Thomas Jefferson: The Nation's Third President
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy welcomed Nobel Prize winners to the White House. He said “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Kennedy’s comment shows how vividly Jefferson lives in the American imagination – even more than 100 years after his presidency and death. In the United States, Jefferson’s name is often linked to the country’s history of self-government, slavery, separation of church and state, and public education.
Jefferson was born in 1743 and raised in the hills and low mountains of Virginia. He was considered an aristocrat: his family’s wealth permitted him an excellent education in classic languages, science, literature, philosophy and law. Jefferson also learned to ride horses, dance and explore the natural world.
In the 1770s Jefferson supported the coming American Revolution. He became a member of the Second Continental Congress and is famous for being the lead writer of the Declaration of Independence.
The document declared the American colonies’ separation from England. It also asserted “that all men are created equal” and have the rights “to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson went on to hold many positions in the country’s new state and national governments. He was a governor of Virginia, a minister to France, a secretary of state for President George Washington, and the vice president under President John Adams.
Virginia planter and slave owner
But Jefferson often wrote to his friends about how he most wanted to retire from public service and return to his home in Virginia. In the 1760s he designed a house on a hilltop he called Monticello – the word means “little mountain” in Italian.
Jefferson spent most of his life changing and improving the house. He hired dozens of workmen to build it. He also put some of his slaves to work on it.
During his life, Jefferson owned about 600 slaves. That meant about 130 lived on Monticello at any time. They worked in Jefferson’s house, tobacco and wheat farms, and on special projects such as making cabinets and nails.
Jefferson expressed mixed feelings about slavery. He said he disliked the practice, and that he believed God would judge slave owners severely. In 1782, he wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever …”
And of course, many people pointed out that Jefferson himself wrote in the Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal,” yet Jefferson did not use his power to end slavery. He expected future generations would permit slavery in the United States to end slowly.
Jefferson’s words and actions on slavery are contradictory. The contradiction is especially significant because evidence suggests he had a long relationship with a young slave at Monticello.
Her name was Sally Hemings. Most historians now believe what the Hemings family has said all along: Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ six children of record.
Presidential candidate: Election of 1800
Thomas Jefferson left Monticello to become the country’s third president. The election of 1800 was important for several reasons.
First, it resulted in a strange situation: both Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received the same number of electoral votes.
The Constitution at the time did not require electors to say whether they were voting for president or vice president. So when the two men tied, the House of Representatives had to decide which man would take the lead position. But their votes, too, could not determine a winner.
The election dragged on and on. Finally, one of Jefferson’s chief political enemies, Alexander Hamilton, decided that Jefferson was the lesser of two evils. In other words, he did not like either candidate but decided Jefferson was the better choice.
Hamilton persuaded some of his allies to support Jefferson over Burr. After six days and 36 votes, the House of Representatives gave the presidency to Jefferson.
The strange situation provoked a change to the Constitution. The Twelfth Amendment clarifies how the president and vice president are chosen.
The election of 1800 was also important because it was a break from the earlier administrations. The first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were Federalists. In other words, they supported a strong federal government.
Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was a Republican — although the term meant something different in his time than it does for today’s Republicans. Jefferson wanted to limit federal government.
Historian Joseph Ellis explains that Jefferson supported the power of the states and the people themselves.
“So, in some sense, he’s going to the federal government as the head of it to say we’re not going to do anything. Our job is to get out of the way and to allow the citizens of the republic to pursue their happiness without the interference of any federal authority whatsoever.”
The Federalists disagreed with Jefferson’s point of view. However, they accepted the results of the election and permitted the government to transfer peacefully.
Third U.S. president
Some Federalists may have also been comforted by Jefferson’s inaugural address — the speech he gave when he officially became president. In it, Jefferson famously said, “We are all republicans — we are all federalists.”
Many listeners probably believed Jefferson was saying his administration would support ideas from both Republicans and Federalists.
But historian Joseph Ellis points out that Jefferson did not capitalize the names of the political groups in his speech. Instead, Ellis says, Jefferson was likely saying the American public supported a strong system of state governments united under a “federal bond.”
Indeed, Jefferson led his administration by his Republican beliefs — mostly. As president he greatly lessened the power of the federal government. He cut the national debt. He reduced the military. He disliked the power of the Supreme Court over the laws Congress made. And he rejected appearances that made the U.S. president look like a European king.
One of the lasting images of Jefferson in the American imagination is of him receiving guests in old clothes and slippers.
But as president, Jefferson also appeared strong and powerful when dealing with foreign nations. Jefferson increased American naval forces in the Mediterranean to combat threats to U.S. ships. And he permitted American officials to buy a huge area of land from France, even though the Louisiana Purchase added to the national debt and exceeded the power the Constitution gave the president.
In general, historians consider Jefferson’s first term as president a success. Voters did, too, because he easily won a second term.
But those last four years were more difficult. Jefferson’s popularity suffered, especially when he stopped all U.S. trade with Europe. Jefferson aimed to limit American involvement in a war between Britain and France. Instead, he ruined the U.S. economy.
When Jefferson returned to Monticello in 1809, he was happy to leave the presidency behind. And some people were happy to see him go.
Criticisms and legacy
Jefferson’s critics attacked both his political ideas and his personal qualities. Even friends such as John Adams and James Madison suggested in their letters that Jefferson was too idealistic. Federalists, including Washington and Hamilton, worried Jefferson’s Republican ideas would weaken the strong federal government and national economy they had worked hard to create.
Jefferson is also negatively linked to the history of Native Americans and slavery in the U.S. He tried to get Indian nations to enter into treaties that ultimately took away their land. He asked that they become more like European-Americans. And his policies made them depend on the U.S. government.
And Jefferson took no major action to end slavery, either in his personal life or as a public figure. In fact, historian Joseph Ellis points out that some of Jefferson’s actions increased the power of the slave-holding south and supported slavery in the western states.
“Jefferson doesn’t put his presidency or the Louisiana Purchase on his tombstone. He never claims any great credit for that. It’s interesting. Because what happens is this area becomes the source of controversy that leads to the Civil War.”
Jefferson instead wanted to be remembered for three things: writing the Declaration of Independence, supporting religious freedom, and creating the University of Virginia.
For the most part, he is.
Jefferson's political opponents accused him of not being a Christian, although he said he was. But many Americans supported Jefferson’s views on the separation of church and state. He wrote that government should worry only about acts that hurt other people; however, he said, it does not harm him if his neighbor says, “there are 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Jefferson also famously supported free public education, especially for those who could not pay for school. He established both the idea and the architecture for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The public university remains one of the top colleges in the United States.
Jefferson himself wrote proudly of these accomplishments at the end of his life. But his final years at Monticello had many sorrows. His wife, Martha, had died in 1782 after difficulty in childbirth. Five of the six children Martha had with Thomas Jefferson also died before him.
So while Jefferson often wrote about how much he enjoyed family life, he returned to Monticello with only one living daughter, among those he acknowledged, and a few grandchildren.
In addition, the cost of improving and maintaining the house, as well as the money he spent on fine wine and good food, had ruined him financially. Eventually, his daughter had to sell her father’s beloved Monticello and the slaves who lived there to pay his debts.
Jefferson died at Monticello at the age of 83. The last detail of his life – which Americans love to tell – is that he passed away on America’s birthday, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
I’m Caty Weaver.
Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story. Caty Weaver was the editor.
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