Biography of Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States

Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
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Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743–July 4, 1826) was the third president of the United States, after George Washington and John Adams. His presidency is perhaps best known for the Louisiana Purchase, a single land transaction that doubled the size of the United States' territory. Jefferson was an anti-Federalist who was wary of a large central government and favored states' rights over federal authority.

Fast Facts: Thomas Jefferson

  • Known For: Third president of the United States; Founding Father; drafted the Declaration of Independence
  • Born: April 13, 1743 in the Colony of Virginia
  • Died: July 4, 1826 in Charlottesville, Virginia
  • Education: College and William and Mary
  • Spouse: Martha Wayles (m. 1772-1782)
  • Children: Martha, Jane Randolph, Unnamed Son, Maria, Lucy Elizabeth, Lucy Elizabeth (all with wife Martha); a rumored six with his slave Sally Hemings, including Madison and Eston
  • Notable Quote: "The government is best that governs least."

Early Life

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in the Colony of Virginia. He was the son of Colonel Peter Jefferson, a planter and public official, and Jane Randolph. Jefferson grew up in Virginia and was raised with the orphaned children of his father's friend, William Randolph. He was educated from ages 9 to 14 by a clergyman named William Douglas, from whom he learned Greek, Latin, and French. He then attended Reverend James Maury's School before matriculating at the College of William and Mary. Jefferson studied law with George Wythe, the first American law professor. He was admitted to the bar in 1767.

Political Career

Jefferson entered politics in the late 1760s. He served in the House of Burgesses—the legislature of Virginia—from 1769 to 1774. On January 1, 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton. Together they had two daughters: Martha "Patsy" and Mary "Polly." There is also speculation that Jefferson may have fathered several children with the slave Sally Hemings.

As a representative of Virginia, Jefferson argued against British actions and served on the Committee of Correspondence, which formed a union between the 13 American colonies. Jefferson was a member of the Continental Congress and later was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. During part of the Revolutionary War, he served as the governor of Virginia. After the war, he was sent to France to act as a foreign minister.

In 1790, President Washington appointed Jefferson to be the United States' first official Secretary of State. Jefferson clashed with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton on how the new country should deal with France and Britain. Hamilton also desired a stronger federal government than Jefferson. Jefferson eventually resigned because he saw that Washington was more strongly influenced by Hamilton than himself. Jefferson later served as vice president under John Adams from 1797 to 1801.

Election of 1800

In 1800, Jefferson ran as the Republican nominee for president, with Aaron Burr as his vice president. Jefferson ran a very contentious campaign against John Adams, under whom he had previously served. Jefferson and Burr tied in the electoral vote, leading to an electoral controversy that was ultimately resolved in Jefferson's favor by a vote in the House of Representatives. Jefferson took office as the country's third president on February 17, 1801.

Thomas Jefferson called the election of 1800 the "Revolution of 1800" because it was the first time in the United States when the presidency passed from one party to another. The election marked a peaceful transition of power that has continued to this day.

First Term

An important early event during Jefferson's first term in office was the court case Marbury v. Madison, which established the Supreme Court's power to rule on the constitutionality of federal acts.

From 1801 to 1805, America engaged in a war with the Barbary States of North Africa. The United States had been paying tribute to pirates from this area to stop attacks on American ships. When the pirates asked for more money, Jefferson refused, leading Tripoli to declare war. This ended in success for the United States, which was no longer required to pay tribute to Tripoli. However, America did continue to pay the rest of the Barbary States.

In 1803, Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory from France for $15 million. Many historians consider this the most important act of his administration, as the purchase doubled the size of the United States. In 1804, Jefferson dispatched the Corps of Discovery, the expedition party famously led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the new territory

Reelection of 1804

Jefferson was renominated for the presidency in 1804 with George Clinton as his vice president. Jefferson ran against Charles Pinckney from South Carolina and easily won a second term. The Federalists were divided, with radical elements leading to the party's downfall. Jefferson received 162 electoral votes and Pinckney got only 14.

Second Term

In 1807, during Jefferson's second term, Congress passed a law ending America's involvement in the foreign slave trade. This act—which went into effect January 1, 1808—abolished the importation of slaves from Africa (it did not, however, end the sale of slaves within the United States).

By the end of Jefferson's second term, France and Britain were at war and American trade ships were often targeted. When the British boarded the American frigate Chesapeake, they forced three soldiers to work on their vessel and killed one for treason. Jefferson signed the Embargo Act of 1807 in response. The legislation stopped America from exporting and importing foreign goods. Jefferson thought this would have the effect of hurting trade in France and Great Britain. It ended up having the opposite effect and did more damage to America.

Death

After his second term in office, Jefferson retired to his home in Virginia and spent much of his time designing the University of Virginia. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Legacy

Jefferson's election marked the beginning of the fall of federalism and the Federalist Party. When Jefferson took over the office from Federalist John Adams, the transfer of power occurred in an orderly manner, setting a precedent for future political transitions. Jefferson took his role as party leader very seriously. His greatest achievement was perhaps the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the size of the United States.

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