Thomas Jefferson

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Common Good
National Government
Jefferson was able to hold many political offices during his lifetime including governor of Virginia, U.S. minister to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, vice-president under John Adams, and as the third President of the United States. Jefferson wanted to be remembered as the "author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia".

Biographical Highlights

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was able to hold many political offices during his lifetime including governor of Virginia, U.S. minister to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, vice-president under John Adams, and as the third President of the United States. He designed his own tombstone to read “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia” and as he requested “not a word more” (Library of Congress). Although he only wanted to be remembered for these three things, Jefferson can also be remembered as a diplomat, architect, farmer, musician, scientist, attorney, and inventor.

Jefferson’s greatest legacy to the United States is that he will be remembered as the defender of democracy and advocate for the common people. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died at Monticello.

Historic Roots

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, to a well-to-do landowner. He attended the College of William and Mary and later studied law. He began six years of service at the Virginia House of Burgesses and began building Monticello on land he inherited from his father. He married Martha Wayles Skelton on January 1, 1772, and they had six children, only two of whom survived. Martha died in 1782, during childbirth.

Jefferson was appointed by Congress to a five-member committee in 1776 to write the Declaration of Independence. He then served in the House of Delegates, part of the New Virginia legislature, from 1776-1779, when he became Governor of Virginia. He briefly served in Congress in 1783-1784. He then succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister of France (1784-1789). Throughout these five years he studied the architecture, art, and music of France. During his last year in France he saw the development of the French Revolution. Jefferson approved of the revolt of the common people against the tyranny of royalty (The New Book of Knowledge).

Jefferson accepted George Washington’s invitation to become the first secretary of state under the new Constitution of 1789 (The New Book of Knowledge). Jefferson resigned this position in 1793, after too many disagreements with Hamilton (secretary of the treasury), who Jefferson saw as pro-British and whom he believed was building ties of financial interest and corrupting Congress (Encyclopedia Americana). Jefferson then retired to Monticello and for the next three years devoted himself to remodeling his home and spending time with his family.

In 1796, Jefferson became the presidential candidate of the Democratic-Republican Party against John Adams. Losing to Adams by three electoral voices, Jefferson became vice-president (1797-1801) under the election system then in effect (Encyclopedia Americana).

Jefferson was inaugurated as President in 1801 after he tied with Aaron Burr for the office. The House of Representatives eventually elected Jefferson and thereafter the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution clarified the way presidents are elected in this country. After serving two terms, Jefferson’s friend James Madison, who had served as secretary of state in his administration, succeeded him as president in 1809, and Jefferson returned to Monticello. He spent the remaining seventeen years of his life surrounded by family and friends. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams coincidently died on the exact same day just hours later. In 1943, the Jefferson memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C. establishing him as one of the greatest Americans that ever lived.


Declaration of Independence

Continental Congress appointed Jefferson in 1776 to a five-member committee that included Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), John Hancock (1737-1793), John Adams (1735-1826), Roger Sherman (1721-1793), and Robert Livingston (1746-1813), for the drafting of a declaration of independence. Although a great many revisions were made of this original document by Jefferson, the committee, and Congress, Jefferson retained his prominent role in the writing of this document (Library of Congress).

Religious Freedom Statute

While Jefferson was governor of Virginia, he placed a high value on his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was introduced in 1779, but not passed until seven years later (The New Book of Knowledge). This Bill called for a separation of church and state and the freedom for people to worship as they wished.

Louisiana Purchase

Jefferson’s most noteworthy achievement during this presidency (1801-1809) was his purchase of Louisiana from the French (1803). The acquisition of this territory led to the United States doubling in size with one stroke of the pen (The New Book of Knowledge).

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Jefferson sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806) on a mapping and scientific exploration from the Mississippi River to the Pacific fulfilling his life-long commitment to the support of western exploration and American expansion to the west (Library of Congress).

University of Virginia Jefferson’s creation of the University of Virginia in 1819 was something he valued just as much as the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom. He not only designed the university buildings but he also selected the first professors.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Thomas Jefferson contributed much to the nonprofit and philanthropic world. While he was Governor of Virginia, he attempted to pass the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which would have established a public school system in Virginia. Although it failed to pass, this bill demonstrates that Jefferson was a man ahead of his time (The New Book of Knowledge). Another of his failed attempts was to create a public library and this, too, opened the doors to its later creation. Jefferson’s belief in the individual rights of everyone, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech has created many nonprofit and philanthropic organizations that exist today to continue the fight he started so many centuries ago.

Key Related Ideas

Age of Enlightenment: The age in which Jefferson lived; it was an 18th Century philosophy following the Age of Reason. Leaders regarded their purpose as leading the world out of the dark ages. Freedom of the Press: Jefferson’s attempts to protect individual rights included freedom of the press. He was a firm believer in the freedom of the press stating “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost” (Library of Congress, Selected Quotations).

Freedom of Speech: Jefferson was a staunch advocate in the freedom of individuals and their rights to express themselves without fear of prosecution. He was adamantly against the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) that passed during his Vice Presidency, and which he felt, threatened the freedom of Americans.

Separation of Church and State: Jefferson created the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which allowed people to worship as they pleased without fear. He maintained that there should be a “wall” of separation between church and state. The statute declares that no one can be compelled to attend religious services or be persecuted for religious beliefs and practices.