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Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the American Declaration of Independence, drew upon French and English Enlightenment political philosophy, and especially the work of the Englishman John Locke, to urge colonists to fight for a government based on popular consent—a government that could secure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson became the third U.S. president in March 1801.
Thomas Jefferson was the main author of the American Declaration of Independence, issued in 1776, which inspired the American Revolution and many anti-colonial movements across the globe. Jefferson also became the third president of the United States in 1801 and purchased land known as the Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803, doubling the size of the new nation and setting the stage for the growth of the U.S. as the dominant power in the Americas.
Jefferson was born on 13 April 1743 in the British colony of Virginia in North America. His parents were tobacco planters and part of the colonial elite. In 1760 he enrolled in the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Upon graduation, he earned a living as both a lawyer and a farmer, living on his plantation, Monticello, in Virginia. In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow, who died ten years later. Jefferson served as a member of the House of Burgesses, the lower house of Virginia’s legislature, from 1769 to 1775 and became a leader of the developing opposition to British policies.
In 1776 the members of the Second Continental Congress selected a committee to draft a declaration of independence and Jefferson became the principal author. The Declaration, adopted by Congress on 4 July, announced the birth of a new nation, listed specific grievances against the British king George III, and set forth a philosophy of natural rights. Drawing upon French and English Enlightenment political philosophy, and particularly the work of Englishman John Locke, Jefferson urged the colonists to fight for a government based on popular consent that could secure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration, and the American Revolution it inspired, generated a wave of revolutionary sentiment throughout Latin America and Western Europe in the nineteenth century and were even used to justify anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa in the twentieth century.
Nevertheless, Jefferson, and the new nation he helped to create, did not live up to the ideals annunciated in the Declaration of Independence. He favored government run by prosperous white men and saw those without property, women, Native Americans, and African American slaves as incapable of governing and undeserving of equal rights. Jefferson owned a number of slaves and probably fathered some with one of his slaves. The words of Jefferson, however, would later be used by the excluded to demand political equality in American society.
Jefferson went on to play a major role in the development of the United States. He drafted the bill that established religious freedom and the separation of church and state in Virginia. He served as Virginia governor from 1779 to 1781 and worked as U.S. minister to France from 1785 to 1789. Upon Jefferson’s return home in 1789, President George Washington selected him to become the first secretary of state. Jefferson became a strong advocate for a weak central government and an economy based on agriculture. The secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong federal government and an industrialized economy. Jefferson’s hopes for the new nation resulted in the creation of the Democratic- Republicans in Congress, and Hamilton’s vision in the formation of the Federalists—the first political parties in U.S. history. After Jefferson’s term as secretary of state ended in December 1794, and Hamilton resigned from public office and returned to his legal practice in New York in 1795, these two parties continued to dominate political thought for the next thirty years. After Washington refused a third term as president in 1796, Jefferson stood for election against John Adams. Adams won and became the second president of the U.S., and Jefferson came in second and became the vice president.
In the 1800 presidential contest Jefferson tied with fellow Republican Aaron Burr in the electoral college, but the House of Representatives settled the tie in favor of Jefferson and he became president and Burr vice president of the United States. Jefferson took office in March 1801 and served as president for two terms. As president, Jefferson’s major accomplishment was the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase, which extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, roughly doubled the size of the United States and set the nation on a path of westward expansion. Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, leaving behind a lasting political tradition that still influences America and the rest of the world.
- Armitage, D. (2002). The Declaration of Independence and international law. William and Mary Quarterly, 59(1), 39–64.
- Boorstin, D. J. (1948). The lost world of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Holt.
- Brodie, F. M. (1974). Thomas Jefferson: An intimate history. New York: Norton.
- Cunningham, N. E. (1987). In pursuit of reason: The life of Thomas Jefferson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
- Ellis, J. J. (1997). American sphinx: The character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Knopf.
- Jefferson, T. (1982). Notes on the state of Virginia. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1821)
- Peterson, M. D. (1970). Thomas Jefferson and the new nation: A biography. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Risjord, N. K. (1994). Thomas Jefferson. Madison, WI: Madison House.
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