Few figures in American history are studied or debated as frequently as Thomas Jefferson. A colleague once remarked that American history and American politics are simple: you are either a Jeffersonian or a Hamiltonian. He might be right. Little has changed in two hundred years. Modern political ideology has blended elements of both men, but in substance, Americans can be split into two distinctive camps that have nothing to do with party affiliation: you either believe in a government of restraint or a government of action. Jefferson did not have the military record of Washington or the political stature, at least at first, of his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry, but his legacy, while not always correctly interpreted, has had a more lasting impact on American political life than most men in the Founding generation.

Thomas Jefferson was born on 13 April 1743 at his family plantation called Shadwell. His father, Peter Jefferson, earned his way into Virginia society through perseverance and marriage. The Jefferson clan arrived in the colonies around 1677, and like Washington, Thomas Jefferson was a fourth generation American. Jefferson’s mother, Jane Randolph, was a member of one of the most powerful families in Virginia. Peter Jefferson ensured social standing for his children through his union to Jane and by conducting himself as a Southern gentleman. He made the first accurate map of Virginia, helped survey the boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia, and served as a burgess and county lieutenant for Albermarle. When Peter Jefferson died, he bequeathed Thomas Jefferson 2,750 acres of land and an established place in the community.


Thomas Jefferson obtained a rigorous education in his youth. He studied the classics, particularly the histories and philosophy of Greece and Rome, French, and mathematics. Jefferson grew attached to the land in his youth and developed an affinity for Virginian society that continued throughout his life. He entered the College of William and Mary in 1760 at sixteen and was graduated at eighteen. This was not uncommon at the time; young men with talent rose quickly through the formal education “system” and began their careers. To that end, Jefferson studied law, and continued his study of the classics under George Wythe, the first and only law professor in Virginia at the time. Jefferson had a natural talent for legal work, but little appetite to apply it in court. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767, but never practiced law after 1775. In 1772, Jefferson married a beautiful widow, Martha Wayles Skelton; she died ten years later. Jefferson was a devoted husband, and the marriage produced six children, two of whom lived to adulthood. The loss of his wife buried Jefferson in a deep, lasting depression, and he promised that he would not marry after her death. He never did.

Shortly after their marriage, Thomas Jefferson and his wife moved to Monticello, where all their children were born. Monticello became his passion; his happiest occupation was building and perfecting his mountain-top plantation. By 1775, he owned close to 10,000 acres and between 100 to 200 slaves, and with both came the debt and financial concerns that often plagued Southern planters. Jefferson maintained meticulous records of plantation life, from the activities of his slaves to the temperature, foliage, and migratory patterns of birds and wildlife. He was a naturalist and scientist with a passion for education. This pursuit of learning led him to charter the University of Virginia in 1819, a project he had envisioned since at least 1800. He wanted his college to be “temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.” Even more important, Jefferson wanted his fellow Virginians to be educated in their own state, to be free from the corruption of the “dark Federalist mills,” such as Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. The University of Virginia, he believed, would perpetuate the agrarian order of Virginia. He listed the founding of the institution as one of his most important contributions to his state.


In the years leading up to the Revolution, Jefferson gained political experience as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was renowned less as an orator than as a writer. His A Summary View of the Rights of British America, written in 1774, justified American grievances against the crown on the basis of their common, natural rights as Englishmen. Jefferson emphasized that life and liberty were granted through God, and though the “hand of force may destroy, [it] cannot disjoin them.” As in the case of the later Declaration, the Summary was aggressive but conservative.

Thomas Jefferson begged the king in the spirit of “fraternal love” to check the oppressive acts of Parliament and maintain harmony throughout the empire. The colonists, who had carved a life for themselves through their own blood and toil and were of right Englishmen, had legitimate concern with the belligerent and unconstitutional acts forced upon them. Jefferson maintained the colonies were granted freedom of trade through “natural right” and demanded that taxing power be vested in the colonial legislatures. He was not a separatist in 1774. Jefferson believed the colonies could no longer suffer through the “slavery” of oppressive and unconstitutional government, but he preferred peaceful reconciliation to separation.

Though elected as an alternate, Thomas Jefferson spent little time in the Continental Congress before May 1776. He was appointed the commander of the Albemarle militia and organized his county’s defense, but he did not see military duty during the war. In June 1776, Congress elected Jefferson—along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston—to draft a declaration of independence. The Declaration was, in the words Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone, the document that justified the “secession of the colonies from the Mother Country.” In Jefferson’s mind, the colonists were acting within their sovereign, natural rights as Englishmen to resist tyranny. Those sovereign rights were to be exercised by the sovereign states.

