3. THOMAS JEFFERSON 1801-1809
In the thick of party conflict in 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote
in a private letter, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal
hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
This powerful advocate of liberty was born in 1743 in
Albemarle County, Virginia, inheriting from his father, a
planter and surveyor, some 5,000 acres of land, and from his
mother, a Randolph, high social standing. He studied at the
College of William and Mary, then read law. In 1772 he married
Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow, and took her to live in his
partly constructed mountaintop home, Monticello.
Freckled and sandy-haired, rather tall and awkward, Jefferson
was eloquent as a correspondent, but he was no public speaker.
In the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress,
he contributed his pen rather than his voice to the patriot
cause. As the "silent member" of the Congress, Jefferson, at 33,
drafted the Declaration of Independence. In years following he
labored to make its words a reality in Virginia. Most notably,
he wrote a bill establishing religious freedom, enacted in 1786.
Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to France
in 1785. His sympathy for the French Revolution led him into
conflict with Alexander Hamilton when Jefferson was Secretary of
State in President Washington's Cabinet. He resigned in 1793.
Sharp political conflict developed, and two separate parties,
the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, began to form.
Jefferson gradually assumed leadership of the Republicans, who
sympathized with the revolutionary cause in France. Attacking
Federalist policies, he opposed a strong centralized Government
and championed the rights of states.
As a reluctant candidate for President in 1796, Jefferson
came within three votes of election. Through a flaw in the
Constitution, he became Vice President, although an opponent of
President Adams. In 1800 the defect caused a more serious
problem. Republican electors, attempting to name both a
President and a Vice President from their own party, cast a tie
vote between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The House of
Representatives settled the tie. Hamilton, disliking both
Jefferson and Burr, nevertheless urged Jefferson's election.
When Jefferson assumed the Presidency, the crisis in France
had passed. He slashed Army and Navy expenditures, cut the
budget, eliminated the tax on whiskey so unpopular in the West,
yet reduced the national debt by a third. He also sent a naval
squadron to fight the Barbary pirates, who were harassing
American commerce in the Mediterranean. Further, although the
Constitution made no provision for the acquisition of new land,
Jefferson suppressed his qualms over constitutionality when he
had the opportunity to acquire the Louisiana Territory from
Napoleon in 1803.
During Jefferson's second term, he was increasingly
preoccupied with keeping the Nation from involvement in the
Napoleonic wars, though both England and France interfered with
the neutral rights of American merchantmen. Jefferson's
attempted solution, an embargo upon American shipping, worked
badly and was unpopular.
Jefferson retired to Monticello to ponder such projects as
his grand designs for the University of Virginia. A French
nobleman observed that he had placed his house and his mind "on
an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the
He died on July 4, 1826.