We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), by Rembrandt Peale, 1800 Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), by Rembrandt Peale, 1800
Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826), revolutionary politician and president of the United States of America, was born on 13 April 1743 at Shadwell, Albemarle county, Virginia, the first son and third child of the ten children of Peter Jefferson (1708–1757), planter, surveyor, and office-holder, and Jane, née Randolph (1720–1776). In 1745 Jefferson and his family moved to Tuckahoe, on the James River in Goochland county, 60 miles from his birthplace, where Peter Jefferson managed the estate and served as guardian of the children of his friend, and his wife's cousin, Colonel William Randolph. Having returned to Albemarle in 1752, Thomas Jefferson made the county his lifelong home, first at his father's Shadwell plantation and then, beginning at 1770, at his own Monticello, located nearby.

Background and early years

Peter Jefferson's large holdings in land and slaves helped make him a prominent figure in Albemarle, marked by his selection as justice of the peace and militia officer, and election to the colony's house of burgesses (1754–5). Peter Jefferson is best remembered for his then definitive map of Virginia, prepared in collaboration with fellow surveyor and mathematics professor Joshua Fry, first published in London in 1751 and reprinted many times, most notably in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Although he was not a learned man himself, Peter Jefferson recognized the importance of a good education for his son, and placed Thomas in the home of the Revd William Douglas in St James parish, Northam, where he studied until 1757. After Peter Jefferson's death Thomas continued his studies under the Revd James Maury, a much more accomplished classicist, who lived closer to Shadwell in Albemarle county. Peter Jefferson left his first son more than 5000 acres—including the Shadwell estate, which remained under his mother's control until her death—a sizeable number of slaves, a small library of forty volumes, and a leading position in local society. Thomas Jefferson acknowledged his father's important influence on his early development, but said virtually nothing about his mother, through whom he was related to the socially prominent Randolph family.

Young Jefferson proved to be a precocious student. Recognizing the limits to his aspirations in a newly developed backcountry region, he persuaded the executors of his father's will to allow him to continue his studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, the provincial capital. His years at the college (1760–62) and studying law under George Wythe (1762–5), then emerging as a leading figure at the Virginia bar, were formative ones. Although he found most of his instructors dull, he soon fell under the influence of William Small, a mathematics professor who had recently arrived from Scotland; Small in turn introduced Jefferson to Wythe and Governor Francis Fauquier. Jefferson recalled in his Autobiography (1821) that he and these three enlightened men formed ‘a partie quarree’, and that he had learned much from their ‘habitual conversations’ at the governor's palace. Wythe was Jefferson's most important mentor, preparing him for a successful career as a lawyer, cut short by the imperial crisis, and as a legislator and legal reformer.

Jefferson was the quintessentially ambitious provincial, irresistibly drawn toward the metropolis. The ease with which he reached the pinnacle of provincial society, in the conviviality of Governor Fauquier's intimate circle, pointed him toward the larger world beyond Virginia which he first glimpsed in the books he eagerly consumed in rural Albemarle. After he completed his studies Jefferson proceeded to consolidate his prominent position in the colony through his extensive legal practice and first forays in politics. But his early dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of William and Mary anticipated the more comprehensive misgivings about the social and cultural state of the province as a whole that later inspired his efforts as a republican reformer. Jefferson's provincial cosmopolitanism also inspired a patriotic, idealized vision of the British empire that would make him into a revolutionary.

Jefferson enhanced his financial prospects through marriage on 1 January 1772 to the young widow Martha Wayles Skelton (1748–1782), daughter of John Wayles, a prosperous slave-trading merchant. When Wayles died in 1773, Jefferson and his fellow heirs decided to divide the estate before liquidating creditors' claims. It would prove to be a fateful decision. Although he gained immediate access to 135 slaves, more than tripling the size of his workforce, the outbreak of the revolution made it impossible to disentangle himself from his father-in-law's indebtedness to British merchants, a burden that afflicted Jefferson for the rest of his life, colouring his thinking about public finance and the continuing threat of British economic power to American independence. He brought his new wife to live at the site of his new home, Monticello, on a hilltop overlooking Shadwell, the family estate on the Rivanna, where his mother continued to live until her death in 1776.