The Declaration affirms that the colonies “are, and of Right out to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES . . . and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do.” The emphasis is in the original, and the use of the plural, “independent states,” is not an accident. When Jefferson referred to his “country” he always meant Virginia, and it was this idea that the colonies were free and independent states, united by common interest, that later made Jefferson such an ardent proponent of limiting the power of the Federal government and reaffirming the rights of the states. During the Revolution, Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Delegates until he was elected governor in 1779. He helped draft the first constitution for Virginia in 1776, a document that created a bicameral legislature with an independent executive and a declaration of rights. This constitution would be the model for the United States Constitution.

In 1779, he authored a bill for establishing religious liberty, the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” a document that he believed to be his most important contribution to his state. The bill, which did not pass until 1786, with James Madison as its champion, is often used to illustrate Thomas Jefferson’s distaste for established “religion.” But Jefferson and every other American in the eighteenth century understood established religion to mean an established church, such as the Church of England. The bill was meant as an abettor, not a hindrance, to freedom of religion in the state.

The war took its toll on Thomas Jefferson, as it did on everyone else. In 1781, the British occupied Richmond. Benedict Arnold’s “American Legion” of British loyalists sacked the Governor’s House, Jefferson’s home as governor. The following year Jefferson’s wife died, and his own health was uncertain. From 1781, his last year as governor, to 1783, the last year of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson retired from public life and devoted himself to writing Notes on the State of Virginia. The Notes is the fullest expression we have of Jefferson’s views on philosophy, education, science, and politics. He believed that his beloved Virginia needed improvements, and he openly discussed them, but he also understood that his freedom and individuality were only possible because of the rigid structure of the old order of Virginia life, an order that had been defined from the earliest settlers to Virginia and perpetuated by the moral, geographical, legal, and political boundaries of his state. In plain terms, tradition allowed freedom, not just for Jefferson the aristocrat, but for the members of his community regardless of status. The Notes explicitly recognized and defended this maxim.

“In God’s name, from whence have they derived this power (dictatorship during the Revolution)? Is it from our ancient laws? None such can be produced. Is it from any principle in our new constitution (of Virginia), expressed or implied? Every lineament of that expressed or implied, is in full opposition to it. Its fundamental principle is, that the state shall be governed as a commonwealth. It provides a republican organization, proscribes under the name of prerogative the exercise of all powers undefined by the laws; places on this basis the whole system of our laws; and, by consolidating them together, chuses [SIC] that they shall be left to stand or fall together, never providing for any circumstances, nor admitting that such could arise, wherein either should be suspended, no, not for a moment. Our ancient laws expressly declare, that those who are but delegates themselves shall not delegate to others powers which require judgment and integrity in their exercise.”

After accepting his election as a delegate to the Congress of the United States in 1783, Thomas Jefferson authored the bill that ceded Virginia’s western lands, which extended from the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi River, to the new central government, quite possibly the most substantial act of generosity in American history. Since the early stages of the Revolution, Jefferson had envisioned this territory as room for American expansion, for the creation of new states, as equal and sovereign as the other American states. Jefferson also determined that the western territory should be free from slavery. If early western land legislation had been drafted according to his wishes, slavery would have been forbidden in all western territory after 1800. As it stood, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, a document modeled after Jefferson’s designs, prohibited slavery in the territory until the said territory became a state. At that point the sovereign state could legislate for the institution as it wished. Jefferson owned slaves, but he could also see the potentially destructive nature of the system, thus his insistence on the exclusion of slavery in the territories and his attempted inclusion of a statement condemning slavery in the Declaration of Independence.

Diplomat and secretary of state

Thomas Jefferson began his career as a diplomat in 1784 when he helped negotiate a trade agreement with Prussia; from 1785 to 1789 he was the United States ambassador to France; and from 1789 until his resignation in 1793 he was secretary of state. Jefferson was something of a Francophile; he liked the French and preferred them to the English, whom he thought arrogant and selfish. Although he thought America could continue to benefit from its relationship with France, it is a common misconception that Jefferson wanted to make the United States more like France. He did not. While he sympathized with the leaders of the early stages of the French Revolution, he was disgusted by the violence and turmoil of the Reign of Terror and was shocked and dismayed by the ascension of Napoleon Bonaparte to power. He admired French arts, but did not think much of their science or philosophy. Jefferson was born with an English mind; and educated English minds were molded by the classics of Greece and Rome; it was the classics, not the French philosophes, that framed his philosophy.

