Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
Jefferson was born on April 2, 1743 (after the change in 1752 from the Julian, or Old Style, Calendar, the date was adjusted to April 13, which became common usage). He was the son of Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph Jefferson and was born at Shadwell, on the Rivanna River in a part of Goochland County that became Albemarle County in 1744. His father was a founding member of the Albemarle County Court, a prominent frontier surveyor, and creator with Joshua Fry of the 1751 Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia. His mother was a member of one of the most politically influential families in eighteenth-century Virginia. Shadwell was well stocked in refined material goods consistent with gentry culture, despite its situation near the Virginia frontier.
After his father died on August 17, 1757, Jefferson inherited more than 5,000 acres of land, half of it in the environs of Shadwell, about twenty slaves, and his father’s books and mathematical instruments. He boarded at the small schools of two Anglican clergymen, with William Douglas from 1752 to 1757 and with James Maury from 1758 until Jefferson’s departure in 1760 for the College of William and Mary. Maury grounded him well in Latin and Greek, and in Williamsburg Jefferson pursued a strenuous and broad course of studies unusual for the students of his day. In addition to the standard Greek and Latin, he later learned French, Italian, Spanish, and some Anglo-Saxon. Jefferson’s principal mentors were William Small, a professor who imparted to Jefferson a taste for science and mathematics; George Wythe, who trained Jefferson in law before and after he left William and Mary in 1762 without graduating; and Francis Fauquier, the lieutenant governor and highest royal official in Virginia, who welcomed him into his musical circle and schooled him in refined taste.
Jefferson was admitted to the prestigious General Court bar on an unrecorded date prior to February 12, 1767, when he took his first case. He attended meetings of several county courts to obtain and consult with clients, but he practiced only before the higher court. Jefferson took a variety of cases, including slander and inheritance suits, but as with most practitioners of his day the bulk of them involved land. The most important legacy of Jefferson’s legal career was the opportunity it gave him to delve deeply into the underlying precedents on which English law was grounded. He gave up his law practice in August 1774 and turned over his unresolved cases to Edmund Randolph.
Jefferson’s mother inherited a life interest in the Shadwell estate, which remained her home until her death on March 31, 1776. Although too little evidence survives to say much on either side, his relations with her do not seem to have been close. Shortly after beginning his legal career, Jefferson began taking steps to establish his own household. His need for a new home became acute when a fire burned Shadwell to the ground on February 1, 1770, destroying almost all of his books and papers. Consulting his taste for the sublime more than the practical, Jefferson decided to build at the summit of a hill overlooking Shadwell, naming his new home Monticello (“little mountain”). He planted fruit trees there beginning in 1767, started leveling the summit the following year, and in 1769 commenced construction that continued intermittently for the next four decades. The original house at Monticello drew heavily on an English pattern book and was largely complete by 1781. Inspired by his travels in Europe, Jefferson later designed a much-larger building on the same site, with work beginning in 1796. Much more a reflection of his own vision, it included the first dome on a private residence in America and was architecturally one of the most original residences in the nation.
On January 1, 1772, Jefferson married a widow, Martha Wayles Skelton. The death on May 28, 1773, of her father, John Wayles, greatly increased Jefferson’s estate and the trouble of managing it while making his income as an attorney less important. The estate consisted of more than 11,000 acres of land and 135 slaves, including the Hemings family, a particularly gifted group of men, women, and children who figured prominently in Jefferson’s life thereafter. With the Wayles estate Jefferson also inherited a large debt. Although he sold more than half the land in an effort to pay the debt, rampant inflation during the Revolutionary War enabled the purchasers to pay Jefferson in almost worthless currency and left him with the Wayles debt still unsatisfied. He retained 5,000 acres of land in Bedford and Campbell counties from which he derived much of his income and at which he subsequently erected an ingenious octagonal retirement retreat, Poplar Forest.
Jefferson represented Albemarle County in the House of Burgesses without interruption from 1769 until 1776. The county’s electors also chose him as a delegate to all five of Virginia’s Revolutionary Conventions, although his attendance was sporadic because of illness and his service in the Continental Congress. As a burgess Jefferson won a reputation as a proficient writer with strong views on colonial rights. In 1769 and 1770 he signed nonimportation agreements to protest British taxation, and by 1773 he had become a member of an informal group that successfully urged the creation of committees of correspondence throughout the colonies. During the crisis following British closure of the port of Boston the following year, Jefferson composed a set of resolutions that were published anonymously, apparently without his knowledge or consent, as A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson argued that British immigrants had settled Virginia under the authority of the king and that residents of the colony had never been subject to the rule of Parliament. Therefore, all present and past taxes and parliamentary restrictions on colonial trade were predatory and invalid, and the colonies had the right to declare void such instances of British overreach.
