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. 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