As Washington’s choice for first secretary of state under the Constitution, Jefferson accepted, but not without reservation. He continued to long for retirement from public service, but believed duty required him to be a good steward of the new Constitution, and also to watch the designs of the potential “monarchists” who had gained control of the central government during his long absence in France. Jefferson developed a clearer picture of American political life during this period. He became convinced that some Americans were attempting to subvert the principles of the Revolution, consolidate power, and trample on American liberty. His fears appeared justified when Hamilton presented his First Report on the Public Credit and advocated the establishment of a Bank of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson wished to “preserve the lines drawn by the Federal Constitution between the general and particular governments as it stands at present, and to take every prudent means to prevent either from stepping over it.” Hamilton’s program overstepped these boundaries. Jefferson had long been suspicious of Hamilton. He thought Hamilton was generally a good man, but did not understand his infatuation with Britain and its system of government, including its corruption, which Hamilton simply accepted without demur.

Jefferson outlined his understanding of the Constitution in his challenge to the bank. Because chartering a bank or any other corporation was not a specific power delegated to the central government by the Constitution, the bank could not be created. Jefferson argued that Hamiltonianism “flowed from principles adverse to liberty, and was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic. . . . ” It meant, in short, an ever expanding federal government which would of necessity be an enemy of freedom. Jefferson faced an international crisis in his final year as secretary of state that underlined his differences with Hamilton.

In 1793, the French appointed Edmond Charles Genêt as minister to the United States. Jefferson described him as a hothead, and Genêt created controversy when he attempted to commission Americans to act as privateers and seize British shipping; Genêt also publicly and repeatedly disparaged George Washington. Genêt wanted the United States to join France’s war with Great Britain. Washington had no interest in another war with Britain. Neither did Jefferson, who eventually requested that the government of France recall Genêt recall from the United States.

In April 1793, Washington issued his famous Neutrality Proclamation. Jefferson supported neutrality, but thought Washington was overreaching his authority. Jefferson knew that Hamilton, the pro-British Federalist, was actually behind the proclamation. Jefferson urged Madison to challenge it, which he did. Madison argued that treaty-making was the sole responsibility of Congress, and that by issuing a “proclamation” of neutrality, the executive was seizing power not delegated to it by the Constitution and violating the principle of congressional oversight over questions of war and peace. Madison and the Jeffersonian Republicans are generally seen as sympathetic to the French, while the Federalists were sympathetic to Britain. But what was really at stake was not a matter of sympathies but of Jefferson’s desire to maintain a strict obedience to the Constitution and the limits it set on the executive, legislative, and judicial powers of the Federal government.

Retirement and vice president

Because he was increasingly at odds with Hamilton and Hamilton’s growing influence over Washington, Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1793. At fifty-one (the same age as Washington when he “retired” in 1783), Jefferson believed he was leaving public service for good. He brought his family to Monticello. First and foremost, Jefferson was a traditional Virginia planter. He believed agrarian life, coupled with “the eye of vigilance,” provided the best security against what he saw as the evils of centralization, consolidation, and urbanization.

Thomas Jefferson implemented a scientific rotation of crops, then a novel experiment, added a grist-mill and nail factory to make the plantation more self-sufficient, and expanded Monticello. Jefferson wrote in the Notes that towns were unimportant in Virginia because commerce could be conducted along rivers. In any event, the goal for the planter was selfsufficiency so that he didn’t have to dirty his hands too much with the money-grubbing of the merchant class. The goal was to be a gentleman, and as one Virginian wrote in 1773, “The people of fortune . . . are the pattern of all behaviour here.” Politics was a duty, but the plantation was center of his life.

Duty called again. Jefferson finished second in the 1796 presidential election, and accordingly, served one term as vice-president. He fulfilled his constitutional duties and even wrote the definitive manual on parliamentary practice in the Senate. His defining moment as vice president, however, was not in any official capacity. It was during the Quasi-War with France, when the Federalists, worried that French revolutionary ideas and agents were spreading to America, issued the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Jefferson responded by writing, in secret, the Kentucky Resolutions for the state legislature of Kentucky. The Constitution, the resolutions stated, is a compact among the states, and if the federal government, as the agent of the contracting parties, breached that compact by violating its delegated authority (as in the Alien and Sedition Acts), the states had a right to declare such acts null and void. Popular opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts doomed the Federalist Party, which was defeated by Jefferson and the Republican Party in 1801.