On March 27, 1775, the Second Revolutionary Convention named Jefferson alternate to Peyton Randolph as one of the colony’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Jefferson won election as a delegate in his own right twice and attended Congress from June 21 to July 31 and from October 2 to December 28, 1775, and from May 14 to September 2, 1776. Jefferson was one of the youngest congressmen but quickly established himself as an able committeeman and penman. Five days after his arrival in Philadelphia Congress appointed him to a committee charged with writing a defense of the American resort to arms. John Dickinson heavily revised Jefferson’s draft, which Congress adopted on July 6, 1775, as the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms. Jefferson’s draft implicitly denied parliamentary authority and again recognized the king as the only link between the mother country and the colonies and, as in the final version, firmly insisted that American armies would remain in the field until all grievances were redressed.
Congress named Jefferson to a five-man committee on June 11, 1776, to prepare a Declaration of Independence for the new United States of America. Despite being the second-youngest committee member, he prepared the draft that, with only a few changes from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, went to the full Congress on June 28. After voting in favor of independence on July 2, the congressmen spent two days abridging and revising Jefferson’s draft before approving the declaration on the evening of July 4. The delegates did not begin signing the formal parchment until August. Jefferson’s role as author did not become widely known until the 1790s. He always insisted that in the declaration he had merely stated beliefs widely held in his emerging nation. The soaring language of its preamble, however, with its insistence on a fundamental right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” has become central to the aspirations of the United States and to those of many other nations.
By the summer of 1776 Jefferson was seeking to be relieved from congressional service, a principal reason being his desire to be near his ailing wife. He arrived back at Monticello on September 9, and for the remaining six years of her life he did not leave Virginia. Jefferson did, however, occupy himself with public affairs, representing Albemarle County in the new House of Delegates from its first session that began on October 7, 1776, until his election as governor of Virginia late in the spring of 1779.
An acknowledged leader, skilled draftsman, and close student of the law, Jefferson often served on committees to draft bills. Despite his advanced democratic views he managed to stay on good personal terms with most of his more conservative colleagues. In the autumn of 1776 they appointed him to a committee to revise and codify Virginia’s laws. Assigned the English common law and the earliest English statutes, Jefferson worked for three years to draft a wide range of laws. The most important included a comprehensive plan for public education, which did not pass, bills to abolish or restrict entail and primogeniture that did pass and undermined large aristocratic landholdings, and bills to eliminate punishment for unorthodox religious views and state support for religion or any specific religious sect. The committee of revisers reported to the General Assembly on June 18, 1779. The legislators adopted most of the bills piecemeal during the next several years. The “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom,” the most important of them all, passed on January 16, 1786.
By a narrow margin on the second ballot the General Assembly elected Jefferson governor of Virginia on June 1, 1779, to succeed Patrick Henry. Jefferson won a second one-year term the following year. He took office well into the Revolutionary War, at a time when enthusiasm for the cause had waned, fatigue was rampant, the economy was in shambles, inflation had robbed the circulating paper money of most of its value, and the Continental army was mostly deployed too far away to help in case of invasion. The British army having recently shifted its focus to the southern states, an invasion of Virginia became more likely. Under the state constitution of 1776, the governor had strictly limited authority, no veto power, and in most cases could act only with the approval of the Council of State. In addition, in 1780 the assembly appointed commissioners of war, trade, and the navy, leaving the governor little authority over those offices.
Under the circumstances any governor would probably have struggled. Jefferson certainly did. He was an energetic executive and met frequently with the Council, where he began a lifelong friendship and collaboration with James Madison. Jefferson strove mightily to bolster the militia and deploy them effectively as one crisis succeeded another, and he did his best to answer urgent calls from George Washington and other generals for arms and supplies for the Continental army. In April 1780 Jefferson oversaw the movement of the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, a more central and, he and the assembly hoped, defensible location.
