Life & Contributions

Thomas Jefferson gave a lifetime of service to the nation — delegate from Virginia, minister to France, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, third president. The influence of his thought on American principles of government has never ceased.

Born to the planter class in Virginia, Jefferson studied law at the College of William and Mary. Early on, he was active in the movement for independence, arguing in the House of Burgesses for the rights of the colonists. Elected from Virginia to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he was just 33 when asked to draft a Declaration of Independence. Though it was amended by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson’s affirmation that “all men are created equal” and that the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “unalienable” have ever after been the measure of American democracy.

Sent to France as minister, Jefferson negotiated a commercial treaty with Prussia and a consular convention with France. While in Paris, he also absorbed ideas about classical architecture and diplomatic customs of hospitality, introducing French wines and ice cream to America when he returned. He was then, in succession, secretary of state and president. He remained partial to France, creating tensions within Washington’s cabinet as France and Great Britain went to war. When he was president, Jefferson tried to remain neutral, even as both sides were attacking American shipping. Though proud of having doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase, he was glad to leave Washington and politics behind and return to his beloved home, Monticello.

Monticello, high above Charlottesville, Virginia, was of his own design. Jefferson had long been interested in architecture, suggesting improvements for the White House and the Capitol while in office. At Monticello, he created a classical setting that suited his interests. He displayed scientific specimens in the entrance hall and portraits of the Founders throughout the house. In his old age Jefferson read books and welcomed guests and old friends—James Madison, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette, whom he had known so long ago, when they were young revolutionaries, their ideas about the rights of man about to reshape the world.

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