Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Born: April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia

Died: July 4, 1826, at Monticello (near Charlottesville, Virginia)

Nicknames: “Man of the People”, “Sage of Monticello”

Married: Martha Wayles Skelton (1748-1782), on January 1, 1772

Religion: No formal affiliation

Education: Graduated from College of William and Mary (1762)

Political Party: Democratic-Republican

Picture of Thomas Jefferson

Career: Lawyer; Farmer; Member of Virginia House of Burgesses, 1769-74; Member of Second Continental Congress, 1775-76; Governor of Virginia, 1779-81; Member of Third Continental Congress, 1783-85; Minister to France, 1785-89; secretary of state, 1790-93 (under Washington); Vice President, 1797-1801 (under J. Adams); President of the United States (1801-9)

Domestic Policy Highlights: Limiting government size and power, Marbury v. Madison, impeachment of Supreme Court justices

Foreign Policy Highlights: Barbary pirates, Louisiana Purchase, Embargo Acts

Biography of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, spent his childhood roaming the woods and studying his books on a remote plantation in the Virginia wilderness.

Thanks to the prosperity of his father, Jefferson had an excellent education. After years in boarding school where he excelled in classical languages, Jefferson enrolled in William and Mary College in his home state of Virginia, taking classes in science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature.

He also studied law and by the time he was admitted to the Virginia bar in April 1767, many considered him to have one of the nation’s best legal minds.

Shaping America’s Political Philosophy – Jefferson was shy in person, but his pen proved to be a mighty weapon. His pamphlet entitled “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” written in 1774, articulated the colonial position for independence and foreshadowed many of the ideas in the Declaration for which he is most famous. By 1774, Jefferson was actively involved in organizing opposition to British rule, and in 1776, he was appointed to the Second Continental Congress. As a powerful prose stylist and an influential Virginia representative, Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. This document is a brilliant assertion of fundamental human rights and America’s most succinct statement of its philosophy of government.

Before becoming the nation’s third president, Jefferson served as delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he abolished primogeniture, the law that made the eldest son the sole inheritor of his father’s property. He promoted religious freedom, helping to establish the country’s separation between church and state, and he advocated free public education, an idea considered radical by his contemporaries.

During the Revolution, Jefferson served two years as governor of Virginia, barely escaping capture by British forces by fleeing to Monticello, his home. He was later charged with being a coward for not confronting the enemy. After the war, Jefferson served as America’s minister to France, where he witnessed firsthand the dramatic events leading up to the French Revolution.

While abroad, Jefferson corresponded with members of the Constitutional Convention, particularly his close associate from Virginia, James Madison. He agreed to support the Constitution, and the strong federal government it created. Jefferson’s support however, hinged upon on the condition that Madison add a Bill of Rights to the document in the form of ten amendments. The rights that Jefferson insisted upon—among them freedom of speech, assembly, and practice of religion—have become fundamental and synonymous with American life ever since.

Presidential Politics – Jefferson served as secretary of state under Washington, but quarrels with Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a centralized national bank caused him to resign his post in 1793. In the election of 1796, Jefferson ran as the leader of the new Democratic-Republican Party opposite John Adams. Jefferson came in second to Adams (in electoral college votes), and became Adams’s vice president.

In 1800, however, the political tide had turned against the Federalist Party of Adams and Hamilton. After winning the election, Jefferson pled for national unity in an attempt to heal the wounds of a vicious campaign, and gain support from the Federalist-controlled Congress. Due to a relatively placid first term, prosperity, lower taxes, and a reduction of the national debt, Jefferson won a landslide victory in 1804.

Defining the Powers of the Government – Jefferson believed in a “wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another,” but which otherwise left them free to regulate their own affairs. In an effort to minimize the influence of the central government, he reduced the number of government employees, slashed army enrollments, and cut the national debt. Similar to his predecessor, John Adams, Jefferson had to deal with the political war waged between his Republican Party and the Federalists. The battles were focused on the nation’s judiciary branch. The landmark ruling in Marbury v. Madison, which established the independent power of the Supreme Court, was handed down during Jefferson’s presidency.

Foreign affairs dominated his day-to-day attentions while president, often pushing him toward Federalist policies that contrasted with his political philosophy. To ensure the safety of American ships on the high seas, Jefferson attempted to put an end to the bribes that the U.S. had been paying to the Barbary states for the past fifty years. This resulted in a war with Tripoli, in which Jefferson was forced to use his navy and to rethink his policy of reducing the U.S. military. While the U.S. at first enjoyed an economic boom due to the war between England and France, the British navy’s practice of forcing American sailors into British service led to Jefferson’s disastrous suspension of trade with both France and England. This trade war devastated the economy, alienated the hard-hit mercantile Northeast, and propelled America into war with England.

His brilliant negotiation and ties to France led to the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million, doubling the size of the nation. Nonetheless, the deal troubled Jefferson, who did not wish to overstep the central government’s powers as outlined by the Constitution, which made no mention the power to acquire new territory. It was Jefferson who authorized the famous Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-6), led by Meriwether Lewis, a military officer who was Jefferson’s clerk at the White House.

