Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was born in Albemarle County, Virginia in 1743. His father owned a 5,000 acre plantation. After graduating from the William and Mary College, Williamsburg, he became a lawyer.

A member of the Revolutionary Party, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, in 1769. Five years later he was a delegate at the Continental Congress and in 1776 he was the chairman of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia (1779-81) and as a member of the Continental Congress (1783-84). In 1785 he was appointed as Minister of France, a post he held for three years. His sympathy for the French Revolution brought him into conflict with Alexander Hamilton of the Federalist Party.

George Washington was unanimously elected as the first President of the United States and was inaugurated on 30th April, 1789, in New York City. Washington appointed Jefferson as his Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary.

Washington was unanimously reelected in 1792 but by this time the government was not so united and there were serious disagreements between Jefferson's Democratic Republicans and Hamilton's Federalists. Washington tended to favour the Federalists and with the Democratic Republicans gaining increasing support, he decided not to seek a third term and retired from office on 3rd March, 1797. John Adams now became president and Jefferson defeated Aaron Burr to become Vice President.

Although Adams was the leader of the Federalists, he rejected the suggestions of Alexander Hamilton to declare war on France. He did however support the Aliens and Sedition Acts, that intended to frighten foreign agents out of the country. However, his decision to send a peace mission to France made him unpopular and united his opponents against him.

In the 1800 presidential election Jefferson defeated John Adams. Jefferson appointed his long-term friend, Meriwether Lewis, as his personal secretary. At this time Jefferson read about the adventures of Alexander Mackenzie. In his book, Voyages from Montreal, Mackenzie had described his two expeditions where he had tried to find a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. For the next few months Jefferson and Lewis discussed the possibility of exploring these unknown lands.

As part of his preparation, Lewis was sent to the University of Pennsylvania to study botany, natural history, medicine, mineralogy and celestial navigation. One of his tutors was Benjamin Rush, who asked Lewis to find out from the Native Americans about their burial customs, diet, medicines, breast feeding, bathing, crime and religious practices.

On 18th January, 1803, President Jefferson requested permission from Congress to explore the vast lands to the west of the Mississippi. Jefferson claimed that there were "great supplies of fur and peltry" to be obtained from the Native Americans living in this area. He argued that the expedition would provide opportunities for "extending the external commerce of the United States".

The following month Congress approved the venture that became known as the Corps of Discovery. Lewis selected William Clark as his co-commander of the expedition. While the two men prepared for their journey, Jefferson's emissaries in Paris were involved in negotiating in Paris for the sale of the French possessions in America. In April 1803 the two parties agreed on the terms of the Louisiana Purchase. For the cost of $15 million, the American government purchased 800,000 square miles between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains.

Jefferson cut spending on the Army and Navy and was able to reduce the national debt by a third. He also sent the a naval squadron to deal with the Barbary pirates.

On 23rd September, 1806, Lewis & Clark Expedition arrived back at St. Louis. The 28 month expedition produced a considerable body of data concerning the topographical features of the county and its natural resources. They also provided details of animals and birds that lived in the territory they explored.

In his second term Jefferson was responsible for the passing of the Embargo Act (1807) and the prohibition of the slave import trade (1808). Aaron Burr was also tried for treason during his period of office.

In 1809 Jefferson retired to his estate, Monticello, and spent much of his time developing the University of Virginia. He published several books including Notes on Virginia (1785).

In retirement Jefferson and his former political rival, John Adams, became close friends and carried on a correspondence that became an important part of American historical literature.

Thomas Jefferson died on 4th July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams died on the same day.

Primary Sources

(1) Jack Anderson, speech at the University of Utah (22nd September, 1999)

Thomas Jefferson, that wise man, that sophisticated man, that cultured man, that rich man -- he was a plantation owner he understood. He advocated and supported a free press, and yet Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. He was excoriated by the press. He was abused more by the press than Bill Clinton, or Richard Nixon, or anybody that we have had in recent times. Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. Excoriated. And he was human. He didn't like it. He went nose to nose with a couple of editors in Philadelphia. He said to one Philadelphia paper: "Nothing in this paper is true, with the possible exception of the advertising, and I question that." And yet that wise Thomas Jefferson, in a moment of truth, said, "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." After all he had been through, he was wise enough to understand. And there is no one here that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson. There is no one in Washington that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson, but he said, "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government," he would take his morning paper.