THOMAS JEFFERSON | 1801-1809
In the thick of party conflict in 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “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 On April 13, 1743 in Albermarle County, Virginia. He studied at the College of William and Mary, then read law. In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton and brought her to his partly constructed mountaintop home, Monticello.
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. At 33, he drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to France in 1785. When Jefferson became secretary of state in President Washington’s Cabinet, his sympathy for the French Revolution led him into conflict with Alexander Hamilton. He resigned in 1793. Sharp political conflict developed and two separate parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, began to form. Jefferson assumed leadership of the Republicans, who empathized with the French cause. Attacking Federalist policies, he opposed strong centralized government and championed the rights of states.
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. When Jefferson assumed the Presidency, the crises in France had passed. He slashed army and navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated the tax on whiskey, yet reduced the national debt by a third. Further, although the Constitution made no provision for the acquisition of new land, Jefferson suppressed his qualms over constitutionality and acquired 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 universe.” He died on July 4, 1826.