence."
With these views he despatched Monroe to Paris. For obvious reasons written instructions were avoided; but it is quite certain that unlimited discretion to the Minister had resulted from a careful comparison of views.
It was under these circumstances that in 1803 the vast domain known as "The Louisiana Purchase" was obtained by the United States for the paltry consideration of fifteen million dollars.
This of itself added immensely to Jefferson's popularity. Internal taxation had been abolished. Rigid economy of administration had been introduced. The public debt was in the course of rapid extinction. The rigorous ceremonials of former administrations had given place to the simplest forms, and the temples of power had been made accessible to the humblest citizen. The country enjoyed great prosperity, and a spirit of contentment pervaded the land.
Jefferson's second election, in 1804, was almost without opposition--his vote being 162 to 14 for C. C. Pinckney, the Federal candidate.
The second term of the President was far less successful than the first. A political exigency in France had forced the sale of Louisiana, and its opportune purchase had given Jefferson unbounded popularity, and linked his name with the future greatness of his country. But the impending hostilities producing that exigency had now been declared. France and England were again in open war, and each, to wound the other, had recklessly trampled upon the rights of the United States. English orders in council blockaded the ports of France, and Napoleon's Berlin decrees equally closed those of England against neutral commerce. The right of search was claimed by both powers, and offensively exercised by England. Time had now brought its inevitable revenges. Jefferson was again confronted by conditions in which he manifested more or less of weakness and incapacity. In peace his statesmanship was always creditable, and at times, truly magnificent. In the presence of war he was too often vacillating and incompetent. The embargo on the commerce of his own country, which he suggested, was hardly less injurious than the wrongs of which he complained. The remedy was worse, if possible, than the disease.
Aaron Burr, in contesting for the presidency in 1801, had forfeited the confidence of his own party, and for killing Hamilton in a duel in 1804, he had incurred the hatred of the Federalists, and lost the respect of all parties. In his desperation he had organized an expedition to proceed down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers with a view, as was supposed, of invading Mexico, or segregating from the United States a portion of its territory. He was arrested for treason and brought to Richmond, where he was finally tried for a high misdemeanor in organizing forces against Spain within the United States. In this prosecution, as in the impeachment of Judge Chase of the Supreme Court, executive encouragement and aid were offensively open and notorious.
When the embargo had almost ruined the commercial States of the Union, it was modified by a non-intercourse act with France and England, to take effect on March 4, 1809, the last day of Jefferson's term.
At the close of his second term Jefferson permanently retired from office, and spent his remaining years at Monticello.
By a singular coincidence both he and John Adams died on July 4, 1826, just fifty years after they had signed the Declaration of Independence.
The brief facts already recited clearly indicate the character of the man. He was a bold and original thinker. With him mere precedent was without weight. By nature he was a democrat, plain, simple, and unostentatious. He not only believed in the capacity of the people for self-government, but in their honest wish to govern aright. In the struggle of the Revolution his devotion to the rights of the people against English tyranny took the form of religious enthusiasm. In France he witnessed the sufferings and misery of the down-trodden poor, whose wild vengeance he believed to be justified by the long ages of oppression and wrong under which they had groaned.
He distrusted power and naturally sought to restrict its exercise. Hating monarchy, he feared to delegate large powers of government even in republican forms. Hating an aristocracy, he encouraged the masses to demand equality in civil, political, and social rights.
His political inconsistencies resulted from the usual impossibility of reconciling theory and practice. When his opponents were in power, their purposes, he thought, were accomplished through violations of the constitution. An equally dangerous exercise of power by his friends failed to excite his alarm. Feeling conscious within himself of an honest purpose to subserve the good of the people and to perpetuate their liberties, he found ready justification for every act having, in his judgment, those ends in view.
America has produced no man so dear to the masses of its people as Thomas Jefferson. He was an iconoclast, but the images broken by him were the idols of a past age, and no longer deserved the worship of a free people.