Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia. He was the third child born to Peter Jefferson, a planter and surveyor, and Jane Randolph, a member of one of Virginia’s most distinguished families. Jefferson had two older sisters, Jane and Mary, and five younger siblings – Elizabeth, Martha, Peter, Lucy, and Randolph.
Jefferson began his education at the age of five, studying Greek, Latin, French, mathematics and geography. In 1757, at age 14, he began studying under Reverend James Maury and learned history and science. He entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1760. He was an avid studier and took courses in mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy. He graduated in 1762 with highest honors.
After graduating, Jefferson read law under the tutelage of George Wythe, the leading legal expert in Virginia. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767.<div style=”text-align:center”>
|Education & Career Milestones
|5 years old
|Began studying Greek, Latin, French, math & geography
|14 years old
|Studied under Rev. James Maury
|16 years old
|Entered the College of William & Mary
|19 years old
|Graduated from the College of William & Mary
|24 years old
|Admitted to the Virginia bar
Marriage and Family Life
In January 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton, a young widow. They had a happy marriage and together had six children: Martha (born 1772), Jane (1774), an unnamed son (1777), Mary Wayles (1778), Lucy Elizabeth (1780), and Lucy Elizabeth (1782). Sadly, only Martha and Mary survived to adulthood.
Martha herself was frequently ill during their ten years of marriage. She died on September 6, 1782, after several months of poor health. This left Jefferson distraught for weeks and he nearly suffered a nervous breakdown.
In 1783, Jefferson’s daughter Lucy Elizabeth also passed away at just a few months old. This left him with just two daughters out of the six children that were born to him and his wife Martha.
After passing the bar exam, Jefferson handled a variety of legal cases. His very first case, Howell v. Netherland (1767), involved a complicated land dispute. Jefferson lost but was able to demonstrate his quick intelligence. His law practice and reputation steadily grew.
As his career advanced, Jefferson took on many cases having to do with land disputes, slaves seeking their freedom, disputes over gambling debts, among other issues. Around 1769 he also became a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
Within just a few short years, Jefferson had become quite distinguished as both an attorney and politician. But the American Revolution was looming – and Jefferson was on the cusp of an even more renowned political career.
Main Career – Politics
Jefferson was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. There, he served with prominent figures such as George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.
Because of his skill as a writer, Jefferson was tasked with drafting important documents – including the Declaration on Taking Up Arms (1775).
The next year, in June 1776, he was again called upon to write an important document: the Declaration of Independence. This document announced that the 13 American colonies were breaking away from British rule to form their independent nation.
Jefferson became known as the main author of the Declaration, with some minor revisions by Adams and Franklin. At just 33 years old, he had written one of the most famous documents in American history.<div style=”text-align:center”>
|Elected to the 2nd Continental Congress <br>Drafts the Declaration on Taking Up Arms
|Drafts the Declaration of Independence
Early Political Offices
For two years after drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned home to Virginia to serve in the state legislature. Among his important accomplishments was introducing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
In 1779 he was elected Governor of Virginia for a one year term. This was during the Revolutionary War and his term was marked by difficulties coordinating defenses against British threats. he was sometimes criticized for lack of military leadership.
In June 1783 – after the British had surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, ending the Revolutionary War – Jefferson was again elected to the Continental Congress. That year his major accomplishment was organizing the decimal system for United States currency.
His wife Martha passed away later that year, leaving Jefferson depressed and withdrawn from public life for a period. However, new opportunities arose the next year.
|1776 – 1778
|Serves in Virginia House of Delegates
|33 – 35
|Elected Governor of Virginia
|1783 – 1785
|Serves in Congress <br> Establishes US decimal currency
|40 – 42
Minister to France
In 1784 Jefferson was commissioned to help negotiate commercial treaties with European nations. He spent the next five years abroad, first in Paris and later in London. Benjamin Franklin was also stationed in Paris during this time.
Among Jefferson’s accomplishments as minister to France include:
- Negotiating new trade agreements with France and the Netherlands
- Witnessing early tests of hot air balloons, which he enthusiastically wrote about to colleagues back home
- Touring architectural landmarks, which influenced his own later designs
After learning that the U.S. Constitution had been ratified and George Washington had been elected President, Jefferson requested to be recalled back home. He sailed back to America late in 1789.
Secretary of State
Shortly after returning to the colonies, George Washington asked Jefferson to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of State. Jefferson accepted and served in this role from 1790 to 1793.
As head diplomat, Jefferson’s duties included handling overseas affairs and advising on domestic actions. This allowed him to see first-hand how the new Constitution and laws of the nation were functioning. It also exposed him more to differing views, like those held by Alexander Hamilton regarding national banking.
Jefferson grew frustrated dealing with partisan divisions in President Washington’s cabinet. After the death of his political ally James Madison, Jefferson felt isolated and resigned as Secretary of State at the end of 1793.<div style=”text-align:center”>
|1784 – 1789
|Minister to France
|41 – 46
|1790 – 1793
|Secretary of State
|47 – 50
Later Political Offices
Even after resigning to avoid conflict within Washington’s cabinet, politics continued to shape Jefferson’s life. He went on to hold higher offices and have a direct influence on the young nation.
Relieved to be done with Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson returned home to Monticello. He immersed himself in managing his plantation and architectural interests.
However, he was pulled back into politics before long. In 1797 he was elected to be John Adams’ Vice President.
Jefferson disagreed with many of President Adams’ policies and preferred a limited federal government with more power to individual states. This created friction in the administration.
In 1800, Jefferson ran against Adams for President. One of the most controversial elections, it was ultimately decided by the House of Representatives when Jefferson and his running mate tied with Adams and his running mate. But Jefferson and his Republican party took office, soundly beating the Federalists.<div style=”text-align:center”>
|1797 – 1801
|Vice President to John Adams
|54 – 58
Jefferson sought a simpler, more frugal federal government compared to his predecessors. Among his key accomplishments as President from 1801-1809:
- Cut taxes and reduced the national debt
- Dispatched the U.S. Navy in the First Barbary War overseas
- Authorized the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore western America
- Signed legislation banning the importation of slaves
- Sponsored expeditions of discovery up the Missouri River and elsewhere in newly acquired Louisiana Territory
Many of his efforts were toward westward expansion into America’s vast frontier. The major exception was sponsoring the 1807 Embargo Act that sought to punish Britain and France for interfering with American trade amid their warring conflict. But the Embargo badly damaged American commerce instead.
Jefferson continued his long-held belief in limiting executive power. He made efforts to simplify his inauguration and formal White House affairs, which contrasted the decorum of Europe’s courts