Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, Virginia. His father Peter Jefferson was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother Jane Randolph a member of one of Virginia's most distinguished families. Having inherited a considerable landed estate from his father, Jefferson began building Monticello when he was twenty-six years old. Three years later, he married Martha Wayles Skelton, with whom he lived happily for ten years until her death. Their marriage produced six children, but only two survived to adulthood. Jefferson, who never remarried, maintained Monticello as his home throughout his life, always expanding and changing the house.
Thomas Jefferson was educated from ages 9-14 by a clergyman named William Douglas from whom he learned Greek, Latin, and French. He then attended Reverend James Maury's School before attending the College of William and Mary. He studied law with George Wythe, the first American law professor. He was admitted to the bar in 1767.
Jefferson inherited slaves from both his father and father-in-law. In a typical year, he owned about 200, almost half of them under the age of sixteen. About eighty of these lived at Monticello; the others lived on adjacent Albemarle County plantations, and on his Poplar Forest estate in Bedford County, Virginia. Jefferson freed two slaves in his lifetime and five in his will and chose not to pursue two others who ran away. All were members of the Hemings family; the seven he eventually freed were skilled tradesmen.
Jefferson practiced law and served in local government as a magistrate, county lieutenant, and member of the House of Burgesses in his early professional life. As a member of the Continental Congress, he was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, which has been regarded ever since as a charter of American and universal liberties. The document proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that the government is the servant, not the master, of the people.
After Jefferson left Congress in 1776, he returned to Virginia and served in the legislature. Elected governor from 1779 to 1781, he suffered an inquiry into his conduct during his last year in office that, although finally fully repudiated, left him with a life-long disdain of criticism.
In 1784, Jefferson agreed to replace Franklin as American minister to France. During his five-year sojourn in Paris, Jefferson accomplished very little in any official sense. Several intractable conditions rendered his best diplomatic efforts futile: the United States was heavily in debt owing to the recent war, so few European nations were interested in signing treaties of amity and commerce with the infant American republic; the federal government created under the Articles of Confederation was notoriously weak, so clear foreign policy directives proved impossible; Great Britain already enjoyed a monopoly, controlling more than 80 percent of America's foreign trade, so it had no incentive to negotiate commercial treaties on less favorable terms; and France was drifting toward a cataclysmic political crisis of its own, so relations with the upstart new nation across the Atlantic were hardly a high priority. As a result, Jefferson's diplomatic overtures to establish a market for American tobacco and to reopen French ports to whale oil produced meager results, his efforts to create an alliance of American and European powers to contest the terrorism of the Barbary pirates proved stillborn, and his vision of open markets for all nations, a world without tariffs, seemed excessively visionary.
Even before his departure from France, Jefferson had overseen the publication of Notes on the State of Virginia. This book, the only one Jefferson ever published, was part travel guide, part scientific treatise, and part philosophical meditation. Jefferson had written it in the fall of 1781 and had agreed to a French edition only after learning that an unauthorized version was already in press. Notes contained an extensive discussion of slavery, including a graphic description of its horrific effects on both blacks and whites, a strong assertion that it violated the principles on which the American Revolution was based, and an apocalyptic prediction that failure to end slavery would lead to “convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.” It also contained the most explicit assessment that Jefferson ever wrote of what he believed were the biological differences between blacks and whites, an assessment that exposed the deep-rooted racism that he, like most Americans and almost all Virginians of his day, harbored throughout his life.
In 1790 Thomas Jefferson accepted the post of secretary of state under his friend George Washington. His tenure was marked by his opposition to the pro-British policies of Alexander Hamilton. In 1796, as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Republicans, he became vice-president after losing to John Adams by three electoral votes.
Four years later, he defeated Adams and became president, the first peaceful transfer of authority from one party to another in the history of the young nation. Perhaps the most notable achievements of his first term were the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and his support of the Lewis and Clark expedition. His second term, a time when he encountered more difficulties on both the domestic and foreign fronts, is most remembered for his efforts to maintain neutrality in the midst of the conflict between Britain and France; his efforts did not avert war with Britain in 1812.
Jefferson was succeeded as president in 1809 by his friend James Madison, and during the last seventeen years of his life, he remained at Monticello. During this period, he sold his collection of books to the government to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Jefferson embarked on his last great public service at the age of seventy-six, with the founding of the University of Virginia. He spearheaded the legislative campaign for its charter, secured its location, designed its buildings, planned its curriculum, and served as the first rector.