Thomas Jefferson The third president of the United States, a diplomat, statesman, architect, scientist, and philosopher, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most eminent figures in American history. No leader in the period of the American Enlightenment was as articulate, wise, or conscious of the implications and consequences of a free society as Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, a tobacco plantation in Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a self-made success, and although uneducated he was a very intelligent man. His mother, Jane Randolph was a member of one of the most distinguished families in Virginia. Peter Jefferson died when Thomas was 14 and left him valuable lands and property.
Denied a formal education himself, he directed that his son be given complete classical training. He studied with Reverend Mr. Maury, a classical scholar, for two years and in 1760 he attended William and Mary College. After graduating from William and Mary in 1762, Jefferson studied law for five years under George Wythe. In January of 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton and established a residence at Monticello.
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When they moved to Monticello, only a small one room building was completed. Jefferson was thirty when he began his political career. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgess in 1769, where his first action was an unsuccessful bill allowing owners to free their slaves. The impending crisis in British-Colonial relations overshadowed routine affairs of legislature. In 1774, the first of the Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston until Massachusetts paid for the Boston Tea Party of the preceding year.
Jefferson and other younger members of the Virginia Assembly ordained a day of fasting and prayer to demonstrate their sympathy with Massachusetts. Thereupon, Virginia’s Royal Governor Dunmore once again dissolved the assembly (Koch and Peden 20). The members met and planned to call together an inter-colonial congress. Jefferson began writing resolutions which were radical and better written than those from other counties and colonies. Although his resolutions were considered too revolutionary and not adopted, they were printed and widely circulated and subsequently all important writing assignments were entrusted to Jefferson. When Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia in June, 1775, as a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress, he already possessed, as John Adams remarked, a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition (Koch and Peden 21). When he returned in 1776, he was appointed to the five-man committee, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, which was charged with the most momentous assignment ever given in the history of America: the drafting of a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain (Daugherty 109). Jefferson was responsible for preparing the draft. The document, was finally approved by Congress on July 4, 1776. Cut and occasionally altered by Adams, or Franklin, or the Congress itself, the Declaration is almost completely Jefferson’s, and is the triumph and culmination of his early career.
At this time, had he wanted to be a political leader, he could have easily attained a position in government. Instead, he chose to return to Monticello and give his public service to Virginia. Returning to the Virginia House of Delegates in October 1776, Jefferson set to work on reforming the laws of Virginia. He also proposed a rational plan of statewide education and attempted to write religious toleration into the laws of Virginia by separating Church and State by writing the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. In June of 1779, Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia.
He commenced his career as a public executive, confident of his abilities, assured of the respect and almost the affection of his commonwealth. However, he took up his duties at a time when the British were raiding Virginia. General George Washington did not have resources available to send to Virginia. Jefferson, during one of the raids, narrowly escaped capture at the hands of the British troops; and the legislators were forced to flee from their new capital city of Richmond. Jefferson, as head of the state, was singled out for criticism and abuse. At the end of his second term, he announced his retirement. General Washington’s approval of Jefferson’s actions as Governor is in marked contrast to the heated charges of dereliction of duty made by certain members of the legislature.
After Washington’s approval the legislature passed a resolution officially clearing Jefferson of all charges (Smith 134,135). Jefferson returned home to Monticello in 1781, and buried himself in writing about Virginia. The pages of text turned into a manuscript later known as the Notes on Virginia. This book, rich in its minute analysis of the details of external nature as in its clarification of moral political, and social issues, was read by scientists of two continents for years to come (Smith 142). His wife, ill since the birth of their last daughter, died in September 1782. In sorrow for his wife, Jefferson declined numerous appointments.
In June 1783, he was elected as a delegate to the Confederation Congress where he headed important committees and drafted many reports and official papers. He advocated the necessity of more favorable international commercial relations, and in 1784, compiled instructions for ministers negotiating commercial treaties with European nations. In May 1784, he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to assist Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, both of whom had preceded him to Europe to arrange commercial agreements (Koch and Peden 24). He traveled throughout Europe and every place he went, he was not only an American diplomat, but a student of the useful sciences. He took notes on making wine and cheese, planting and harvesting crops, and raising livestock. He sent home to America information on the different cultures, the actual seeds of a variety of grasses not native to America, olive plants, and Italian rice.
He remained in Paris until 1789 (Smith 170). Upon his return President Washington asked Jefferson to be Secretary of State. Jefferson accepted the post and found himself at odds with the Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson thought that all of Hamilton’s acts were dominated by one purpose: to establish government by and for a privileged few. Jefferson repeatedly thought of retiring from the cabinet post in which he was constantly pitted against Hamilton, the most power-hungry man in the capital.
After negotiating the country’s foreign affairs, Jefferson once again retired to Montice …