Thomas Jefferson needs no introduction. He was a brilliant, brave, selfless, and driven American who had a passion to bequeath a better United States to generations yet unborn. As a result, he was one of the founding fathers, leading the charge for the declaration of independence from Britain. It is also common knowledge that he increased the landmass of America exponentially through the purchase of Louisiana.
A keen and studious mind, Jefferson had interests in mathematics, metaphysics, philosophy, and law. But of all his interests, he seemed to be most interested in the legal profession, studying under renowned professor George Wythe. He obtained his license in 1767 and began practicing that same year before later focusing fully on politics. Throughout the course of his political career and lifetime, Jefferson would come to encompass the quintessential American Statesman of his time as he got to serve the country in various capacities before rising to the presidency in 1801.
Thomas Jefferson Role as a Delegate to the Continental Congress from Virginia and a Member of the Committee of Five
In 1775, at the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War where a formal declaration of independence from Britain was overwhelmingly favored, Thomas Jefferson was one of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress. One of his most enduring legacies would be his work on the drafting of the Declaration of Independence which he did as a member of the Committee of Five along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.
Of all the men mentioned above, Jefferson was the one tasked with crafting the primary document which became the corner piece of most democratic movements across the globe. This was because he was more at home with expressing his thoughts in powerful words while the likes of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin participated vocally in the debates.
Lofty words such as “all men are created equal” have resounded throughout the ages, immortalizing Jefferson and his contribution to the struggle of man for liberation from oppressors.
His First Taste of Public Office was as a Virginia State Legislator
One of the beauties of the American independence struggle was how it managed to run itself as a nation while yet at war with Britain. A Colonel in the Revolutionary Army and commander of the Albemarle County Militia, Thomas Jefferson got his first taste of public office in 1769 after his work on the Committee of Five when he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for Albemarle County.
During this time, he was pivotal in drafting legislation. He drafted 126 bills in three years, including laws to streamline the judicial system.
Thomas Jefferson Served Two One-Year Terms as Governor of Virginia
From these humble beginnings, Thomas Jefferson would go on to serve as the second Governor of Virginia. He was elected governor for a one-year term in 1779, and then again in 1780.
When he was elected on June 1, 1779, Jeffersons’ biggest dilemma was the choice between the Continental Army’s desperate pleas for more men and supplies and the State’s need to have men stay back for its own defense. During the course of the war, he chose to move the state’s capital from Williamsburg to Richmond to isolate the capital from British attack. Most of his second term was, however, spent in defense of Virginia and Richmond was later captured and burned down by British troops, causing the governor to flee. Jefferson opted not to seek a third term as governor, initially claiming to be stepping down from public service in favor of the tranquility of personal life.
Jefferson was a Member of America’s Maiden Congress
Reluctantly, after several personal tragedies, Jefferson accepted the nomination to represent Virginia as a delegate to the Continental Congress in December 1782. During his time in Congress, he served on several key committees and headed the committee to establish a workable system of government for the new Republic. He also served on the committee that plotted borders for nine new states in their formative stages. He was the brain behind 1784’s Land Ordinance laws.
Following the death of his wife, the still grieving Jefferson was commissioned by Congress alongside Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to negotiate the Treaties of Amity and Commerce with some of the greatest nations at the time. These involved Denmark, Saxony, Hamburg, Spain, Portugal, Naples, Sardinia, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Venice, Genoa, Tuscany, the Sublime Porte, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.
He Succeeded Benjamin Franklin as United States Minister to France
In 1785, Thomas Jefferson was appointed by the Confederation Congress to replace Benjamin Franklin as U.S. minister to France.
During his time in France, the highlight of his diplomatic endeavors, apart from playing a leading role in shaping the foreign policy of the United States, was the invention of an enciphering device called the Wheel Cipher which he used to encrypt diplomatic messages. This became necessary after he discovered his mails were always opened by French postmasters. The Wheel Cipher became his communication code for the rest of his career.
Thomas Jefferson Served as the 1st United States Secretary of State
In 1789, Thomas Jefferson returned to the United States from his mission in France to serve as the first Secretary of State under President George Washington.
At the birth of the new nation, most of the political structures present in modern America were non-existent, hence the task of pioneering an office was no mean feat. On the back of the war, the US had much to tackle on the domestic front but also crucial was its foreign policy which Jefferson was to preside over.
Due to his close ties to France, Jefferson supported France against Britain when the two nations went to war in 1793. Different men on President Washington’s cabinet favored divergent solutions to the conflict between the two countries. The president and his vice preferred absolute neutrality while Alexander Hamilton favored a pro-English version of neutrality. Jefferson aligned himself with the French because of their cooperation during the Revolution arguing that the Franco-American treaty of 1778 obliged the United States to honor past French support during the war for independence.
His stand prevailed and invariably influenced American foreign policy for the coming years even after he had left office as secretary of State.
He was Elected Vice President of the United States in 1797
Thomas Jefferson was selected in 1797 by the Republicans as their candidate to succeed George Washington as president. In those days, the US polity operated differently. This meant that Jefferson became Vice President by finishing a close second to Federalist candidate John Adams in the electoral college.
As Vice President and Presiding officer of the Senate, Jefferson took a very laid back approach to proceedings, allowing the Senate to freely conduct debates and only participating in procedural issues. He famously only cast three tie-breaking votes in the Senate.
While in office as Vice President, he held strong ideological differences with the sitting President John Adams as he felt the Federalist group were too fixated on centralizing power in the center. He often aligned himself with his friend James Madison, both men with similar convictions that the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it by the states.
