Thomas Jefferson was born the third of ten children in his family home on April 13, 1743 in Shadwell in the Virginia Colony. His father was a planter and surveyor who passed away when he was fourteen years old. After his father’s death, Peter Jefferson’s estate was divided among Jefferson and his brother Randolph. Thomas Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres of land, including the Monticello plantation.
Jefferson had tutors when he was a child living at the Tuckahoe plantation, among others. When he was 16, he started school at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA to study mathematics, philosophy, and metaphysics. Jefferson graduated two years later in 1762 and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. He practiced law and was a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses for Albemarle County. During his time in the House of Burgesses, he wanted to reform slavery and took seven cases for slaves seeking freedom. This idea that everyone has a sense of personal liberty and should be afforded opportunities became an integral part of the Declaration of Independence. His statement that “all men are created equal” is one of the most widely-known sentences with “the most potent and consequential words in American history.”
In 1768, Jefferson started work on his family estate, Monticello. He married his third cousin Martha Wayles Skelton on January 1, 1772 and had six children. Only two of his children lived for more than a few years.
Thomas Jefferson was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence. During his time at the second Continental Congress in 1775, he was one of the youngest delegates. He chose his words to help invoke the sense of independence that the settlers in colonies across the New World had been feeling. At the start of the American Revolution, Jefferson was a Colonel in the Continental Army and on September 26, 1775, he was named Commander of the Albemarle County militia. He also served in the Virginia House of Delegates and completed two one-year terms as governor of Virginia in 1779 and 1780. During his governorship, he moved the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond.
Jefferson also served as a Virginia delegate to the Congress of the Confederation after the Revolutionary war and was a Minister to France along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. After returning from France, George Washington invited Jefferson to become Secretary of State in Washington’s new Cabinet to which Jefferson accepted.
After campaigning for president in 1976, Jefferson lost to John Adams by three electoral college votes and was named the Vice President. During the Election of 1800, the Republicans gathered more electoral college votes but a tie emerged between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his vice presidential candidate. The tie was broken and Jefferson was elected on February 17, 1801. The transition proved to be a landmark event, “it was one of the first popular elections in modern history that resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from one ‘party’ to another.”
In his inaugural address, Jefferson asked for reconciliation and freedom with rights to minorities and the ability to practice free speech, religion, and have a free press. Jefferson tackled the enormous amount of debt he inherited as well as attempted to eliminate the national bank. While freedom was part of his platform, Jefferson did own slaves. He advocated on their behalf while a part of the Virginia bar, but he would be criticized for keeping slaves later on in life.
He also felt the nation needed a military university and created the United States Military Academy at West Point on March 16, 1802. Jefferson’s presidency also included the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark expedition, and changes to how American Indians were treated. Jefferson also completed a second presidential term.
After his last presidency, Jefferson retired to Monticello and founded the University of Virginia as a way to pursue his academic interests further. In July 1825, his health began to worsen and a year later he was bedridden. On July 4, 1826 Thomas Jefferson died at age 83 on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was held to high esteem and has been memorialized numerous ways, including the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC being a part of Mt. Rushmore, currency, and others. He envisioned an America that had individual liberties, democracy, and republicanism.
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