Origins of a revolutionary politician

In the next few years Jefferson curtailed his far-flung legal practice, concentrating instead on his career as a prominent planter and politician. His position in the county oligarchy was secured by his appointment to the county court as a justice of the peace and as lieutenant (chief commander) of the county militia; in 1769 Albemarle voters elected him to the Virginia house of burgesses, where he would represent the county for the remainder of the colonial period.

Jefferson's rapid ascent to the top rungs of the provincial ruling class was not unusual for the scion of a successful planter, with connections through his mother to the associated first families of Virginia. Coming from a new county on the province's periphery, where the local oligarchy was still consolidating its position and competition for office was limited, also proved a boon to Jefferson's career prospects. But it was the deepening crisis over the future of British imperial rule in the American provinces that gave him the opportunity to develop and display his talents as a polemicist and statesman. The imperial crisis transformed the county gentleman with a vested interest in the status quo and a characteristic sense of class privilege into a radical revolutionary.

Explanations for Jefferson's radical turn usually emphasize his responsiveness to the various strains of Enlightenment thought that he encountered in his rapidly expanding personal library. He was certainly extraordinarily studious, as his fellow burgesses recognized when naming him to key committees charged with justifying the province's opposition to imperial policy. But the advanced positions Jefferson staked out in the imperial crisis, most notably in his famous pamphlet The Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), did not challenge the provincial social order. His great contribution was instead to translate the corporate claims and class interests of Virginia's ruling élite into the more capacious language of English and universal natural rights. In retrospect his differences with more conservative fellow revolutionaries—for instance, on land policy or on state support for the established Anglican church—loomed ever larger, distinguishing the precocious ‘democrat’ from his ‘aristocratic’ foes. Yet his enthusiasm for the revolution was an expression of his provincial patriotism, not of social radicalism. In his subsequent career as a republican reformer Jefferson could envision the transformation of his ‘country's’ political and constitutional order precisely because of his confidence in the durability of provincial society—and of his own class position.

Jefferson was ambitious in a characteristically provincial way. If few members of the Virginian gentry matched his erudition, they applauded his efforts to secure provincial rights and gain the respect of metropolitan Britons in the great debate over the imperial constitution. The principles Jefferson invoked in this debate were staples of British Enlightenment thought, adapted to the peculiar needs of anxious provincials who feared imminent political degradation and economic exploitation. As a lawyer he was particularly attracted to an idealized conception of the English common-law tradition and ‘ancient constitution’ that grounded law in the custom and consent of local communities, and imposed constitutional constraints on monarchical authority. Jefferson's historical understanding of the ongoing struggles between king and commons that produced the modern British constitution was widely shared by British whigs. His less conventional celebration of English liberty before the Norman conquest reflected the need to establish a primitive pedigree for American freedom in the right of expatriation exercised by colonial settlers in the New World, and before them by the Anglo-Saxon settlers of ancient Britain. This imaginative rewriting of British and colonial American history authorized challenges to the new ministerial orthodoxy of parliamentary sovereignty, justifying the convergent efforts of British radicals to purge the constitution of its accumulated corruptions, and of provincial patriots to reform the imperial relationship. Jefferson's faith in the possibility of progressive improvement emerged in tandem with deep anxieties about the potential loss of provincial and individual rights, a counterpoint of hope and fear that defined his political thought and career.

Jefferson's Summary View, drafted as instructions for Virginia's delegates to the first continental congress in Philadelphia but not officially adopted by the house of burgesses, framed the imperial crisis in terms of the implied contractual obligations of George III to his loyal American subjects. Although this controversial pamphlet was published anonymously, Jefferson's authorship was soon widely known, and led to his selection to the second congress in 1775. A poor public speaker, the Virginian did not play a conspicuous role in congressional deliberations. His writing skills earned him several choice writing assignments, however, including the original draft of the ‘Declaration of the causes and necessity of taking up arms’ (July 1775) and the American Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776). The principles Jefferson so eloquently invoked in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable 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
would later be taken as the authoritative expression of the new nation's republican creed, and therefore as the source of Jefferson's lasting reputation. But contemporaneous responses focused the declaration's justification for rebellion in its exhaustive rehearsal of the British monarch's ‘long train of abuses’ against his American subjects. In its outraged sense of betrayal Jefferson perfectly articulated the revolutionaries' provincial mentality, identifying them with their ‘British brethren’ while simultaneously proclaiming that ‘the circumstances of our emigration and settlement’ made them a separate, effectively independent people, even before George III's efforts to establish ‘an absolute Tyranny’ over them. The challenge for Jefferson was to conjure into existence an American ‘people’ who were entitled to resist the king's ‘injuries and usurpations’ and then to determine their own political destiny according to the familiar axioms of social contract theory (Jefferson, Papers, 1.429–33).