Jefferson Defeated John Adams to Become the Third President of the United States of America
Students of American history would affirm that Thomas Jefferson’s public perception in the days leading up to his Presidency was far from outrightly positive. Federalists viewed him as an idealistic dreamer who would be harmful at the helm of a new fragile nation. His disdain for what he saw as the excessive powers vested in the national government made a lot of people outside his political family very uncomfortable. In those conservative years, he was seen as an atheist and pagan and a conspirator who subtly undermined the duly elected administrations of Washington and Adams.
Jefferson, however, still managed to win the 1800 Presidential elections after the Republicans, who fielded him and Aaron Burr as candidates, won more electoral college votes. The two candidates, however, received an equal total of votes which meant that the House of Representatives was to decide who would become president. They went on to select Jefferson to serve as the third U.S. president while Burr served as his vice president.
Many of Jefferson’s critics wondered how feasible it would be for him to swear to preserve the Constitution of the United States if the core of his political ideology was to clamp down on the federal institutions created by that very document. His inaugural address on March 4, 1801, served as a pointer for things to come in. He emphasized in one of his most famous lines “We are all republicans—we are all federalists” alluding to a more inclusive model of operation. During his tenure, he sought to unite Americans across ideological divides.
As President, Thomas Jefferson was very accomodating and less hostile to American Indians unlike most of his successors. He adopted a policy that sought to assimilate them into mainstream white American society. His policy was known as the “civilization program’. Tribes like the Shawnees led by Black Hoof, the Creek, and the Cherokees accepted Jefferson’s policies.
One of the hallmarks of his time in office was the simplicity he brought to the office of the President. He insisted on stripping the office of the President of much grandeur and seeming trappings of royalty in a bid to ensure the office never descended into the royalty hereby exalting the occupant far above citizens. Two years into his tenure he had lowered the national debt from $80 million to $57 million. One of his cost-cutting measures was to shut down what he considered unnecessary offices and useless establishments and expenses.
Another highlight of his time as President was the Louisiana Purchase, which expanded the US territory in 1803. Concerned about Napoleon’s growing influence and its impact on American interests, he sent emissaries to negotiate and ended up acquiring the land stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains from France for $15 million. Unknown to him, this single move would hand him the most fertile tract of land of its size on Earth, making the new country self-sufficient in food and other resources.
Buoyed by the Louisiana Purchase, a strong economy, and lower taxes, Jefferson was re-nominated for president by the Republican party and he was reelected. He won the electoral college vote by 162 to 14 and was sworn in for a second term with George Clinton who replaced Burr as his running mate. His second term was, however, beset with difficulties at home, including the trial of former vice president Aaron Burr. In 1807, American foreign trade was diminished when Jefferson implemented the Embargo Act in response to British threats to U.S. shipping. The same year, Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.
Thomas Jefferson Came From a Larger Family of Plantation Owners
Thomas Jefferson hailed from a family of 12. His father’s name was Peter Jefferson while his mother’s name was Jane Randolph. His father was a planter, surveyor, and plantation owner. The senior Jefferson made sure that his son received a formal education even though he himself was self-taught.
Jefferson’s father passed away in 1758 and he subsequently inherited 5,000 acres of land. He, however, did not maintain a home on this land but choose to site his abode on the top of a local mountain. The statesman also continued his father’s agriculture business and grew different kinds of crops, flowers, and sprouts.
With regard to siblings, Jefferson had six sisters and three brothers. Their names were Lucy, Jane, Martha, Anna, Mary, Elizabeth, Randolph, Peter Field, and Peter Thomas. He also had an adopted brother named Thomas Mann Jefferson.
He was a Devout Family Man
Jefferson first got married to his third cousin, Martha Wayles Skelton, in January 1772. Skelton’s father was a wealthy land and slaveholder known as John Wayles. As such, her husband received many slaves and land as part of her dowry. The two were married for ten years, a time during which she pleased her husband with her expertise in music and needlework as well as her reading habit. Martha eventually passed away on the 6th of September 1782. Before her death, she reportedly extracted a deathbed promise from her husband to the effect that he would never re-marry.
Jefferson’s marriage to Mary produced six children, comprising of one son Peter, and five daughters; Martha, Jane, Mary Wayles Polly, Lucy Elizabeth, and another Lucy Elizabeth. Most of these children died in childhood while two, Martha and Mary, lived into adulthood. Martha was the only one amongst her siblings who survived both of her parents. She lived from 1772 to 1836 (64 years) and married Virginia politician, later governor, Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. They had 13 children together, out of which 11 survived into adulthood.
Jefferson’s Affair with Sally Hemings
In recent times, there has been more spotlight shed on Thomas Jeffersons’ personal life. While most Americans hold him in high esteem, research into his affair with a slave girl has led to criticism from certain quarters. His actual involvement in slavery has equally come under the microscope as researchers seek to unravel the man behind the myth.
After the death of his first wife, Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with an African-American slave named Sally Hemings. Hemings was one of six children borne out of a relationship between a slave, Elizabeth Hemings, and her owner, John Wayles (Jefferson’s father-in-law). Sally was, therefore, the paternal half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton.
Jefferson’s affair with Sally lasted for several years and produced six children. Four out of these six children survived into adulthood. They are daughter Harriet and sons Beverly, Madison, and Eston. The Hemingses received special privileges in the Jefferson household. Their father also freed all of them. He freed Harriet and Beverly during his lifetime while he freed Madison and Eston in his will.