Jefferson’s efforts did not prevent a series of military disasters for Virginia. Several Virginia regiments surrendered with other units of the Continental army on May 12, 1780, when Charleston, South Carolina, fell to the British. The enemy routed another American force including a contingent of Virginia militia at Camden, South Carolina, on August 16. Between October 21 and November 16, the British occupied Portsmouth with no effective opposition, and in part because of Jefferson’s delay in calling out the militia, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold sailed up the James River with about 1,200 men and on January 5, 1781, occupied Richmond for twenty-four hours. Jefferson rode one horse to death frantically and ineffectually seeking to organize a defense while Arnold’s men destroyed government records, public buildings, the armory, and tobacco warehouses before retiring to Portsmouth. Another British invasion put Richmond at risk, and the General Assembly convened in Charlottesville on May 24, 1781.
Jefferson’s tumultuous governorship ended in confusion. His second term expired on June 2, 1781, and the assembly originally scheduled for that date the election to replace him, but then postponed it to June 4. On the latter day, however, a British cavalry detachment under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton briefly occupied Charlottesville, captured several legislators, and dispersed the rest, who fled to Staunton. Jefferson himself narrowly escaped capture when Tarleton went looking for him at Monticello. Jefferson followed his family to Poplar Forest and regarded his governorship as ended. The assembly did not elect a successor until June 12, and members of the Council could not assemble and empower its senior member as president to execute the duties of governor in the meantime. Some people consequently alleged that Jefferson had left the state without a leader at a time of extreme danger and uncertainty. He was mortified when the assembly passed a resolution calling for an inquiry into the conduct of the executive (thus including the Council). Jefferson eventually had an opportunity to explain his actions, and the assembly voted him its thanks for his labors. For the rest of his life he was taunted with charges of personal cowardice in the face of the enemy, which were almost certainly unfounded, and of a failed performance as governor, which was much harder to deny. Because Jefferson believed that Patrick Henry was behind the resolution to investigate, the episode permanently destroyed their friendship and ability to collaborate.
After a brief appearance as one of Albemarle County’s members of the House of Delegates from December 10 to 22, 1781, in which he defended his tenure as governor, Jefferson was granted a leave of absence, ostensibly to accept election to the Continental Congress. In fact he returned to Monticello, vowing to refuse any further public offices. Jefferson was motivated partly by bitterness about recent events and partly by the need to look after his wife. During their ten-year marriage they had one son who died in infancy and five daughters, only two of whom reached adulthood. Complications of childbirth led to Martha Jefferson’s death on September 6, 1782. She had been in poor health for years and wasting away for months. Distraught, Jefferson reportedly agreed to a deathbed request that he never remarry, and if so he kept his word. He also destroyed their correspondence and suffered a breakdown from which he did not rally until Madison engineered Jefferson’s congressional appointment to the commission negotiating peace with Great Britain, which he accepted on November 26, 1782. Jefferson got only as far as Baltimore before news of the signing of the Treaty of Paris reached the United States. His mission was suspended, and he returned home.
Notes on the State of Virginia and Slavery
In the meantime, after his terms as governor ended, Jefferson did the bulk of the research and writing of what became Notes on the State of Virginia. The work originated as a reply to a questionnaire that François Barbé Marbois, the secretary to the French legation, had circulated late in 1780 to governors to obtain information about their individual states. He received few responses, but Jefferson took the opportunity to assemble and digest a mass of data concerning his native state and, in some respects, all of North America. Jefferson wrote about the geology, geography, ethnography, climate, laws, manners, religion, population, and historiography of Virginia. He had a limited edition privately printed in Paris in 1785, and after a pirated French translation appeared, Jefferson published it in English in 1787.
From the moment it began circulating, Notes on the State of Virginia, often inaccurately described as the only book Jefferson published in his lifetime, established his reputation in Europe as a leading American spokesman of the Enlightenment. In the longest chapter he undertook to refute the contemporary French theory that the American continent had a sickly, overly moist climate that produced weak and inferior animals and humans. Indignant, Jefferson countered with evidence that American people and animals were equal or superior to their European counterparts. The Notes were also memorable for Jefferson’s impassioned defense of farmers as “the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” from which it followed that until Americans ran out of land they should import manufactured goods from Europe rather than encourage manufacturing in the New World.
When he discussed African Americans and slavery in the Notes, Jefferson advanced the disturbingly racist hypothesis, which he claimed to base on his own observations, that blacks were limited in intellect, lacking in imagination and foresight, incapable of lasting grief, and malodorous. In a different section he eloquently denounced slavery as an evil that corrupted masters as much as it degraded people held in bondage. His call for eventual total abolition, and his claim, not otherwise documented, to have prepared a legislative plan for gradual emancipation were tempered by his enduring belief that the two races could not coexist and that freedom for African Americans had to be combined with their deportation to some other land.