Jefferson in Virginia

Jefferson's authorship of the declaration was not well known at the time, nor was it yet recognized as ‘American scripture’ (Maier). Convinced that the establishment of republican governments in the separate states constituted the chief business of the American War of Independence, and that a more perfect union of the states would naturally follow, Jefferson would rather have been in Virginia where he might have exercised more influence over the drafting of the state's revolutionary constitution. When Jefferson finally did arrive in Williamsburg in October to begin his tenure as a member of the new house of delegates (1776–9), he spearheaded the reform and codification of Virginia's laws. The revisal of the laws reveals the full range of Jefferson's concerns as a republican reformer, from provisions for universal education (rejected by the house) and gradual emancipation of Virginia's slaves (never reported) to ultimately successful bills for abolishing primogeniture and entail, and guaranteeing religious freedom. Jefferson later wrote that ‘these bills, passed or reported … form[ed] a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy’ (Jefferson, Writings, ed. Peterson, 44). Only a few of the 126 bills reported by the committee were enacted before Jefferson's fellow legislators elevated him to the governorship (1779–81). Lacking effective constitutional powers, he failed to resist a British expeditionary force led by turncoat Benedict Arnold when it invaded the state in 1780, driving the state government out of Richmond, and Jefferson from his home in Charlottesville. Although suggestions that he was personally responsible for this débâcle were eventually refuted by the legislature, the embittered Jefferson left office under a cloud.

During the subsequent brief interlude from public life Jefferson devoted his energies to responding to a set of queries circulated by François Marbois, secretary to the French legation at Philadelphia, to leading figures throughout America, seeking comprehensive information on the population, manners, institutions, resources, and history of all the members of the far-flung American union. No one was better equipped to assess Virginia's circumstances and prospects, and none of the recipients of the queries in the other states produced anything comparable. Later published as Notes on the State of Virginia (French edition, 1785; English edition, 1787), Jefferson's only published book includes his most comprehensive and illuminating commentaries on various controversial questions, including the institution of slavery. Although it was designed to promote Virginia's future economic development, the Notes also reflects the republican reformer's misgivings about the progress of the revolution in Virginia.

Jefferson's extended discussion of the state's constitution underscored some of its ‘capital defects’, including the disproportionate power of the legislature, legislative malaportionment, and the weakness of the executive; most critically the constitution itself had not been drafted by a proper constitutional convention, nor ratified by a vote of the people (Jefferson, Notes, 118). An equally long response to Marbois's query on laws includes some of the most fascinating and controversial material in the entire manuscript, most notably the famous treatment of race and slavery. Jefferson juxtaposed the rule of law for white Virginians to the despotic, lawless enslavement of Afro-Virginians, arguing that the only resolution to this unjust state of affairs was to emancipate and expatriate Virginia's slaves and then ‘declare them a free and independant people’. Colonization was necessary because racial co-existence was impossible; emancipation without expatriation would produce ‘convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race’. Differences between the two races were ‘fixed in nature’; black people, Jefferson suspected, were ‘inferior’ in mental capacities (ibid., 138, 143). In his brief account of manners, Jefferson returned to the institution of slavery, this time emphasizing its demoralizing effects on the master class: ‘the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions’ (ibid., 162). Even when Jefferson was not addressing the slavery problem directly, he was obsessed with threats to freedom and equality. In his discussion of manufactures, for instance, he concluded that Virginia should leave its ‘work-shops … in Europe’, so avoiding the kind of servile dependence that advanced manufactures and a degraded working population entailed (ibid., 165).

Although he was an accomplished writer, Jefferson was always reluctant to publish under his own name. This characteristic reticence was reinforced in the case of the Notes by his anxiety that Virginians at home would object to his critical treatment of their constitution and his even more devastating commentary on slavery. His wariness about his countrymen's response (at first he proposed to circulate the Notes only among the presumably enlightened students at William and Mary), suggested that the republican millennium he envisioned might be postponed indefinitely.

