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Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

Biography | Timeline of His Life | Words of Jefferson | Fascinating Facts About Him 
Slide Show: The Life of Thomas Jefferson | Tributes

by Victoria Hurtado

jefferson_thomasThomas Jefferson was one of the smartest and best educated men ever to serve as president of the United States.

Thomas was born on April 13, 1743. His parents, Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson, both came from important families in Virginia. Thomas’ father was a successful planter, commander of the local militia, surveyor, and politician.

In his early years, Thomas was shy around others. But he loved to read and write. When he was 9, he began studying foreign languages—Greek, Latin, and French.

At age 14, his father died. Thomas helped his mother, and he kept studying.

Three years later, he went away to the college of William and Mary. He loved studying many different subjects—philosophy, astronomy, math, and literature. He read the great writers of the Enlightenment, such as John Locke, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. The Enlightenment thinkers believed in reason, science, and democratic ideas. They deeply influenced Thomas.  

After college, Thomas studied law with George Wythe, a lawyer and judge. Wythe also taught others who would achieve fame: John Marshall, a future Supreme Court justice and Henry Clay, a future U.S. senator. 

Jefferson fell in love with and married Martha Wayles Skelton, a wealthy widow. The two moved into his Virginia plantation, which he called Monticello, meaning “little mountain” in Italian.  

monticelloOver time, Jefferson designed all aspects of Monticello—the house, garden, and farms. Construction began in 1769 and continued for 40 years. Like most other Virginia farmers, Jefferson owned slaves. His slaves built and maintained the estate. Many were educated and trained as skilled artisans.  

As he loved law and government, Jefferson went into politics. He was elected to the  Virginia colonial legislature.  

During his time in office, tensions began to mount between Britain and the colonies. The British imposed taxes on the colonies, which colonists resented. They had no representatives in the British Parliament. Yet Parliament was taxing them. Colonists protested. 

In 1773, they protested the Tea Act by dumping crates of British tea into Boston Harbor. Known as the Boston Tea Party, this protest angered Parliament. It passed what the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. 

In response, Americans called the First Continental Congress, a meeting of delegates from the colonies. For this meeting, Jefferson wrote “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” This paper argued that the British Parliament had no right to govern the colonies. The paper was distributed throughout the colonies and Britain.

When the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776, the shooting in the Revolutionary War had already begun. Jefferson was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.

Along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. But the other members of the committee let Jefferson write it. It was presented to Congress, and after a few changes, Congress adopted it on July 4, 1776.

The Declaration of Independence asserted that “All men are created equal” and had basic rights such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It claimed that the people could “alter or abolish” a government that violates these rights. It listed complaints about the British king, showing how he had violated the colonists’ rights. The declaration proclaimed America’s independence from Britain.

During the war years, Thomas was elected Governor of Virginia. He also wrote his Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. It proposed complete religious freedom and banned the government from taking part in religion. Virginia eventually adopted the law.

jefferson_thomas2After the war, Congress named him ambassador to France, the new country’s most important ally. When he returned from Paris, Jefferson agreed to serve as secretary of state under President George Washington. When Washington retired, Jefferson ran for president in 1796, but John Adams defeated him. Jefferson served as vice president under Adams.Jefferson

In 1800, Jefferson ran again for president, and this time he defeated Adams. He served two terms. In his first term, his greatest achievement was the Louisiana Purchase. This sale of land by France to the United States doubled the size of the United States.

In his second term, he signed the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves. This led to the end of the Atlantic slave trade. Historians have rated Thomas Jefferson one of our greatest presidents.

After Jeffersonhis second term in office, Jefferson retired to Monticello. In his retirement, Jefferson worked to establish the University of Virginia. He designed much of the campus. He believed that a good education system was necessary for our democracy.

Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. He had accomplished many things, but he only wanted three things mentioned on his tombstone: He was the author of the Declaration of Independence. He had written the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. And he had founded of the University of Virginia.

Biography | Timeline of His Life | Words of Jefferson | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Show: The Life of Thomas Jefferson  | Tributes 

Timeline of Thomas Jefferson’s Life

April 13

Thomas Jefferson born in Virginia. (According to the calendar of the time, he was born on April 2, bu the old calendar was changed.)


Thomas’ father (Peter) dies.


Thomas begins the College of William and Mary.


Jefferson starts practicing law


Jefferson begins to build Monticello.


Jefferson marries Martha Wayles Skelton.


Jefferson, a member of the Continental Congress, writes the Declaration of Independence.

July 4

Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence.


Jefferson writes the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (it is adopted in 1786).


Jefferson serves as governor of Virginia.


Jefferson serves as the first U.S. secretary of state under President George Washington.


Jefferson serves as vice president of the United States.


Martha, Jefferson’s wife, dies.


Jefferson serves as ambassador to France.


Jefferson begins his first term as president. He is re-elected and serves until 1809.


With the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson doubles the size of the U.S.


Jefferson retires to Monticello.


The University of Virginia opens. Thomas Jefferson is its founder.


July 4

Thomas Jefferson dies on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

His last words were, “This is the Fourth?” John Adams dies a few hours later.

