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Thomas Jefferson served as an American Revolutionary and political theorist and as the third president of the United States. Jefferson, who was a talented architect, writer, and diplomat, played a profound role in shaping U.S. government and politics.
Jefferson was born April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, in Albemarle County, Virginia. His father was a plantation owner and his mother belonged to the Randolph family, whose members were leaders of colonial Virginia society. Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1762, and worked as a surveyor before studying law with George Wythe. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767.
His interest in colonial politics led to his election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. In the legislature he became closely aligned with Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee, all of whom espoused the belief that the British Parliament had no control over the American colonies. He helped form the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, which protested legislation imposed on the colonies by Great Britain.
In 1774 Jefferson wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, a pamphlet that denied the power of Parliament in the colonies and stated that any loyalty to England and the king was to be given by choice. He attended the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and drafted the Reply to Lord North, in which Congress rejected the British prime minister's proposal that Parliament would not tax the colonists if they agreed to tax themselves.
After the Revolutionary War began, Jefferson and four others were asked to draft a declaration of independence. Jefferson actually wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which stated the arguments justifying the position of the American Revolutionaries. It also affirmed the natural rights of all people and affirmed the right of the colonists to "dissolve the political bands" with the British government.
Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1776 to 1779 and became governor of Virginia in 1779. He was responsible for many changes in Virginia law, including the abolition of religious persecution and the end to entail (inheritance of land through a particular line of descent) and primogeniture (inheritance only by the eldest son). Jefferson also disestablished the Anglican Church as the state-endorsed religion. Jefferson's term as governor expired in 1781, the same year the British invaded Virginia. He was at first blamed for the state's lack of resistance but later cleared after an official investigation.
From 1783 to 1784, he was a member of the Continental Congress, where he contributed a monetary program, and secured approval of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War. As a member of that congress he also drafted a decree for a system of government for the Northwest Territory, which lay west of the Appalachian Mountains. This decree was later incorporated into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Jefferson served as minister to France from 1784 to 1789. In 1790 he reentered politics as Secretary of State in the cabinet of President George Washington. Jefferson soon became embroiled in conflict with Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury. Jefferson did not share Hamilton's Federalist views, which he believed favored the interests of business and the upper class. Jefferson, a proponent of agricultural interests, disliked the Federalist's desire to expand the power of the federal government.
The chief dispute between them was over the Bank of the United States, which Hamilton approved of and Jefferson attacked as unconstitutional. Hamilton won the issue, and Jefferson and his supporters began to form a group known as Republicans, which evolved into the current Democratic Party. In 1791 editor Philip M. Freneau published Republican views in the National Gazette, which increased the agitation between Jefferson and Hamilton. Jefferson resigned his position in 1793.
After John Adams was elected president in 1796, Jefferson served as his vice president and presiding officer in the Senate. In 1798 he opposed Congress's adoption of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1 Stat. 570, 596), which provided for the deportation or imprisonment of any citizen or alien judged dangerous to the U.S. government. As a result Jefferson and James Madison drafted the Kentucky Resolutions, which denounced the constitutionality of these acts. These resolutions, which were adopted by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures, declared that the federal government could not extend its powers over the states unless the Constitution expressly granted authority. The resolutions were the first affirmation of States' Rights and were central to Jefferson's belief that state and local governments were the most democratic political institutions.
The presidential election in 1800 ended in a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives decided the election. Hamilton, who despised Burr even more than Jefferson, lobbied the Federalists in the House to elect Jefferson. Jefferson won the election and became the first president to be sworn into office in Washington, D.C.
As president, Jefferson reduced spending and appointed Republicans to assume former Federalist positions. He made a lasting contribution to legislative procedure when he composed in 1801 A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which is still used today. He approved the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, and supported the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the West from 1803 to 1806. He supported the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, which would have created federal courts of appeals and would have encouraged appeals from state courts.
Jefferson also expressed concern about the decision in marbury v. madison, 5 U.S. 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 (1803), which declared that the Supreme Court could review the constitutionality of acts of Congress. The concept of Judicial Review, which is not described in the Constitution, expanded the power of the judiciary. Jefferson and the Republicans worried that Federalist-appointed judges would use judicial review to strike down Republican legislation.
After he was reelected in 1805, Jefferson encountered the problem of attacks on independent U.S. ships by England and France, which were engaged in war. To discourage these attacks, Congress passed the Nonimportation Act of 1806 (2 Stat. 315), forbidding the importation of British goods, and the Embargo Act of 1807 (2 Stat. 451), prohibiting the exportation of U.S. goods to England and France. These measures proved to be detrimental to U.S. commerce.
After the end of his second presidential term, Jefferson retired to his estate, Monticello. He served as president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1815 and helped found the University of Virginia in 1819.
"That government is the strongest of which every man himself feels a part."
Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1784 and 1785, remain an important historical resource. Written to a French correspondent, the book contains social, political, and economic reflections that show Jefferson to be a person committed to rational thought. The book also reveals that Jefferson, a slaveholder, believed that African Americans were inferior to whites. Throughout his life Jefferson defended the institution of Slavery, casting a cloud over his professed belief in human dignity.
Jefferson died July 4, 1826, at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia.
Bernstein, R.B. 2003. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
——. 2003. "Wrestling with Jefferson: The Struggles of a Biographer." New York Law School Journal of International and Comparative Law 22 (spring-summer): 387–404.
Dougherty, Richard J. 2001. "Thomas Jefferson and the Rule of Law: Executive Power and American Constitutionalism." Northern Kentucky Law Review 28 (summer): 513–35.
Reiss, David. 2002. "Jefferson and Madison as Icons in Judicial History: A Study of Religion Clause Jurisprudence." Maryland Law Review 6 (winter): 94–176.
Schwartz, Bernard, with Barbara Wilcie Kern and R. B. Bernstein. 1997. Thomas Jefferson and Bolling v. Bolling : Law and the Legal Profession in Pre-revolutionary America. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library.