The presidency

Thomas Jefferson detested his time as president. He was elected by Congress in 1801 after the Electoral College returns ended in a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Hamilton, who considered Jefferson to be the safer man, prodded Federalists in Congress to vote for Jefferson. He was elected by one vote on the thirty-sixth ballot. Jefferson viewed his election as a second revolution, and though he did not desire office and considered his election more of a curse than a blessing, he nevertheless seized the opportunity to place his stamp on the executive branch. As the third president and the first of an opposition “party,” Jefferson sought to downgrade the presidency and place it within its proper constitutional position.

Jefferson took office on 4 March 1801. In his first symbolic move, Jefferson walked to the capitol building rather than ride in a coach. He wanted to portray an image of humility and republican simplicity. Jefferson was many things, and enemies described him as cunning and petty, but no one could rightfully accuse him of ambition. He was setting an example that he hoped future presidents would emulate. The president was to be the faithful defender of constitutional powers, but nothing more, and show leadership in restraint.

The most famous line from his first inaugural address, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” is often taken out of context. In the next sentence, Jefferson stated, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments to the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” In other words, we can get along, but if the Federalists would like to secede and create a monarchy, go ahead. Though we may not agree with you, we won’t stop you.

Thomas Jefferson outlined his plans for government later in the address. He desired “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies. . . . ” Jefferson’s belief in abiding by the letter of the Constitution, strictly limiting Federal power, and jealously guarding states’ rights would have made him an opponent of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “Great Society,” George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism,” and Barack Obama’s unprecedentedly massive expansion of federal spending and debt. Jefferson would also have warned against joining NATO or any other military alliance.

Jefferson’s vision of government was simple: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” He wanted a government that paid its debts with “economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burdened.” He wanted government “enlightened by a benign religion . . . inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.” He wanted a government that jealously protected the sovereignty of the people through election, and that understood that the people held the right to use the “sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided” against overreaching government. A government possessing these attributes “is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

“These principles,” Jefferson said in his first inaugural address, “form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

Thomas Jefferson followed through. The federal debt was cut in half; taxes were reduced or eliminated, and appropriations were only given for specific purposes. Jefferson often personally answered the door to the executive mansion and worked in his slippers. One socialite described his appearance during this period as one that had “no pretensions to elegance, but it was neither coarse nor awkward, and it must be owned that his greatest personal attraction was a countenance beaming with benevolence and intelligence.” He eliminated official state dinners, delivered his annual messages to Congress in written form rather than in person, and generally downgraded the importance of the executive office. Opponents, even those in his own party, called him inconsistent, and Jefferson did have to mold his persona to the office at times, but he believed he was following the prescriptions set forth in his first inaugural.

One example of his “inconsistency” occurred in 1807. During the previous six years of his presidency, Jefferson tried in vain to renegotiate the terms of Jay’s Treaty. With a fresh outbreak of warfare between France and England, the United States was again in the crosshairs of the most powerful military forces in Europe, with both powers seeking to drag the United States onto its side, embargoing the other. Jefferson wished to remain neutral and avoid the “entangling alliances” that could wreck the United States. The path of neutral trade had been blazed by Washington and by Jefferson as the first secretary of state and now as president. The experience of the Revolution also played a role in his decision to remain neutral. The young United States was in no position to wage war against either power, but the British were making things difficult. They harassed United States merchants and impressed its sailors. Jefferson applied diplomatic pressure to no avail. Then the British struck.

In 1807, the USS Chesapeake was fired upon by the H.M.S. Leopard in American waters. This act of aggression dictated war, but Jefferson hesitated and chose commercial rather than military action. He refused to ask for a declaration of war and instead drew plans for the most controversial bill of his career. He ordered all British vessels out of American waters and asked Congress for an embargo against all international commerce. This plan had its origins in the American Revolution. Non-importation, the favorite tactic of the colonists against the British, worked before, and Jefferson believed an assault on British commerce would surly weaken the empire again.