Jefferson’s lifelong involvement with slavery was not just theoretical. Largely through inheritance and natural increase he owned more than 600 enslaved persons at one time or another, of whom he freed only a handful. In discussing the work of his overseers, on April 19, 1792, Jefferson wrote, “My first wish is that the labourers may be well treated,” but he immediately added, “the second that they may enable me to have that treatment continued by making as much as will admit it.” This tempering of a lofty sentiment was indeed revealing, because in practice Jefferson did sometimes sell slaves to raise funds, sell others out of the state as a punitive measure, sanction whippings, and go to great lengths to recover escapees. Beginning late in the 1780s or early in the 1790s, he also probably enjoyed a longstanding sexual liaison with and fathered the offspring of Sally Hemings, the three-fourths white, enslaved half-sister of his deceased wife. Three sons and one daughter of her six documented children survived infancy, and Jefferson freed or tolerated the escape of all of them during his life or by the terms of his will. It is theoretically possible that Jefferson’s brother, Randolph, was the father of these children instead. If so, Jefferson’s willingness to tolerate Randolph’s preying on a woman under Jefferson’s care (and evidently only while he was himself at Monticello) would scarcely show him in a better light, given his oft-expressed abhorrence of a “mixture” of races.
On June 6, 1783, the General Assembly again elected Jefferson to Congress. He took his seat on November 4, 1783, in Princeton, New Jersey, and joined the other legislators when they reconvened in Annapolis, Maryland, on December 13. Jefferson resumed his role as a committee leader and draftsman of legislative papers. On March 1, 1784, Virginia ceded to the federal government its land north of the Ohio River. On the same day a congressional committee that Jefferson chaired presented a report he had drafted providing for the government of the western territory. His proposal divided the territory into smaller units, each of which would have a republican government, and when population reached a certain minimum it could be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the other states. Jefferson’s plan included fanciful names for the new states, such as Assenisipia, Pelisipia, and Polypotamia. The draft also outlawed slavery there after 1800. Congress revised and adopted the ordinance on April 23, 1784, but it dropped the exotic names and the prohibition of slavery. This and the succeeding Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787, however, retained Jefferson’s plan that the United States would admit new states rather than keep them as permanently subordinate colonies.
Martha Patsy “Jefferson’s Education in Paris”
More important than his formal duties as a diplomat was his role as the primary spokesman for America to the intelligentsia of Europe after Franklin’s departure. Jefferson moved easily in the intellectual salons of Paris, particularly after the publication of his Notes. Seeking to provide concrete evidence to dismantle George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon’s theory that large animals did not flourish in America, Jefferson obtained and sent him a stuffed moose. To correct errors about his country circulating in France, he revised and added to the articles on the United States and Virginia for the massive Encyclopédie Méthodique. As revolution approached during the summer of 1789, Jefferson struggled without complete success to fend off attempts to involve him in events beyond what was normally permissible for a foreign diplomat.
Jefferson’s time in France was at least as consequential for American arts and taste as for diplomacy. He haunted the bookshops and stalls of Paris and purchased, for himself a fine general collection with a strong emphasis on Americana, and for Madison many of the books on history and politics that Madison studied before attending the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Jefferson also traveled inside and outside of France, and even before his rhapsodic encounter with the ancient Roman Maison Carrée in Nîmes he had used it as a model in designing the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, thus introducing neoclassical design for American public buildings. Jefferson had the great French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpt his own bust as well as a bust of the marquis de Lafayette, which the General Assembly of Virginia had commissioned. He also arranged for Houdon to visit Virginia to create a full-size statue of George Washington, which the General Assembly had also commissioned and which still stands in the State Capitol.
Jefferson became thoroughly enamored of France’s culture and cuisine. Back in America he became known for the French cooking at his table. He imported olive oil and pasta and ordered a pasta machine. Although efforts to promote viticulture on his own estate and in his nation, which had begun before he crossed the Atlantic, never achieved much success, Jefferson became a noted oenophile, buying from specific vineyards, decrying the practice of adulterating wines, and ordering or advising on purchases of wine for George Washington and James Monroe, among others. Jefferson also acquired large quantities of French furniture, wallpaper, clothing, textile goods, china, silverware, glassware, cooking utensils, paintings, and sculpture, the use and display of which had a major influence on the culture and connoisseurship of the early American republic.
