In the thick of party conflict in 1800, Thomas Jefferson
wrote in a private letter, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal
hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
This powerful advocate of liberty was born in 1743 in Albermarle County,
Virginia, inheriting from his father, a planter and surveyor, some
5,000 acres of land, and from his mother, a Randolph, high social standing.
He studied at the College of William and Mary, then read law. In 1772
he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow, and took her to live in
his partly constructed mountaintop home, Monticello.
Freckled and sandy-haired, rather tall and awkward, Jefferson was
eloquent as a correspondent, but he was no public speaker. In the Virginia
House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress, he contributed his
pen rather than his voice to the patriot cause. As the "silent
member" of the Congress, Jefferson, at 33, drafted the Declaration
of Independence. In years following he labored to make its words a
reality in Virginia. Most notably, he wrote a bill establishing religious
freedom, enacted in 1786.
Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to France in 1785.
His sympathy for the French Revolution led him into conflict with Alexander
Hamilton when Jefferson was Secretary of State in President Washington's
Cabinet. He resigned in 1793.
Sharp political conflict developed, and two separate parties, the
Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, began to form. Jefferson
gradually assumed leadership of the Republicans, who sympathized with
the revolutionary cause in France. Attacking Federalist policies, he
opposed a strong centralized Government and championed the rights of
As a reluctant candidate for President in 1796, Jefferson came within
three votes of election. Through a flaw in the Constitution, he became
Vice President, although an opponent of President Adams. In 1800 the
defect caused a more serious problem. Republican electors, attempting
to name both a President and a Vice President from their own party,
cast a tie vote between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives
settled the tie. Hamilton, disliking both Jefferson and Burr, nevertheless
urged Jefferson's election.
When Jefferson assumed the Presidency, the crisis in France had passed.
He slashed Army and Navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated the
tax on whiskey so unpopular in the West, yet reduced the national debt
by a third. He also sent a naval squadron to fight the Barbary pirates,
who were harassing American commerce in the Mediterranean. Further,
although the Constitution made no provision for the acquisition of
new land, Jefferson suppressed his qualms over constitutionality when
he had the opportunity to acquire the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon
During Jefferson's second term, he was increasingly preoccupied with
keeping the Nation from involvement in the Napoleonic wars, though
both England and France interfered with the neutral rights of American
merchantmen. Jefferson's attempted solution, an embargo upon American
shipping, worked badly and was unpopular.
Jefferson retired to Monticello to ponder such projects as his grand
designs for the University of Virginia. A French nobleman observed
that he had placed his house and his mind "on an elevated situation,
from which he might contemplate the universe."
He died on July 4, 1826.