Thomas Jefferson (April 13,1743 – July 4, 1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the third President of the United States (1801–1809). He was an influential Founding Father, and an exponent of Jeffersonian democracy. Jefferson envisioned America as a great “Empire of Liberty” that would promote the rule of law, democratic elections, individual liberty, and a limited national government.
At the beginning of the American Revolution, Jefferson served in the Continental Congress, representing Virginia. He then served as the wartime Governor of Virginia (1779–1781), barely escaping capture by the British in 1781. Just after the war ended, from mid-1784 Jefferson served as a diplomat, stationed in Paris, initially as a commissioner to help negotiate commercial treaties. In May 1785, he became the United States Minister to France. He was the
first United States Secretary of State (1790–1793). During the administration of President George Washington, Jefferson advised against a national bank and the Jay Treaty. Upon leaving office, with his close friend James Madison he organized the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s policies, especially his desire to create a national bank. He and Madison secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which
attempted to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts and formed the basis of States’ rights.
Elected president in what he called the Revolution of 1800, he oversaw a peaceful transition in power, purchased the vast Louisiana Territory from France (1803), and sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806) to explore the new west. He decided to allow slavery in the acquired territory, which laid the foundation for the crisis of the Union a half century later. His second term was beset with troubles at home, such as the failed treason trial of his former Vice President Aaron
Burr, and escalating trouble with Britain. Jefferson always distrusted Britain as a threat to American values. With Britain at war with Napoleon, he tried aggressive economic warfare, however his embargo laws stopped American trade, hurt the economy, and provoked a furious reaction in the Northeast.
Jefferson was part of the Virginia planter elite. He was a loving husband to his wife Martha, who died in childbirth, and an affectionate father to their children. As a tobacco planter, Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life; he held views on the racial inferiority of Africans common at the time. Most historians believe that after his wife died, Jefferson had an intimate relationship for nearly four decades with Martha’s half-sister, his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings; and fathered her six children. He freed the four surviving Hemings children when they came of age.
A leader in The Enlightenment, Jefferson was a polymath who spoke five languages and was deeply interested in science and political philosophy. While not an orator, he was an indefatigable letter writer and was acquainted
with many influential people in America and Europe. His views on slavery were complex, and changed over the course of his life. He was a leading American opponent of the international slave trade, and presided over its abolition in 1807. Jefferson is typically rated by historical scholars as one of the greatest U.S. presidents.
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