Secretary of State
In November 1788 Jefferson requested permission for a short leave of absence to return home and attend to neglected personal and financial matters. He also wanted his two daughters back in America before they became irretrievably foreign in language and outlook. Leave being granted, Jefferson arrived at Monticello on December 23, 1789, soon after learning that Washington had appointed him secretary of state. Following some hesitation Jefferson accepted on February 14, 1790, and assumed office in New York on March 21, 1790. As the first secretary of state under the new constitution, Jefferson had a wide range of duties. Then as now, the secretary of state managed the country’s diplomatic establishment overseas, negotiated with foreign diplomats, and charted the nation’s foreign policy at home and abroad at the direction and under the guidance of the president. Jefferson’s portfolio also included responsibility for issuing the nation’s first coinage; overseeing preparation of and certifying the official versions of statutes, commissions, land grants, and other public documents; and granting copyrights and patents for inventions. In response to questions from Congress or the president he prepared state papers on issues such as public lands, international trade, weights and measures, and coinage (having previously argued successfully for a decimal currency). His advocacy for a broader decimal system did not succeed.
Jefferson was also a key player in Washington’s cabinet consisting of the attorney general and the three secretaries of state, treasury, and war. Washington relied on this extraconstitutional body, in which fault lines quickly emerged along which the nation’s first party system developed. Almost immediately after Jefferson arrived in New York, he was drawn into intense debates about the powers and funding of the new federal government. Initially willing to cooperate with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson helped mediate a compromise during a dinner at his own house in which congressional leader James Madison dropped his opposition to the federal government paying debts the states had incurred in fighting the Revolutionary War. It was an essential part of Hamilton’s plan to create a large funded national debt to establish loyalties to the national government and enhance its power. Hamilton in turn agreed that the nation’s capital would ultimately be moved to the Potomac River, a site many large financiers opposed but southern supporters of Madison’s republican views favored.
Soon thereafter Jefferson became convinced that Hamilton had tricked him, and he persuaded himself that the treasury secretary was a secret supporter of monarchy and aristocracy, determined to use bookkeeping tricks and outright corruption to undermine the American experiment in republican government. In foreign affairs also, the two men quarreled, with Hamilton regularly undercutting Jefferson by privately assuring the British minister to the United States that the administration would not stand firm on the requests Jefferson made. With the renewal of war in Europe in 1793, Jefferson’s final months in office became especially challenging. A widespread desire to maintain American neutrality proved difficult to enforce. A nascent Republican Party Jefferson and Madison had formed combined opposition to Hamiltonian finance with sympathy for the French Revolution and fond memories of French support during the American war for independence. The emerging Federalist Party pointed with horror to French revolutionary excesses and regarded a strong central government at home as the only bulwark against similar turmoil in the United States. Jefferson found himself caught in the middle and frustrated as the leading Republican at cabinet meetings, where he was regularly outvoted, received what he regarded as insufficient support from Washington, and was obliged to lend his name to actions he had opposed in executive sessions. On July 31, 1793, Jefferson advised the president of his intent to retire from office, and after agreeing to one extension resigned his office on the last day of the year.
Retirement and Vice President
Jefferson returned to Monticello in the middle of January 1794. He intended to remain a private citizen permanently and devote himself to his farm, the development of his nailery, and the remodeling of Monticello to take advantage of architectural ideas he had absorbed in Europe. He also made an important contribution to early American paleontology by writing a scientific paper about a set of fossilized bones he had been sent from western Virginia. Jefferson named the animal megalonyx (Greek for giant claw) and hypothesized that it was an enormous species of lion still living in the West. Eventually it proved to be an extinct giant ground sloth. The most common species of this genus was named Megalonyx jeffersonii in his honor. Jefferson’s paper announcing this discovery was read at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society on March 10, 1797, a week to the day after he was installed as president of the society, the nation’s leading scientific body at the time. He was reelected annually until he resigned on November 23, 1814. Jefferson was also a full or honorary member of several European learned societies and received a gold medal in 1807 from the Société d’agriculture du département de la Seine for a moldboard he had designed while in France to improve the efficiency of plows.
Although retired, Jefferson remained in touch with his political friends. He shared their dismay at the Federalists’ military response to the Whiskey Rebellion and ratification of Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain. Jefferson approved the creation and growth of an organized opposition party and reluctantly allowed himself to be a candidate in the presidential election of 1796. His narrow second-place finish to John Adams, 71 to 68 in the Electoral College, made him the nation’s second vice president, serving from March 4, 1797, to March 4, 1801.
