Reader's Encyclopedia

Jefferson, Thomas (1743 - 1826)

Third president of the U.S. (1801-9). A graduate of the College of William and Mary, Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767 and sat in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1775. As a delegate to the Continental Congress (1775-76), he drafted the Declaration of Independence. While he was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates (1776-79), he supported the abolition of primogeniture and entail, the establishment of religious freedom, and the separation of church and state. After serving as wartime governor of Virginia and as a member of Congress, he succeeded Franklin as minister to France, where he published his Notes on Virginia (1784-85), still considered a valuable source of information about the natural history of Virginia as well as about 18th-century political and social life. He was named secretary of state under Washington, but resigned in 1793 as a result of long-standing political and personal differences with Alexander Hamilton and his supporters. Jefferson's championship of states' rights and agrarian interests distinguished him and his followers from the Hamiltonians and resulted in the emergence of the Democratic-Republican Party, of which Jefferson was the leader. He was the presidential candidate of the new party in 1796, but ran second to John Adams, the Federalist nominee, and, in accordance with the practice then followed, became vice-president. In 1798, Jefferson and James Madison prepared the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in reply to the Federalists' Alien and Sedition Acts, which were directed against propagandists for the French Revolution and the Democratic-Republican Party.

In the election of 1800, Jefferson tied with Aaron Burr in electoral votes and was chosen president by the House of Representatives with the support of Hamilton, who considered Jefferson the lesser of two evils. Important events of his administration were the Tripolitan War, the Louisiana Purchase, and the short-lived Embargo Act, designed to preserve American neutrality rights.

After forty years of public service, Jefferson retired permanently to his home at Monticello in 1809, devoting much of his time to the creation of a university for Virginia. He was reconciled with his old political opponent, John Adams, and the two men, from 1811 to their deaths, carried on a voluminous correspondence, which is one of the most interesting in American letters. Perhaps the most versatile of the founding fathers, he is remembered for his faith in the capacity of the people to govern themselves through representative institutions. On his tombstone at Monticello is the inscription he ordered: "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." His other writings include A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), A Manual of Parliamentary Practice (1801), and Life of Captain [Meriwether] Lewis (1817).