Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743–July 4, 1826) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He drafted the Declaration of Independence. He served as the country’s first secretary of state. He was elected the third U.S. president. As president, Jefferson was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. He is one of the four presidents represented on Mount Rushmore, in Keystone, South Dakota.
Thomas Jefferson was born into a wealthy family in the Virginia colony. He grew up on a plantation . Alongside his nine siblings, Jefferson explored the woods, read books, and studied. In 1760, Jefferson enrolled in the College of William and Mary. He went on to practice law and serve in local government. In 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton. The couple moved to Monticello, Virginia. There, Jefferson would spend more than 40 years building a grand estate.
He was a great thinker, architect, inventor, farmer, and patriot . He was also an early champion of democracy and a voice for independence. As the colonies planned to break away from British rule, Jefferson took an active role in what would become the American Revolution.GETTY IMAGES
Way with Words
Jefferson was tall and had a face full of freckles. He was more comfortable writing his thoughts than speaking in public. That made him an excellent person to write the Declaration of Independence. This important document declared the colonies’ freedom from King George. In 1776, the 33-year-old Jefferson drafted the Declaration. He got input from John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. But Jefferson is widely known as the Declaration’s main author.
During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781. However, the role had no real authority. In 1785, he was appointed as an ambassador to France. Four years later, President George Washington asked Jefferson to join his Cabinet as the nation’s first secretary of state.
While serving in the Cabinet, Jefferson famously argued with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Their arguments formed the major conflict of the new nation. Would the United States’ power be shared by the 13 states? Or would the country be governed by a strong central government? Jefferson believed in states’ rights. Hamilton argued for an active federal government. This debate continues in the U.S. to this day.
The Third President
Some Americans expected Washington to serve as president for life. But Washington believed a peaceful transition of power from one president to another was important. Washington served two terms as president. He decided to retire in 1797.
This opened the door for Jefferson to become the nation’s next leader. At the time, however, he was serving as vice president. That is because he had lost the 1796 presidential election to John Adams. Since Jefferson had received the second-highest number of votes, the law made him vice president. So in 1800, Jefferson ran against Adams. He won. He became the country’s third president. He served two terms.
One of the most important decisions he made as president occurred during his first term. In 1803, the U.S. bought 828,000 square miles of land from France. This was called the Louisiana Purchase. It nearly doubled the size of the nation. Jefferson quickly sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the new territory. The men and their team traveled all the way to the Pacific coast. They surveyed places that were not yet a part of the U.S. The group returned in 1806. They had valuable information about areas in the western part of the continent.
Later Life and Legacy
Jefferson left the presidency in 1809. He returned to Monticello. He helped create the University of Virginia in 1819. Jefferson continued writing until his death on July 4, 1826. He died exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. He passed away just hours before fellow Founding Father and former political rival John Adams died.
Jefferson left behind a complicated legacy . In the Declaration, he wrote some of the most important words in the founding of the nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Jefferson claimed to oppose slavery. Yet he owned as many as 600 slaves in his lifetime. He believed that African Americans were inferior to whites. He also is believed to have fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.
Despite such contradictions, Jefferson remains a symbol of American democracy. Today, his face appears on the nickel and the $2 bill, and is carved into Mount Rushmore.