Coming at a moment when Jefferson's career radically shifted focus, from the republican reform of Virginia's institutions to the promotion of the new nation's interests and image during his years as a diplomat in Paris, the Notes illuminates Jefferson's hopes and fears for the ultimate outcome of the American War of Independence. This period also constituted a pivotal moment in Jefferson's personal life. Martha Jefferson never recovered from a difficult sixth pregnancy, and her death in September 1782 left her distraught widower to care for three surviving daughters—Martha (1772–1836), Mary (1778–1804), and Lucy (1782–1784). This traumatic loss prepared Jefferson to leave Monticello and return to public life. He was supposed to join the American delegation at the Paris peace talks in 1782, but his departure was postponed when news arrived that negotiations ending the revolution and recognizing American independence had been successfully concluded. While awaiting his diplomatic assignment, Jefferson represented Virginia in congress for a few eventful months (1783–4).

The major problem before the confederation government was the organization and development of the new national domain in the Northwest Territory that came into existence when Virginia ceded its claims to the region in March 1784. Jefferson had already given much thought to the problem of new state formation, including a provision for the creation of new states in his proposed draft of the Virginia state constitution of 1776. As a leading advocate of the long-delayed Virginia cession, he was well prepared to take the lead in drafting the first congressional ordinances for western government and land sales. Jefferson's brief tenure as a congressman gave him a good sense of the weaknesses of a confederation that had no effective controls over fractious member states. This concern deepened over his years in Paris.

American minister to France

Jefferson finally sailed from Boston in July 1784 to take up his new responsibilities as American minister to France, accompanied by daughter Martha (Mary stayed with relatives in Virginia, but joined her father in Paris in 1786). He soon found that America was not in a strong position to negotiate further treaty agreements with France and other European powers that would promote American commercial and political interests. He also found that his predecessor, Benjamin Franklin, who had been lionized by Parisian polite society, would be a very hard act to follow. Jefferson was always somewhat awkward in public settings and, though a master of the written language, he was not a fluent French speaker.

Yet Jefferson's frustrations as a diplomat did not diminish his enjoyment of this period in his life. To the contrary, his official inactivity provided ample scope for the studious Jefferson to pursue his intellectual interests and to cultivate friendships within the great Enlightenment ‘republic of letters’. Distance from his native country gave him new perspectives that would have a profound effect on the rest of his career. The opening phases of the French Revolution, from Jefferson's perspective the ultimate tribute to the revolutionary achievement of the Americans, were particularly exhilarating for him, giving rise to some of his most radical political ideas, including the concept of generational sovereignty, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’, developed in his famous letter of 6 September 1789 to James Madison (Jefferson, Papers, 15.392–8).

During his years in France (1784–9) Jefferson had the leisure to explore Europe and its institutions, observing the inner workings of the ancient regime and clarifying some of his fundamental principles. He was convinced that a great moral and political division separated the Old World from the New. However seductive its attractions might be to Jefferson, he recognized that European civilization exacted enormous human costs: by abolishing despotic rule and the popular ignorance that sustained it, the American War of Independence constituted a great leap forward for mankind.

Jefferson found the opportunity to hold forth on the new nation's moral superiority irresistible. But this did not stop him from savouring the delights of refined and civilized life in the great European metropolis. New scenes and sensations enabled the grieving widower to explore dormant aspects of his own emotional life. His passionate, possibly sexual relationship with the artist Maria Cosway was only one of many close, sentimentally satisfying friendships he made with European women and men. At this time Jefferson also probably initiated a long-term sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings (1773?–1835?), the half-sister of his deceased wife, Martha.

Jefferson was still in Europe while James Madison and his colleagues were crafting a proposal for a stronger federal government in America. Jefferson's cautious responses to the plan, particularly his concern about the omission of a bill of rights, that ‘palladium’ of liberty to which ‘the people are entitled … against every government on earth’, anticipated his subsequent emphasis on strict construction of the constitution as a member of President Washington's cabinet and then as the leader of the anti-administration republican opposition (Jefferson to Madison, 20 Dec 1787, Jefferson, Papers, 12.440). If Jefferson recovered his emotional equilibrium during his protracted European interlude, he also prepared himself for a career of intense partisan political activity by reaffirming and strengthening his most fundamental ideological commitments.

