Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence and the third U.S. president, was born on April 13, 1743, at the Shadwell plantation located just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Jefferson was born into one of the most prominent families of Virginia’s planter elite. His mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, was a member of the proud Randolph clan, a family claiming descent from English and Scottish royalty. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a successful farmer as well as a skilled surveyor and cartographer who produced the first accurate map of the Province of Virginia. The young Jefferson was the third born of ten siblings. His father died when Jefferson was in his teens. Thomas received an estate and slaves.
He began his formal education at the age of nine, studying Latin and Greek at a local private school run by the Reverend William Douglas. In 1757, at the age of 14, he took up further study of the classical languages as well as literature and mathematics with the Reverend James Maury.
In 1760, having learned all he could from Maury, Jefferson left home to attend the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital. Although it was the second oldest college in America (after only Harvard), William and Mary was not at that time an especially rigorous academic institution. Jefferson was dismayed to discover that his classmates expended their energies betting on horse races, playing cards and courting women rather than studying. Nevertheless, the serious and precocious Jefferson fell in with a circle of older scholars that included Professor William Small, Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier and lawyer George Wythe, and it was from them that he received his true education.
After three years at William and Mary, Jefferson decided to read law under Wythe, one of the preeminent lawyers of the American colonies. There were no law schools at this time; instead aspiring attorneys “read law” under the supervision of an established lawyer before being examined by the bar. Wythe guided Jefferson through an extraordinarily rigorous five-year course of study (more than double the typical duration); by the time Jefferson won admission to the Virginia bar in 1767, he was already one of the most learned lawyers in America. Jefferson said of Wythe, “No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe.”
In 1768, he began building Monticello. It was not completed until after he was president. Eventually, he also met and fell in love with Martha Wayles Skelton, a recent widow and one of the wealthiest women in Virginia. Needless to say, her dowry added to Jefferson’s already sizable fortune. The pair married on January 1, 1772. Thomas and Martha Jefferson had six children together, but only two survived into adulthood: Martha, their firstborn, and Mary, their fourth. Only Martha survived her father.
Jefferson was tall and thin, but athletic in build. He had red hair and was known to be shy. He was said to be no “public” speaker, but his ability to compose written works was exemplary. He was a diplomat and an architect. He invented the first swivel chair. Beside designing Monticello, he also designed his own tomb. He played the violin. He cultivated tomatoes in a time when others thought them to be poisonous. He also planted extensive vineyards when many thought the American soil would not tolerate the vines. He enjoyed the study of archaeology and developed a better lock and key system. Jefferson was a student of climates and was constantly making measurements and recording the data. He invented a portal writing desk (which he used to draft the Declaration of Independence).
Thomas Jefferson was one of the earliest and most fervent supporters of the cause of American independence from Great Britain. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1768 and joined its radical bloc, led by Patrick Henry and George Washington. In 1774, Jefferson penned his first major political work, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which established his reputation as one of the most eloquent advocates of the American cause. A year later, in 1775, Jefferson attended the Second Continental Congress, which created the Continental Army and appointed Jefferson’s fellow Virginian, George Washington, as its commander-in-chief. However, the Congress’s most significant work fell to Jefferson himself.
In June 1776, the Congress appointed a five-man committee (Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston) to draft a Declaration of Independence. The committee then chose Jefferson to author the declaration’s first draft, selecting him for what John Adams called his “happy talent for composition and singular felicity of expression.” In truth, Jefferson had fewer enemies in the Richard Henry Lee, who originally called for independence. Realizing the document would be read aloud to the masses, Jefferson was most attentive of the accented and unaccented syllables of the piece. In one of the surviving drafts of the document, one can view how he marked the cadence. He took his inspiration from the philosopher John Locke. Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which was written by George Mason (another signer), also was a strong influence.
Committees edited Jefferson’s work once the vote to pass it was taken. Some 86 changes later, John Hancock and secretary of Congress Charles Thomson signed. Some historians say that Jefferson escorted the document to the printer and proofread each draft as it came off the presses.
Returning to Virginia, Jefferson served as its governor for two years. When the British invaded Virginia, Jefferson resigned and suggested a man with a strong military background take his place. General Thomas Nelson, Jr., succeeded him. Martha Jefferson died shortly after his resignation. In 1784, Jefferson was sent to France to replace Benjamin Franklin. He was not as gregarious as was Franklin, and although he was well respected for his intelligence, his social skills were lacking according to French standards of the time.
When he returned to the United States, Washington made him the country’s first Secretary of State, which placed him in contention with his “archrival,” Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson purported the right of men to govern themselves – the ideals of republicanism – while Hamilton took a more federalist stance of a strong central government. The feud continued until Jefferson won the 1800 election on the Democratic-Republican ticket, while Jefferson’s vice-president Aaron Burr shot Hamilton in the gut.
Jefferson lost the second election for the presidency by 3 electoral votes to John Adams, which made him Adams’s vice president. This connection brought a wedge of disagreement with his former friend. Their political views had diverged. When Jefferson became the country’s third president, Adams undermined Jefferson’s tenure by appointing many of his followers to high positions before he made his exit. Jefferson and Adams refused to speak to each other for over a decade. Jefferson served two terms as president and oversaw the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition, which greatly increased the size of the new country.
After his presidency, although he was hurting for money, Jefferson returned to the social life required of his position. He helped to found the University of Virginia. He and Adams reconciled in their old age and wrote letters back and forth for many years. Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, just hours before John Adams also passed.
Other than the children he sired with Martha, he is thought to have fathered at least one of Sally Hemings six children. Mayhap all six. Hemings was one of Jefferson’s slaves. Although his paternal obligations is debated, these are facts we do know. Jefferson argued for the emancipation of slaves in the Virginia’s House of Burgesses. He did not, however, free the majority of his own slaves. He did free two (both with the last name of Hemings). Three more departed Monticello with his “tacit” permission. (They were also named Hemings.) Five others were freed with the reading of his will…three of those five held the name of Hemings. He never freed Sally, but his daughter Martha released Sally after Jefferson’s death. 100+ slaves were sold at the estate sale following his death.