To his friends Jefferson expressed relief at his defeat and initial pleasure with his new office, which he regarded as “honorable and easy.” His main duty was to preside as president of the Senate. Jefferson took this role seriously, studying British parliamentary precedents and eventually publishing a procedural manual that has been a foundational document for both houses of Congress ever since. Outside of the chambers of Congress, however, Jefferson found himself leading what he regarded as a lonely and desperate rearguard action against the “unbridled madness, and the terrorism” of his Federalist opponents at the peak of their power. Shocked by such seemingly intolerant excesses as the Alien and Sedition Acts, late in 1798 Jefferson drafted resolutions for the Kentucky legislature that asserted the right of individual states to nullify unconstitutional federal assertions of power within their own borders. Kentucky was the only state to adopt them (toned down to remove the word nullify), although Virginia adopted milder resolutions that Madison had composed the same year. Jefferson’s authorship of the Kentucky Resolutions was unknown at the time, but the document became important after his death during the nullification controversy of the 1830s and later as a justification for opponents of federal enforcement of civil rights in the 1960s.
In his rematch with John Adams in the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson was more active behind the scenes than he had been in 1796. He kept in close touch with his leading supporters and provided a financial subsidy to the vitriolic pamphleteer James T. Callender, whose subsequent arrest and conviction for criticizing the president helped make the case that the government party was suppressing dissent. Aided by battles within the Federalist Party, Jefferson’s Republican ticket won a 73 to 65 majority over Adams in the Electoral College. Aaron Burr, the Republican candidate for vice president, tied with Jefferson instead of having one fewer vote, as intended. Under the original constitutional rule then in effect, the House of Representatives elected the president, with Jefferson, Burr, and Adams all eligible. After months of uncertainty and enough Federalist support for Burr that the issue remained in doubt until the thirty-sixth ballot, the House finally elected Jefferson president on February 17, 1801.
In their last weeks of ascendancy, Adams and the Federalist majority in Congress filled as many vacant offices as possible, including confirmation of John Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and they established a new tier of federal courts and appointed what Jefferson called midnight judges. Jefferson later cited these appointments as the primary cause of an estrangement with Adams that lasted for a decade. By skulking out of Washington early on March 4, 1801, Adams avoided attending Jefferson’s inauguration later that day. In his eloquent inaugural address Jefferson proclaimed that a second American revolution was at hand, one in which party strife could end because “we are all republicans: we are all federalists.”
The third president quickly proved adept at symbolic demonstrations of a more democratic approach to governance. He walked to his inauguration, stopped holding formal presidential levees, dressed simply, precipitated a minor diplomatic crisis by refusing to follow established orders of precedence at state dinners, went on solitary horseback rides most afternoons, and sent his annual messages to Congress in writing rather than delivering them in person.
In more substantive ways as well, the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another had immediate and important consequences. Jefferson moved quickly to streamline the government. His administration greatly reduced the size of the army and navy, and Congress eliminated the new federal judgeships. The number of civil employees based in Washington actually declined slightly during Jefferson’s presidency. Congress repealed most federal internal taxes and funded the government largely from customs duties and land sales. Even with this reduction in revenue, for much of Jefferson’s administration he was able to reduce the federal debt. He called for a constitutional amendment to permit the expenditure of federal revenue on education after the debt was fully extinguished, but Congress neither sent the proposed amendment to the states for ratification nor paid off all the debt.
Preferring to avoid the contentious struggles in which he had participated as a member of Washington’s administration, Jefferson appointed department heads who worked well with him and with each other. His key advisers were Madison as secretary of state and Albert Gallatin as secretary of the treasury. Jefferson monitored the work of his cabinet officers closely, required that they submit their communications for his review, made himself available to them daily, and met with them regularly. Following through on his pledge to avoid overt partisanship, Jefferson did not replace most of the Federalist officeholders when he took office provided they avoided overt displays of party feeling. Behind the scenes he also took pains to manage and maintain his majority in Congress. He hosted thrice-weekly dinners during sessions of Congress and invited legislators in rotation. Jefferson got his way with such success that he did not exercise his veto a single time, unlike every other two-term president before and since. For parts of his term, Jefferson’s sons-in-law, John Wayles Eppes and Thomas Mann Randolph, were members of the House of Representatives and lived with him in what later became known as the White House.
Relations with European powers molded Jefferson’s presidency in both positive and negative ways. Even before learning that the North African principality of Tripoli had declared war on the United States in May 1801, Jefferson ordered a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to defend the nation’s ships and sailors. Despite initial setbacks, including the capture of a United States frigate and its entire crew, Jefferson persevered and eventually obtained a treaty that protected American trade and released the captive citizens without the annual tribute other nations customarily paid.