National politician

When Jefferson sailed from France in October 1789, he hoped to attend to personal business in Virginia—most urgently, to sort out his tangled financial affairs—before returning to his post in Paris. But an invitation awaited him from George Washington to join the new president's cabinet as secretary of state. Washington finally succeeded in persuading the reluctant Jefferson to accept his offer in February 1790; Jefferson joined the new government in New York in late March. Jefferson had every reason to believe that he would play a decisive role in the first Washington administration. As secretary of state he would play a key role in formulating the new nation's foreign policy. Because the new government presumably would earn more respect from foreign powers than its predecessor, he would be able to follow through on diplomatic initiatives that had been thwarted during his Paris years. But Jefferson's cabinet colleague treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton had already set the tone for the administration well before Jefferson's arrival. Hamilton's ‘Report on the public credit’ (delivered to congress on 14 January 1790) outlined a bold financial policy for servicing federal and state revolutionary war debts. The need for assuring a steady flow of revenue, primarily through import duties on Anglo-American trade, dictated a conciliatory commercial policy toward Britain, thus severely curtailing the new nation's—and Jefferson's—diplomatic options. Implementation of Hamilton's financial plan, including the establishment of a national bank, depended on an expansive definition of the federal government's powers under the new federal constitution. For the emerging ‘republican’ opposition the resulting ‘consolidation’ of authority threatened to obliterate the state governments and to transform the federal government into an American version of the British imperial regime that the revolution had overthrown. The British character of the new regime, the foreign policy tilt toward Britain, and the dominating presence of Hamilton himself made the non-partisan Jefferson into a party leader in spite of himself.

Jefferson's certainty in the righteousness of his own position was reinforced by contemporary events in Europe, where the expanding conflict between republican France and the counter-revolutionary coalition revealed to Jefferson the identical battle line between progressive and reactionary forces that seemed to be unfolding in America. Jefferson's political principles took on their mature form during the great struggles over foreign policy divisions between Anglophile federalists and Francophile republicans. But Jefferson's affinity for France also led to political embarrassments that tarnished the republican cause, and sustained the federalists in power through the 1790s. The pattern was set when Citizen Edmond Genêt, minister from the French republic, made a sensational tour across the country in 1793, distributing military commissions and rousing popular support for the French cause in defiance of Washington's neutrality proclamation (22 April 1793). Federalists could link republicanism with challenges to legitimate, constituted authority, a charge that would continue to resonate after Jefferson withdrew from the cabinet at the end of 1793, for instance when rebellious western farmers resisted the excise on whisky in 1794 or when the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures challenged the constitutionality of federal laws in 1798.

Jefferson's retirement to Monticello proved to be brief. As the runner-up to John Adams in the 1796 presidential contest, Jefferson became vice-president, finding himself once again in the position of partisan opponent of the administration he ostensibly served. Adams and the federalists prospered as federalist diplomatic successes pre-empted the threat of war with Britain and opened the Mississippi to American commerce, thus fostering a booming economy. Meanwhile, French anger at John Jay's ‘English treaty’ led to a rapid deterioration of Franco-American relations and French depredations on American shipping that led to an undeclared war. During this quasi-war (1798–1800) the republicans' traditional tilt toward France proved to be a tremendous liability. The republican challenge was to sever the French connection and adopt a plausibly neutral stance; then, as Jefferson counselled his allies, republicans should bide their time, waiting for the ‘reign of witches’ to subside as federalist warmongers overplayed their hand (Jefferson to John Taylor of Caroline, 4 June 1798, Jefferson, Writings, ed. Lipscomb and Bergh, 10.46). If the quasi-war ever became full blown, then peace-loving, tax-averse Americans would recover their senses; if the administration launched a sustained assault on its domestic enemies, liberty-loving republicans would remember why they had fought the revolution in the first place.

Jefferson's counsels of patience betrayed mounting desperation; for the time being the republicans could do little more than wait. The recourse to the state legislatures was counter-productive: Kentucky and Virginia would find themselves standing alone if they followed through on their disunionist threats. Yet, in the republicans' darkest hour, federalists were divided over appropriate preparations for war and, finally and fatally, over Adams's ultimately successful peace negotiation with France that led to the convention of 1800. As the threat of war diminished, federalists were hard-pressed to justify the ‘war’ against domestic dissidents that they had launched under the aegis of the Aliens and Sedition Acts of 1798.