A Private Portrait of Contradictions – Jefferson preferred to live a simple lifestyle during his time in office, often greeting his dinner guests in old homespun clothes and a pair of worn bedroom slippers. Having lost his beloved wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, in 1782 to childbirth, Jefferson relied on his two married daughters, and the wife of his secretary of state, Dolly Madison, as his official hostesses. Although he disliked pomp and circumstance, Jefferson knew how to live well; his wine bill upon leaving the presidency exceeded $10,000! In 1808, Jefferson retired to his Virginia plantation home, Monticello, where he continued pursuing his widely diverse interests in science, natural history, philosophy, and the classics. Jefferson also devoted himself to founding the University of Virginia.

Contemporary debates continue to rage (as they did during Jefferson’s own lifetime) concerning his relationship with Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves, after Martha’s death. Although Jefferson denied their affair and the stories that he fathered two of Hemings’s children, recent DNA evidence presents a convincing case that Jefferson was indeed the biological father. Most historians now believe that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship. Jefferson was ambivalent about slavery throughout his career—as a young politician he had argued for the prohibition of slavery in new American territories. Yet he never freed his own slaves. How could a man responsible for writing the sacred words “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” have been a slave owner? He never resolved the internal conflict on this issue.

After carrying on a long and fascinating correspondence with John Adams while both men were in the twilight of their lives, death took Jefferson on July 4, 1826—exactly fifty years to the day from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. All presidents after him, historians tell us, have lived in Jefferson’s shadow and are measured against his mark.

Courtesy : Public Affairs Office of the Embassy of the United States in Caracas, Venezuela.

Thomas Jefferson Quotes

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.

Certainly one of the highest duties of the citizen is a scrupulous obedience to the laws of the nation. But it is not the highest duty.

Happiness is not being pained in body or troubled in mind.

If ignorance is bliss, why aren’t more people happy?

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

Do not bite the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it.

We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties.

The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.

I have no fear but that the result of our experiment will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master. Could the contrary of this be proved I should conclude either that there is no God, or that He is a malevolent Being.

With all the imperfections of our present government, it is without comparison the best existing, or that ever did exist.

Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong.

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy.

It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation, that gives happiness.

We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.

No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes… such laws serve rather to encourage than to prevent homocides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man. (‘Commonplace Book’ 1775)

Truth is certainly a branch of morality and a very important one to society.

It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately.

Bonaparte was a lion in the field only. In civil life, a cold-blooded, calculating, unprincipled usurper, without a virtue; no statesman, knowing nothing of commerce, political economy, or civil government, and supplying ignorance by bold presumption.

Every citizen should be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.

That government is best which governs least.

Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread.

In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.

The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches, and we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good.

The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.

What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?

Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.

The new Constitution has secured these [individual rights] in the Executive and Legislative departments; but not in the Judiciary. It should have established trials by the people themselves, that is to say, by jury.

The Judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric. (1820)

…the Federal Judiciary; an irresponsible body (for impeachment is scarcely a scarecrow), working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the States, and the government of all be consolidated into one. When all government… in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated. (1821)

The opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action, but for the legislative and executive also in their spheres, would make the judiciary a despotic branch.

Let this be the distinctive mark of an American that in cases of commotion, he enlists himself under no man’s banner, inquires for no man’s name, but repairs to the standard of the laws. Do this, and you need never fear anarchy or tyranny. Your government will be perpetual.

No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.

Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding and should, therefore, be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties which may make anything mean everything or nothing at pleasure.

It is more dangerous that even a guilty person should be punished without the forms of law than that he should escape.

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.

But friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life; and thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine.

I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

It should be remembered as an axiom of eternal truth in politics, that whatever power in any government is independent, is absolute also; in theory only at first while the spirit of the people is up, but in practice as fast as that relaxes.

The man who fears no truth has nothing to fear from lies.

He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.

Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth.

The concentrating [of powers] in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one.

Power is not alluring to pure minds.

In matters of power let no more be heard of the confidence in man but bind them down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.

The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind.

Thank you for your interest in the history of the greatest nation that has defended freedom for the entire world. There are so many people that feel a one world government is the savior of the human race. This goverment.

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all.

The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.

Never spend your money before you have it.

Nothing gives a person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.

My only fear is that I may live too long. This would be a subject of dread to me.

Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are serviley crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind faith.

Does the government fear us? Or do we fear the government? When the people fear the government, tyranny has found victory. The federal government is our servant, not our master!

When governments fear people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.

The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.

Life is of no value but as it brings us gratifications. Among the most valuable of these is rational society. It informs the mind, sweetens the temper, cheers our spirits, and promotes health.

Bodily decay is gloomy in prospect, but of all human contemplations the most abhorrent is body without mind.

Always take hold of things by the smooth handle.

The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises walking is the best.

What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

Liberty is the great parent of science and of virtue; and a nation will be great in both in proportion as it is free.