 Biography | Timeline of His Life | Words of Jefferson | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Show: The Life of Thomas Jefferson  

Words of Thomas Jefferson 

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
—Declaration of Independence (1776)

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
—Declaration of Independence (1776)

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
—Declaration of Independence (1776)

Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.
Notes on the State of Virginia (1781)

Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons.
Notes on the State of Virginia (1781)

With respect to the distribution of your time the following is what I should approve.
from 8 to 10 o’clock practice music.
from 10 to 1 o’clock dance one day and draw another.
from 1 to 2 draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.
from 3 to 4 read French.
from 4 to 5 exercise yourself in music.
from 5 till bedtime read English, write etc.

I expect you will write to me by every post. Inform me what books you read, what tunes you learn, and inclose me your best copy of every lesson -in drawing .... Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word consider how it is spelt, and if you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well.
— From a letter to his daughter, Martha, age 11 (1783)

He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual . . . .This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.
—Letter (1785)

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
—Letter (1787)

I have no fear that the result of our experiment will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master.
—Letter (1787)

The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind.
—Letter (1790)

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
—Letter (1800)

Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
—First Inaugural Address (1801)

Still one thing more, fellow citizens—a frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
—First Inaugural Address (1801)

Equal and exact justice to all men . . . ; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none . . . . Freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles 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 the blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civil instruction, the touchstone by which we 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.
—First Inaugural Address (1801)

I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county . . . .
—Letter (1809)

The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead.
—Letter (1813)

[T]here is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents.
—Letter (1813)

I cannot live without books.
—Letter (1815)

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
—Letter (1816) 

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.
—Letter (1816)

I have the consolation to reflect that during the period of my administration not a drop of the blood of a single fellow citizen was shed by the sword of war or of the law.—Letter (1818)

 know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.
—Letter (1820)

We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.
—Letter (1820)

And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and libraries of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the fourth of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.
—Letter (1821)

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.
—Letter (1816)

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people . . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.
—Letter (1818)

 know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education . . . .
—Letter (1820)

When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.
A Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life (1825)

Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
A Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life (1825)

This is the Fourth?
—Last words (July 4, 1826)


Biography | Timeline of His Life | Words of Jefferson | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Show: The Life of Thomas Jefferson | Tributes 

Fascinating Facts About Thomas Jefferson

         Jefferson began studying Latin, Greek, and French at age 9. Later in his life, he could read and write in English, Italian, French, Greek, and Latin. He also claimed to have learned to read and write in Spanish in just 19 days.

         Over the course of his life, he wrote an estimated 16,000 letters.

         He was a skilled violinist. He learned to play in his childhood and could read music. He kept many musical scores in his library, including Vivaldi, Handel, and Haydn.

         He studied at William and Mary College in Maryland at age 16, and studied law for five years under George Wythe, who tutored and mentored him. Wythe would later sign the Declaration of Independence, drafted by his former student.

         During the day on July 4, 1776, he used a thermometer to keep track of the hot temperatures inside the Philadelphia State House.

         During the American Revolution, he was governor of Virginia. In 1781, the British general Lord Cornwallis planned to take Jefferson prisoner. After being warned that British troops were on their way to Monticello, Jefferson escaped only five minutes before they arrived.

         The Virginia legislature investigated Jefferson for wrongdoing during the Revolutionary War. Some members of the legislature accused Jefferson of not providing enough for the defense of the state. They even criticized him for not suspending the state constitution. The legislature, however, found no wrongdoing and even apologized to Jefferson. Even so, patriotic Jefferson was hurt by the affair. “The pain of a little censure,” he told a friend, “even when it is unfounded, is worse than the pleasure of much praise.” 

         Jefferson had more than 6,000 books in his personal library. 

         Aside from his love for reading and writing, Jefferson invented many practical devices and incorporated them in his house at Monticello.

         Jefferson ran for president in 1796 against John Adams. Adams won, but under the Constitution, the person with the second most electoral votes became vice president. Thus Jefferson became vice president. In 1804, the 12th Amendment changed this part of the Constitution. It let electors vote for president and vice president separately.

         In 1800, he wrote “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

         Using a razor, Jefferson cut and arranged sections of the four Gospels of the New Testament in chronological order. He also removed any references to miracles or supernatural events, because he did not believe in them. He showed his book to friends in 1820, but it was not published until after his death. Today, it is known as The Jefferson Bible.

         While in office, Jefferson had a pet mockingbird who kept him company with songs.

         He was a skilled architect. He designed Monticello and the first buildings for the University of Virginia, which he also founded.

         He died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It was also the same day John Adams died. Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Jefferson, however, had died hours before.

 Biography | Timeline of His Life | Words of Jefferson | Fascinating Facts About Him 
Slide Show: The Life of Thomas Jefferson | Tributes

Click on the first image to start slide show.

 Biography | Timeline of His Life | Words of Jefferson | Fascinating Facts About Him 
Slide Show:
The Life of Thomas Jefferson | Tributes

Click on the first image to start slide show.

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