President of the United States

Jefferson hailed his elevation to the presidency in the election of 1800 as a return to the revolutionary principles of 1776. His experiences as opposition party leader in the dark days of federalist rule had not taught him to accept the legitimacy of party competition: aristocratic high federalists were, in his mind, clearly hostile to republican self-government. Jefferson's understanding of partisan conflict in the 1790s as a clash of fundamentally opposed philosophies and systems was reinforced by the global struggle between revolutionary republicanism and monarchical reaction that had been initiated by the French Revolution. Rumours that embittered federalists meant to steal the election after Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received the same number of votes in the electoral college (votes for president and vice-president were not distinguished until ratification of the twelfth amendment in 1804) heightened the sense of crisis in the months before Jefferson's inauguration in March 1801. Because of the deadlock the election was thrown into the old house of representatives, controlled by federalists, that had been elected in 1798. A federalist caucus decided to support the more pliable Burr, but could not muster sufficient state votes to resolve the deadlock. Finally, after thirty-six ballots, a few key federalists relented, perhaps recognizing that their defiance of the popular will (republican voters in 1800 believed they were voting for Jefferson) would precipitate a genuine constitutional crisis and jeopardize the survival of the union. Some federalists, including Jefferson's nemesis Alexander Hamilton, were also persuaded that the Virginian would not tamper with the basic structure of the federal regime and that federalist interests would be best served by graceful acquiescence in his election.

In his inaugural address of 4 March 1801 Jefferson asserted that the republicans' ‘federal and republican principles’ would henceforth be the standard of patriotic Americanism, inviting his erstwhile opponents to recant their heresies and join the new national consensus (Jefferson, Writings, ed. Peterson, 493). Jefferson believed that the tide had turned, irrevocably: the new republican administration would not have to resort to the kind of repressive measures that federalists had so eagerly and foolishly embraced in 1798. Confident that the revolution was now secure, Jefferson projected a moderate and conciliatory posture: under the able administration of treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, Hamilton's financial system remained intact, but would no longer serve as the engine of consolidation; internal taxes were repealed and import revenues were used to reduce the national debt (from $83 million to $57 million by 1809). Nor were federalists driven en masse from appointive offices in the federal bureaucracy, though Jefferson was attentive to the needs of republican loyalists in making new appointments. Republican animosity toward the federalist judges led to repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, which had expanded the federal court system, and to controversial efforts to impeach particularly obnoxious incumbents such as John Pickering of New Hampshire (convicted and removed in March 1804) and Samuel Chase of Maryland (acquitted in March 1805). Jefferson's revolution did not result in wholesale purges of political enemies. But federalists learned to play by the new rules of the game, and many, finding Jefferson much less dangerous to the established order than their own campaign rhetoric had led them to fear, were drawn into the republican ranks.

The success of the republicans' ‘revolution of 1800’ was not measured by the violence of its retaliation against the federalists, but by growing majorities in both houses of congress and by Jefferson's landslide re-election in 1804. As the nation grew more republican it expanded in size. The administration's greatest coup, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, doubled the extent of American territory and removed the danger of a destabilizing French presence in the Mississippi valley. When Jefferson delivered his second inaugural address in March 1805, the new nation's prospects could not have been more favourable. Yet the vulnerability of Jefferson's achievement would soon become apparent. American peace and prosperity were dependent on maintaining a neutral position in the Napoleonic wars that were engulfing the Atlantic world. The European war opened up extraordinary new opportunities to American producers and shippers, but it also put them at grave risk: the belligerent powers showed little respect for ‘neutral rights’ when their own vital interests were at stake. Jefferson found that threats of commercial sanctions against the belligerents, culminating in the ill-fated embargo of 1807–9, were ineffective, even counter-productive. By the end of his presidency the possibility of war seemed increasingly strong—with either Britain or France, or both.

Jefferson's problems in his second term were not confined to foreign affairs. American foreign policy had always been inextricably linked to sectional tensions and centrifugal tendencies in the American federal union. Aaron Burr's western ‘conspiracy’ of 1806 illuminates these connections. Jefferson was convinced that his former vice-president was guilty of treason against the United States, but it was by no means clear that Burr contemplated disunion, filibustering into Spanish territory, or a combination of the two, or neither. Jefferson's relentless pursuit of Burr, culminating in the adventurer's trial for treason (he was acquitted), revealed how anxious the president was about the very survival of the union.

