Born in Shadwell, Virginia on the 13th of April, 1743, Thomas Jefferson was the third-born of ten siblings to Jane Randolph Jefferson, who was said to have been a descendant of Scottish and English royalty, and Peter Jefferson, a farmer, surveyor and cartographer. As a child, Thomas enjoyed playing in the woods and practicing his violin for hours at a time. At age nine, he began his formal education, studying Latin and Greek. At fourteen, Thomas was still working on the classical languages, and began studying literature and mathematics as well. Moving away from home, he began higher level studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. There, much to his dismay, Thomas discovered that his classmates were more interested in playing cards, betting on horses, and chasing women than learning. But he soon established friendships with several older scholars from whom he learned a great deal. One of these scholars was a prominent lawyer under whom Jefferson studied law for five years, twice the length of study required to pass the bar. In fact, by the time he passed the bar, he was considered to be one of the most learned lawyers in the American Colonies. From 1767 to 1774, Jefferson practiced law in Virginia, and it was during this time that he met and fell in love with a wealthy widow by the name of Martha Wayles Skelton. They were married in 1772 and had six children, of whom only two survived into adulthood.
Rise to Power
The beginning of Jefferson’s political career actually seemed to begin after the French and Indian war. The British were in dire straits for revenue, and began taxing the colonists unreasonably without American representation in their Parliament. As an enthusiastic supporter of American independence, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1768. It was in the House of Burgesses that Jefferson joined a radical group of politicians led by Patrick Henry and George Washington. His first political writing, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”, established Jefferson as an eloquent supporter of American independence. Shortly thereafter, his career went into overdrive. Being appointed to a five-man committee to draft the Declaration of Independence was just the beginning. He served in the House of Delegates, was elected as the second governor of the new state of Virginia, led the Virginia delegation in the Confederation Congress, and replaced Benjamin Franklin as Minister to France. He was then appointed as Secretary of State by George Washington and became a Vice President, before finally being elected as US President twice himself.
Jefferson’s ultimate, and most well-known, contribution to America was his drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Although appointed to a five-man committee to draft the document, he was then elected by the committee to write it. Seventeen days later, his masterpiece was complete. Although there were some minor revisions to his wording, the Declaration of Independence is considered to be one of the most powerful and eloquent tributes to equality and liberty in the world. Another oft-cited document that Jefferson wrote, “A Manual of Parliamentary Practice”, is still considered to be one of the most useful guides for legislative procedures. In addition to writing important documents, President Jefferson doubled the size of the nation when he authorized the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French, which extended the nation from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. As a result, he sent Lewis and Clark out west to explore, and bring back examples of the new areas' flora and fauna. That of Lewis and Clark would prove to be one of the most hugely successful, and historically important, expedititions in American history.
During his second term in office, Jefferson increasingly faced many challenges. The first major one was the Embargo Act of 1807. This act ceased all trade with Europe, which had disastrous results for the American economy, and eventually led to the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Additionally, Jefferson faced many personal challenges as well. While he was an enthusiastic proponent of liberty and freedom, he was also noted as being a prominent slave owner. While he championed the rights and needs of the common people, he lived luxuriously in a mansion in Monticello, Virginia. Jefferson believed in limiting government, yet he expanded it. Finally, though a quiet man who abhorred the bickering and in-fighting of politics, he yet became one of the most dominant political figures of his time nonetheless.
Death and Legacy
After retiring from politics in 1809, Jefferson established, designed, and selected scholars to teach at the new University of Virginia, which opened its doors in 1825. This was one of his proudest moments. Jefferson also sold his personal library to the national government, an act that began the path to the establishment of the Library of Congress. Living a fairly quiet life into his final years, Jefferson died in bed on the 4th of July, 1826. Interestingly enough, the date of his death marked the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, a legacy that has been the foundation of freedom and equality in the United States ever since.
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