Skip to content
Print E-mail
American Short Stories | Distinguished American Series | Edgar Allan Poe Storyteller | News Reports | Words And Their Stories

Listening Library

Distinguished American Series
Jefferson | Keller | King | Thoreau | Twain

Thomas Jefferson

Image 11:36

Thomas Jefferson.
Possibly no other man has influenced the institutions of government in the United States as much as Thomas Jefferson. He was the author of the American Declaration of Independence, supporter of the Bill of Rights, founder of one of the two major political parties through which the people of the United States govern themselves, and third President of the United States.

What kind of a man was Thomas Jefferson? He was born at Shadwell, in what is now Albermarle County, Virginia, on April 13, 1743, into that class of people which, throughout his, life, he denied had any right to rule over the lives and minds of other men. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a successful planter who bore an honored name in the community, and his mother belonged to the aristocratic Randolphs, one of the oldest families in Virginia "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society," wrote Jefferson, "but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

This view, one of the many so-called "Jeffersonian principles," has been the basis of public policy in the United States. Both the Democratic Party, which developed directly from Jefferson, and the Republican Party believe in what was an extreme plan when Jefferson first made it -- free education for all. It is the basis of the present public school system in the United States.

Jefferson was so far ahead of his time in his social thinking that many of his ideas, now accepted everywhere in the United States were too extreme to be approved of in his lifetime. For example, he defended the freeing of slaves a century before Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War accomplished this.

Jefferson graduated from William and Mary College in Virginia in 1762, chose law as his profession, and became extremely successful. Although he was shy and reserved with strangers, his bold mind, gentle manner brilliant intellect and friendly attitude made him easy to like. John Adams said of him, "He was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive . . . in conversation . . . that he soon seized upon my heart."

Jefferson began his political career as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. It was here that he became known as a strong liberal with democratic ideas. He believed that political power should remain with the common people, and he supported freedom of religion and freedom of the press. One of the laws he introduced was the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. Jefferson and his friends carried on a long and bitter fight to bring about the passage of this law, and finally, on January 16, 1786, after Jefferson had left the House of Burgesses, the first charter for complete religious freedom was passed. It was later to serve as a model when the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution.

In 1772, when he was twenty-nine, Jefferson married a beautiful widow, Martha (Wayles) Skelton, and proved to be a devoted husband. Of their six children, only two, Martha and Mary (or Maria) lived to maturity. The Jeffersons began their married life at the then unfinished Monticello, a large house near Charlottesville, Virginia, about one hundred miles south of Washington, D.C. The Marquis de Chastellux, a distinguished Frenchman who visited Monticello in 1782, reported that "Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the fine arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather." Because of numerous changes and alterations, Jefferson did not finish Monticello until he was sixty-six years old. Today the beautiful home is a national monument.

Jefferson's support of the rights of the American colonists led to his appointment to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776. The English colonies in America had been growing more and more angry at what many felt were unjust laws made by a far-away government. All the colonies decided to meet in order to speak with one voice in complaining to the King. In Philadelphia, there was much talk about what course the colonies should follow. Finally, those who wanted complete independence from England for the thirteen colonies won a majority. They named a committee which included Thomas Jefferson to prepare a declaration giving their reasons for this serious move.

For seventeen days Jefferson sat in a room in the second floor of a new brick house at the corner of Market and Seventh Streets in Philadelphia writing, revising, polishing, and copying his draft of the declaration. Regarding the document as "intended to be an expression of the American mind," Jefferson, who usually wrote with ease, now chose each word with great care. He began his declaration with the words, "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another. . ." and continued with the electrifying statement: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving, their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . ." Congress later removed the words "inherent and" and substituted "certain." After debate and some changes at the suggestion of John Adams. Benjamin Franklin, and the Congress, the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776 -- a date now observed annually as the birthday of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln saw the meaning of the Declaration. "Jefferson," he wrote in 1859, "had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there that today and in all coming days it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny."

In September 1776, Jefferson left Philadelphia and returned home where he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. He served there until he?replaced Patrick Henry as Governor of Virginia in June 1779. Jefferson's wife died a tragic and early death in 1782.

In June 1783, Jefferson was elected a Virginia delegate to the United States Congress. In six months he wrote no less than thirty-one state papers, some of them of primary importance. In 1785, he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as Minister to France, where he proved to be "a diligent and skillful diplomat."

At the end of 1789, Jefferson returned home and almost immediately received an offer from President George Washington to take the job of Secretary of State. At first Jefferson refused, for he did not want to become involved in national politics after having had the relatively quiet job of Minister to France. But Washington persisted and Jefferson finally agreed to become the first Secretary of State. His term as Secretary of State is perhaps best remembered for the many disagreements he had with Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson believed that the consent of the governed was the foundation of. liberty while Hamilton tended to favor more executive control in government. The people who supported Jefferson soon called themselves "Republicans " as opposed to the Hamiltonian "Federalists." President Washington, with remarkable gentleness, settled their differences and refused to dismiss either of his valuable Secretaries from the Cabinet.

When Jefferson resigned from the Cabinet in December of 1793, he gladly returned to Monticello intending once more to retire, but his retirement was brought to an end when he was recalled in 1796 to take the job of Vice-President under President John Adams. Four years later, in 1800, Jefferson was elected for the first of his two consecutive terms as President. One of his most important achievements as President was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon. This acquisition doubled the area of the United States of that day and gave the country seventeen new states.

Power for its own sake could have no appeal for Jefferson and he often longed for his own "country," the Virginia hills. In 1809, at the end of his second term, he felt that at last he could retire to private life, leaving his friend and neighbor, James Madison, to succeed him as President.

The aging ex-President. returned with joy to his family, his books, and his lands at Monticello where he spent the last seventeen years of his life. Jefferson's last public service was the founding of the University of Virginia, which can be seen from his hilltop home. He planned its buildings, outlined its  course of study, watched its development with great interest, and in his eighty-second year became its first Rector. His great concern with education grew out of his deep belief in democratic government. He believed that a people enlightened by free education could, under democratic institutions, govern themselves better than under any other system.

In his last years, Jefferson became elder statesman to the nation. Thousands of people traveled to Monticello to see and talk to him. Death came for this architect of freedom on July 4, 1826, at the age of eighty-three the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. At his own request, the simple stone that marks his grave at Monticello identifies him not as the man who was twice President of the United States, but rather with the words he wrote himself:

Here was buried
Author of the
Declaration of American Independence
Of the
Statute of Virginia
for Religious Freedom
And Father of the
University of Virginia

International Communication Agency

Listening Library

Distinguished American Series
Jefferson | Keller | King | Thoreau | Twain

American Short Stories | Distinguished American Series | Edgar Allan Poe Storyteller | News Reports | Words And Their Stories