Unfortunately, his plan backfired. The British had other commercial outlets, and the only victims of the embargo proved to be honest New England merchants (whom Jefferson didn’t much care for) and Southern planters who needed some imported manufactured goods and British outlets for cash crops. Members in Jefferson’s own party blasted the embargo as unconstitutional. Jefferson insisted the policy was the most effective way to maintain peace, and believed if it had more time to work the British economy would have been crippled. He never found out. Jefferson left office in 1809 with little support from his fellow Virginia republicans and a tarnished reputation made worse by the incessant attacks of an unfriendly press.

Historians often showcase the Louisiana Purchase as the crown jewel of Thomas Jefferson’s inconsistency. After concluding a war with the British in 1802, the French received a large chunk of the North American continent through the Spanish. The territory and the prospect of a North American empire seemed intriguing to Napoleon Bonaparte, military dictator of the French “Republic.” It terrified Jefferson. He remarked that if Napoleon were to control Louisiana and the Mississippi, “we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.” This conflicted with Jefferson’s ideas of American independence and peaceful neutrality.

Thomas Jefferson sent a secret diplomatic delegation to France to gain the use of Louisiana and the Mississippi, but when the two-man team arrived in France, they were surprised by the offer: all of the territory for a steal, $15 million or what turned out to be roughly three cents an acre. The treaty was worked out without Jefferson’s knowledge—they couldn’t just pick up the “red-phone” and let him know—and they returned to the United States in 1803 and presented it to Congress and the president. Congress had only authorized Monroe to spend $2 million for New Orleans and West Florida, so the increase in funds needed approval. Because it increased the public debt by nearly 20 percent, Jefferson’s secretary of the treasury, Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, was forced to finance a deal he thought went against republican principles, and it did contradict republican ideals of independence because most of the stock used to finance the purchase were sold to foreign banks. Jefferson also had to wrestle with the constitutionality of the measure.

He did not think the Constitution permitted the United States to acquire territory. James Madison persuaded him otherwise, but for good measureThomas Jefferson immediately went to work drafting a constitutional amendment that permitted the acquisition. When nary a soul confronted Jefferson on the constitutionality of the matter (even the staunch strict-constructionist John Randolph of Roanoke supported the purchase at the time, though he later changed course) Jefferson considered the issue dead and did not follow-up. The Senate ratified the treaty with little debate.

On the one hand, Jefferson maintained American independence by steering clear of British attempts to hook the United States into an alliance against Napoleon, but on the other the treaty saddled the county with more debt than Gallatin or some other Republicans could stomach. It also laid the foundation for the sectional conflict of the mid-nineteenth century. But these problems appear more clearly in hindsight than they did at the time. Jefferson concluded that American independence was more important than any other issue and thought the Louisiana Purchase did more to augment republican principles than destroy them. Had he known of the future problems adding Louisiana would present, he may have pressed his case for a constitutional amendment more firmly and may have proceeded more cautiously. Either way, the case of “inconsistency” is only an issue if the diplomatic realities of the time and Jefferson’s desire to remain independent are ignored.

The Jeffersonian tradition

Thomas Jefferson spent the final seventeen years of his life at Monticello living as a gentleman planter. He worked on various educational projects, including the foundation of the University of Virginia, and carried on extensive correspondence with his friends, both foreign and domestic. Jefferson was deeply in debt and died virtually broke. He sold his personal library of 10,000 volumes to the federal government following the War of 1812 in order to restock the burned Library of Congress and to gain much needed cash. Interestingly, although faced with a crushing financial burden, Jefferson continued to lend his less fortunate friends money, a policy he followed most of his life. He was benevolent to the end.

Thomas Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and just hours before John Adams, the only other former president who signed the document. This was a fitting end to his life. He instructed that his tombstone read simply, “Here was Buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia of Religious Freedom, and the Father of the University of Virginia.” He is buried under no grand monument, but a simple obelisk.

Thomas Jefferson remains an inspiration to Americans who revere liberty and states’ rights and want a strictly limited federal government. Two of Jefferson’s grandchildren served the Confederate States of America on just these grounds. His eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was given a commission as a colonel in the Confederate army, while his youngest grandson, George Wythe Randolph, served as a brigadier general in the Confederate army and later as the Confederate Secretary of War. He also had numerous great-grandsons who served in the Confederate military. His family remained loyal to their “country” of Virginia and to Jefferson’s conviction that “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

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