Jefferson’s most significant diplomatic triumph was the Louisiana Purchase. Faced with an immediate crisis when the Spanish intendant at New Orleans closed that port to American commerce in October 1802 and the looming threat posed by anticipated retrocession to France of a wide swath of western territory on the United States border, Jefferson authorized negotiations to purchase New Orleans. When Napoleon offered to sell the United States the whole of Louisiana, American agents Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe exceeded their instructions and agreed in April 1803 to pay France $15 million for 828,000 square miles of land including New Orleans and all or parts of fifteen present-day states. Jefferson seized the opportunity to double the size of the United States, overcoming scruples that caused him to draft but then decide against proposing a constitutional amendment to authorize the acquisition.
Patrick Gass’s Personal Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Jefferson easily won election to a second term in 1804, losing only two states and two electors from a third to the Federalist candidate, Charles Pinckney. A recently ratified constitutional amendment made this the first election in which candidates for president and vice president ran separately. Jefferson’s Republican Party took the opportunity to drop Aaron Burr and replace him with George Clinton. With Burr’s political career thus ended and he under indictment for murder for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, in 1806 Burr embarked on a private military expedition in the West that was most likely intended for Mexico. Jefferson received information that persuaded him that the actual goal was creating a breakaway nation carved out of United States property on the frontier. He issued a proclamation demanding that the participants disperse, and he had Burr arrested and charged with treason. From a distance Jefferson directed the prosecution and was outraged when Burr won acquittal at a sensational trial held in August 1807 in Richmond during which Jefferson’s nemesis, Chief Justice John Marshall, established the federal precedent for a narrow definition of the charge of treason.
For most of Jefferson’s two terms in office, Great Britain was at war with France. At first trade boomed as Americans supplied flour and other agricultural produce to both warring powers. Starting in 1806, however, competing French and British regulations almost entirely outlawed the neutral American trade. The French and British navies seized hundreds of American ships, and the British also outraged American sensibilities by stopping its vessels on the high seas and forcibly impressing its sailors. Jefferson successfully avoided calls for war after a British warship fired on the USS Chesapeake on June 22, 1807, and removed four alleged deserters. Instead he persuaded Congress to pass a law on December 22 prohibiting external trade. Jefferson anticipated that demand for American produce would force the European powers to relax their trade restrictions, but the embargo as an economic alternative to war failed utterly. Great Britain continued to control the seas, held fast to its trade policies, and supplied much of its wants through widespread smuggling, which enjoyed popular support in New England. Meanwhile the idling of American ships and the inability of farmers to sell their crops had catastrophic effects on the economy. Congress allowed the embargo to lapse shortly after Jefferson left the presidency.
Although Jefferson received numerous petitions urging him to seek a third term, he announced on December 10, 1807, that he would follow the precedent George Washington had set and retire when his second term ended. Determined to leave his successor a clear field, Jefferson made few appointments after James Madison’s election and avoided pronouncements on major public policy questions, leaving Congress without effective leadership during his last months in office. On March 4, 1809, he attended Madison’s inauguration and later that month, expressing joy at escaping “the distressing burthen of power,” departed from Washington for Monticello for the last time.
Jefferson had high hopes for his return to private life. He enjoyed reasonably good health for most of his remaining seventeen years. His surviving daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, immediately moved to Monticello with her growing family, managed his household and enabled him to exult in his role as a doting grandfather and a genial host for growing hordes of visitors. Jefferson was, however, oppressed by financial difficulties that worsened as time went on. As he left office and took stock, he was surprised to discover that he had added to his existing debts during his presidency, and his efforts to manage his farms or create separate revenue streams by nail manufacture and construction of a canal and mills failed miserably.
The British burning in August 1814 of the public buildings in Washington, D.C., destroyed the congressional library and provided Jefferson an opportunity both to serve the nation and to ease his financial burdens. He immediately offered his own books as a replacement at a price to be determined by Congress. By a statute approved on January 30, 1815, Jefferson sold his library of roughly 6,700 volumes for $23,950. The relief to his finances was only temporary, and the departure of books he had spent a lifetime collecting must have been a bitter blow. Jefferson’s library was so rich in its size and range, including unique manuscripts and newspapers relating to Virginia, that it began the process of transforming the Library of Congress from what had been a narrowly conceived legislative reference collection into what is now a great cultural institution. The bereft Jefferson immediately began purchasing books to create a new library at Monticello.