Jefferson's old enemies gained a new lease of life as opposition to his foreign and domestic policies grew. Meanwhile republicans were divided, with ‘old republican’ purists aligning themselves against moderates who tilted too much toward federalist heresies. These divisions, which originated late in Jefferson's first term, became more pronounced as republicans looked toward the presidential succession. Insurgent old republicans rallied around James Monroe; moderates around James Madison, Jefferson's secretary of state and heir apparent. Some republicans thought that the only hope for the survival of the party and the union was that Jefferson agree to serve a third term. By 1809, however, the 65-year-old Jefferson, enduring one of the worst phases of his political career, longed to return to private life.


Jefferson never left Virginia after retiring to Monticello, his mountain top home, in March 1809. Although he kept up a far-flung correspondence and took a keen interest in national politics under the administrations of his Virginian allies James Monroe and James Madison (1809–25), Jefferson focused his energies on his home, his ever-expanding family, and his agricultural enterprises. With the vindication of American independence in the Anglo-American War of 1812–14, Jefferson's reputation quickly rebounded from the political and diplomatic set-backs of his second term. Swarms of admiring visitors came to pay homage, driving the Sage of Monticello into periodic exile at his Poplar Forest plantation in Bedford county, 70 miles away.

Popular adulation was undoubtedly gratifying to Jefferson: ambitious young public men sought his counsel, aspiring authors sent their books for his endorsement, and an adoring white family basked in his genial presence. Daughter Martha and her husband, Thomas Mann Randolph, provided Jefferson with twelve grandchildren, eleven still living at his death. Meanwhile, Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemings produced four unrecognized children who lived to maturity: Beverley (b. 1798, d. after 1822), Harriet (b. 1801, d. after 1822), Madison (1805–1877), and Eston (1808–1856). Notwithstanding recurrent physical complaints, these were among Jefferson's happiest years. For the first time since his tenure as American minister in Paris, Jefferson could indulge his many intellectual interests. Rising above partisan conflict, he could take a more dispassionate, philosophical view of the controversial questions that had led to his estrangement from fellow revolutionaries such as John Adams who had betrayed ‘aristocratic’ tendencies. But Jefferson did not lose his intellectual edge in retirement. To the contrary, his reflections on political and constitutional theory offered him the opportunity to reaffirm and deepen his commitment to the fundamental principles that had guided him throughout his career. Jefferson's retrospective view was often distorted and self-serving, but the story he told about the new nation's history and about his own history as a nation-maker was inspiring and influential. Jefferson's prophetic vision, seemingly confirmed by his country's glorious ascent, transformed him into an American icon in his own lifetime.

Yet all was not well in Jefferson's world. Sectional divisions over the spread of slavery in the Missouri controversy (1819–21) presented the most obvious danger, but Jefferson was equally troubled by supreme court decisions such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that pointed toward the consolidation of power in the federal government. Jefferson's dire financial situation, exacerbated by a depression in 1819 that was particularly devastating to overextended staple producers, made him acutely sensitive to threats to the economic interests and political power of his class and region. Jefferson's solicitude for his fellow slave-holders made him increasingly suspicious of the motives of anti-slavery activists whose humanitarian professions masked a great danger, that Virginia and the other slave states would themselves be enslaved by an all-powerful central government. Although he continued to advocate the compensated emancipation and colonization of slaves, Jefferson's hopes for this great panacea were undercut by doubts about the good faith of his fellow Americans. With no prospect for an effective solution to the slavery problem Jefferson did nothing to disentangle himself from the peculiar institution—beyond providing for the freedom of his mixed-race children.

When Jefferson confronted fundamental challenges to the republican legacy of the American War of Independence, he was forced to question the value and purpose of his whole public life. The oscillation between vaulting hopes and bleak moments of despair that characterized his political life thus echoed through his retirement. Yet there was always consolation in the long historical perspective: the sons of the commonwealth educated at Jefferson's new University of Virginia (established in Charlottesville in 1817) would redeem the revolutionary legacy; the rising generation would, somehow, deal with the problem of slavery; and American independence would be an inspiration to oppressed peoples everywhere, ‘arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves’ (Jefferson to Roger Weightman, 24 June 1826, Jefferson, Writings, ed. Lipscomb and Bergh, 16.182).

Jefferson was eighty-three years old when he died at Monticello on 4 July 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. He was buried at Monticello on the following day. At his direction the following epitaph was inscribed on his tombstone: ‘Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia’ (Jefferson, Writings, ed. Peterson, 706).


