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The Declaration of Independence | Study Guide

Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson | Biography


A committee of five members of the Continental Congress was selected to oversee the writing of the Congress's justification for separating from Great Britain. Headed by Thomas Jefferson, the committee's other members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Though Adams and Franklin provided editorial feedback, Jefferson was the primary architect and writer of what is now known as the Declaration of Independence.

Early Life and Education

Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a self–educated surveyor. His mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, came from a prominent Virginia family. The Jeffersons had six daughters and two sons, of which Thomas was the oldest. He studied Greek and Latin with the local schoolmaster until age 17. He then continued his education at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Biographers characterize the young Jefferson as an obsessive student. He spent each day reading for 15 hours, practicing the violin for three, then sleeping and eating during the remaining six. Jefferson studied law with his mentor George Wythe, who was also the leading legal scholar of the era. After six years of study, he opened his own small law practice in 1767, mostly focusing on cases about land ownership. He was known as a top-notch legal scholar. However, the shy and serious Jefferson often seemed nervous and somewhat disinterested in the cases he brought before the court. In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow. They had six children together, two of whom survived. He is widely believed to have had a longstanding relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. The number of children he fathered by her is unknown.

Political Beginnings

Jefferson's political career began in 1768 when he was elected to the House of Burgesses, Virginia's colonial assembly. His entry into the public sphere coincided with growing colonial opposition to British taxes. Jefferson, whose lineage and wealth made him one of Virginia's elite, usually sided with this group. At the same time, he continually supported House resolutions opposing Parliamentary authority in the colonies.

Jefferson was more comfortable voicing his ideas on paper rather than in person. In 1774 he drafted a pamphlet titled A Summary View of the Rights of British America. The pamphlet was meant to serve as a guide for Virginia's delegates to the First Continental Congress. In the pamphlet, Jefferson discussed the ways King George III and Parliament violated the natural laws of the colonists. Jefferson wasn't present when the Virginia House debated the document, and it was subsequently published without his permission. The pamphlet circulated throughout the colonies as well as in London. It enhanced Jefferson's political reputation and positioned him as an early proponent of colonial independence.

The Second Continental Congress

The Virginia legislature appointed Jefferson to represent the colony of Virginia in the Second Continental Congress. It convened in the spring of 1775. At 32 Jefferson was one of the youngest delegates, and also one of the quietest. He rarely took part in the boisterous congressional debates, and he didn't say much in committee meetings. His voice was instead heard through the many resolutions he was tasked with drafting for various committees.

One of those committees was the Committee of Five, formed on June 11, 1776, tasked with drafting a document that justified the American colonies' secession from the British Empire. Richard Henry Lee, who first introduced the resolution to leave the empire, was originally asked to head the committee. But a family illness and other commitments prevented him from taking charge. Jefferson took his place as leader of the committee, which included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Jefferson was tasked with drafting the declaration, which he did in just a few days. Adams and Franklin made comments and suggestions, and the document was presented to Congress on June 28, 1776. Debate and further edits followed on July 3rd and 4th. Many of the changes irked Jefferson, who wished his words to remain untouched. Representatives from 12 colonies finally approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Awaiting instructions from its state assembly, New York, the 13th and final colony, gave approval on July 9.

Life after Independence

Jefferson left the Continental Congress in October 1776 to work on aligning Virginia's legal codes with the ideals of the American Revolution (1765–83). An early advocate of the separation of church and state, he was elected governor of Virginia in 1779. He rejoined the Continental Congress in 1782. Two years after the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson agreed to take Benjamin Franklin's place as the American ambassador to France in 1784. He stayed for five years, returning to the United States in 1789 to serve as the country's first secretary of state under President George Washington.

In the presidential election of 1796, Jefferson received 68 electoral votes to 71 for John Adams. Jefferson served as vice president during John Adams's presidency (1797–1801). The two former allies and friends now found themselves at odds over political philosophy and the direction of the new nation. Adams wanted to remain neutral in the ongoing fight for supremacy between England and France. Jefferson advocated a return of the support the French gave the colonies during the American Revolution. Jefferson also questioned the power and size of the American federal government. He viewed a powerful central government as being just as dangerous as Parliament and the British Crown.

Jefferson ran for president again in 1800 and won. He wanted his presidency to be a return to the ideals on which the United States was founded. He thought the power to affect change lay in the hands of the people, not through a central government. His presidency lasted from 1801 to 1809 and is most often remembered for his acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase from France. This acquisition effectively doubled the size of the United States and protected its settled lands from foreign threats.

Jefferson retired to his home at Monticello, where he oversaw its ongoing renovation. He also brought about the construction of the University of Virginia, of which he was named rector, or head of the school, in 1819. The university opened to the public in 1825. Jefferson died one year later on July 4, 1826. On his gravestone, he requested that three of his many accomplishments be listed: "AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA."

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