In his retirement Jefferson worked on a number of literary projects, with varying success. He published a long defense of his conduct as president in a complicated legal dispute concerning ownership of a piece of land in New Orleans. He also prepared a summary of eight years of his meteorological observations and assisted in the translation and supervised the publication of two works on political economy by the French philosopher Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy. Jefferson’s intention to analyze an extensive collection of Indian vocabularies he had gathered was thwarted when they were tossed into the James River during shipment from Washington to Monticello. He began work on an autobiography in 1821 but abandoned it at the point of his taking office as secretary of state, and he gathered material for a new edition of his Notes on the State of Virginia that he never completed.
University of Virginia, Debt, and Death
The signal achievement of Jefferson’s last years was the founding of the University of Virginia. Harkening back to his early efforts to establish a system of public education in Virginia, in 1817 he described the projected institution as “a bantling of 40. years birth & nursing.” In March 1814 Jefferson had joined the board of trustees of the Albemarle Academy, a moribund secondary school in Charlottesville. He immediately persuaded his fellow trustees to elevate their ambitions to the collegiate level. The General Assembly rechartered it in 1816 as Central College and again on January 25, 1819, as the University of Virginia. It opened its doors to students on March 7, 1825. At every stage Jefferson was the prime mover, drafting needed legislation and managing the lobbying to obtain its passage and the necessary appropriations. He also served as rector (leader) of the board of visitors, designed the buildings and generally supervised their construction, recruited a largely European faculty, charted the curriculum and chose books for the library, and drafted regulations for the staff and rules for student conduct. Jefferson’s influence manifested itself in the design of a dispersed layout of pavilions and dormitories rather than a lone central edifice, the omission of a chapel or mandatory church attendance, a decentralized administrative structure, and the granting of great freedom to students in their daily activities and choice of courses.
In 1812 Jefferson and John Adams had begun an exchange of letters that reconciled the old friends who had become political adversaries. Their correspondence is one of the most remarkable in American letters and touched on religion and philosophy, history and the classics, and politics and the meaning of the American Revolution of which they had been central figures. Jefferson remained interested in politics during his retirement, and when asked he occasionally offered advice to his successors, James Madison and James Monroe. He refused, however, to endorse proposals looking to the end of slavery that did not provide for resettlement of freed people elsewhere. In a memorable phrase he explained that “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” In 1820, after Congress prohibited slavery in the western territory north of 36° 30′ latitude (with the exception of Missouri), Jefferson wrote “this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”
In 1818 Jefferson had endorsed notes totaling $20,000 for his eldest grandson’s father-in-law and his own old friend, the former governor Wilson Cary Nicholas, whose bankruptcy the following year left Jefferson responsible for the sum and thereby insolvent. He had, moreover, lived beyond his means for most of his life and continued to do so until the end. Jefferson’s last-known letter concerned payment of duties on a shipment of wine. By early in 1826 the situation was so desperate that Jefferson conceived the idea of paying off his creditors by conducting a lottery with Monticello as the prize. The General Assembly approved the plan, but Jefferson’s death ended the scheme and left his estate with $107,273.63 in debts and far-fewer assets. Beginning in January 1827, several auctions dispersed most of his personal estate, including more than 100 slaves.
Jefferson died at Monticello at 12:50 p.m. on July 4, 1826. The exact cause is uncertain, but a variety of ailments including a urinary tract infection made his last months so painful that he resorted to large doses of laudanum. He was lucid almost to the end and asked several times if he had made it to the fourth of July. John Adams died later that day, and the demise of both statesmen on the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Declaration of Independence was widely regarded at the time as a divine stamp of approval on the American political experiment.
Jefferson ordered that an obelisk be erected to mark his grave in the family cemetery at Monticello and that it be inscribed only with his life dates and with what he regarded as his three most important achievements: author of the Declaration of Independence, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia. Ever since his death Jefferson has kept his hold on the American imagination, even as his true character remains elusive. Each generation has claimed and quoted him on both sides of almost every important question. He has been described as a committed abolitionist and hypocritical slaveholder, as an apostle of democracy and a southern aristocrat, and as an advocate of limited government and expansive architect of Manifest Destiny. In 1874 one of his early biographers, James Parton, suggested, “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.” Whatever historians may make of this maxim, the general public seems never to have doubted it.
- A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774)
- Declaration of Independence (1776)
- Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)