Jefferson was always concerned with his place in history, and his tombstone inscription correctly identified the sources of his future fame. During the deepening sectional crisis that was prefigured in the Missouri controversy, some northern abolitionists celebrated Jefferson as an early leader in the struggle against slavery, underscoring the progressive implications of his famous statement in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’. As Jefferson's stock rose to the north, southern defenders of slavery tended to dismiss him as a radical egalitarian, echoing charges made by federalist critics in his lifetime. This pattern of celebration and condemnation, driven by contemporaneous political divisions, continued to define Jefferson's reputation throughout American history.

The American Civil War brought the Jefferson image into sharp focus. President Abraham Lincoln invoked Jefferson's moral authority in justifying the federal government's great moral crusade to save the union and ultimately to abolish slavery. At the same time, however, more critical commentators argued that Jefferson's ideas about states' rights, most famously set forth in his Kentucky resolutions (1798), justified the secession of the southern states and were ultimately responsible for the carnage of the war. When the war's wounds finally began to heal in the late nineteenth century (and the nation's commitment to securing the civil rights of former slaves diminished), Jefferson's reputation revived. His hostility to political centralization and his patriotic commitment to his ‘country’, Virginia, made him an increasingly popular figure among libertarian and agrarian conservatives. The ‘liberal’ Jefferson only returned to the fore as twentieth-century reformers made him the patron saint of their struggles for democracy, culminating in Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign to give big government a Jeffersonian gloss in the New Deal.

Jefferson's worldwide reputation reflects his perceived role as a prophet of democracy, but his reputation in the United States has been complicated by the politics of race. In their efforts to rekindle the egalitarian creed of Lincoln and the abolitionists, leaders of the civil rights movement invoked Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence. Opponents of integration responded by emphasizing Jefferson's commitments to slavery and local self-government, mirroring criticism from radicals who stressed the discrepancy between his anti-slavery sentiments and his failure to take significant steps against the institution—or to free more than a handful of his own slaves. In recent years, however, the debate over Jefferson's anti-slavery credentials has lost some of its urgency: with the consolidation of the civil rights revolution, Jefferson has become a less controversial figure.

Responses to the revelations in 1997 of Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemings suggest that in this case the discrepancy between profession—Jefferson always strongly opposed race-mixing—and practice worked to the advantage of his reputation. For Americans who continue to revere Jefferson as a democratic icon the Hemings relationship neutralized the virulent racism of his Notes on … Virginia, revealing a fundamental accord between sexual impulses and natural rights principles.

P. S. Onuf


The papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. J. P. Boyd and others, 27 vols. (1950–) · The writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. A. A. Lipscomb and A. E. Bergh, 20 vols. (1903–4) · The writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. P. L. Ford, 10 vols. (1892–9) · Writings / Thomas Jefferson, ed. M. D. Peterson (1984) · T. Jefferson, Notes on the state of Virginia, ed. W. Peden (1954) · D. Malone, Jefferson and his time, 6 vols. (1948–81) · M. D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the new nation: a biography (1970) · A. Burstein, The inner Jefferson: portrait of a grieving optimist (1995) · J. J. Ellis, American sphinx: the character of Thomas Jefferson (1997) · P. S. Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian legacies (1993) · P. S. Onuf, Jefferson's empire: the language of American nationhood (2000) · J. Fliegelman, Declaring independence: Jefferson, natural language, and the culture of performance (1993) · P. Maier, American scripture: making the Declaration of Independence (1997) · F. McDonald, The presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1976) · A. Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: an American controversy (1997) · A. Helo, ‘Thomas Jefferson's republicanism and the problem of slavery’, PhD diss., Tampere University, 1999 · R. M. S. McDonald, ‘Jefferson and America: episodes in image formation’, PhD diss., University of North Carolina, 1998


BL, letter-book · L. Cong., papers · Mass. Hist. Soc., papers · Missouri Historical Society, St Louis, papers · University of Virginia, Charlottesville, papers |  L. Cong., James Madison papers · L. Cong., James Monroe papers


R. Peale, portrait, 1800, White House, Washington, DC [see illus.] · portraits, Charlottesville, Virginia; repro. in A. L. Bush, The life portraits of Thomas Jefferson, new edn (1987)

Wealth at death  

$112,500 assets; $107,273.63 in debts (not finally settled until 1878): will, Writings, ed. Ford, vol. 10, pp. 392–6; Malone, Jefferson, vol. 6, pp. 511–12