A lawyer by profession, Thomas Jefferson drafted the American Declaration of Independence. His biggest fait accompli was skilfully negotiating with France to purchase the state of Louisiana in 1803, which nearly doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson was also an inventor, and he is credited with helping to define the duties and regulations of the United States Patent Office.
Name: Thomas Jefferson
Birth Date: April 1743 – July 1826
Job Functions: President, Lawyer, Inventor
Fields: Politics and Law
Known For: Drafting the Declaration of Independence and Third President of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson, first secretary of state, the second vice-president, and the third president of the United States was born in Shadwell, Virginia in 1743. His early schooling included: Latin, Greek, French, and mathematics, from the Reverend William Douglas, and later from the Reverend James Maury. In March 1760, when Jefferson was 17 years old, he entered the school of philosophy at the College of William and Mary where he continued his studies in mathematics and other sciences.
In 1762, Jefferson left the College of William and Mary to study law at Wythe’s law office at Williamsburg for the next five years. Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767 and established a successful law practice.
Jefferson’s public career started in 1769, serving as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses, America’s first elected body of government, while he was still practicing law. The American Revolution which took place from 1775 to 1783 forced him to abandon his practice in 1774. An eloquent spokesman, in 1774, Jefferson argued that Americans had the natural rights to govern themselves in the famed document, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. His political thought underpinned the movement toward American freedoms.
After the American Revolution started in June 1775, Jefferson took his seat in the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which brought together the country’s leading political figures of the day. As a legal writer, and legislative draftsman, Congress named him to a committee with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman to draft a declaration of independence. His colleagues on the committee tasked Jefferson with preparing the paper. Though John Adams, Benjamin Franklin made slight changes, Congress deleted an entire section that denounced the slave trade and blamed the King of England for continuing it. Many members of congress owned and traded slaves. The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, and it is essentially Jefferson’s.
The Declaration of Independence outlined the arguments justifying the position of the American Revolutionaries and also affirmed the rights of the colonists to dissolve the “political bands” with the British government. A key sentence from the document, which is often quoted:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
In June 1779, Jefferson became the Governor of Virginia as the Revolutionary War entered a new phase when the British decided to attack the South. Early 1781, the British invaded Virginia, and Jefferson was criticized and blamed for the state’s lack of resistance, so he quit public service. Not having access to his farm and books, and the death of his wife in September 1782 had plunged him into deep despair. November of that year, Congress appointed him to a peace commission in Paris, but he ended up in Congress instead.
From November 1783 to May 1784, Jefferson drafted the first regulation of government for the western territory to create free and equal states out of the wilderness. He was also instrumental in creating foreign policy. Trade was important to America, and in 1784, Jefferson was appointed to a three-man commission along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate trade treaties with European countries. When Franklin retired, Jefferson replaced him as a representative to France, where he spent the next five years in Europe.
While Jefferson was minister to France, he consulted with European scientists on new inventions, and he also “observed the state of the sciences and new advances in technology, noting agricultural and mechanical innovations and labor-saving devices, all of which he reported to correspondents in America and a number of which he adapted for his own use at Monticello…. He reported to James Madison the new “phosphoretic matches,” the invention of the Argand lamp, and various applications of steam power that had come to his attention. He envisaged steam not as the means to achieve an industrial revolution but rather as a supplementary source of power…. The type of plough used by French peasants led Jefferson to design an improved moldboard, which he subsequently had constructed and tested successfully at Monticello.”
Jefferson also acted as mentor to French politicians Marquis de Lafayette, and Victor de Riquetti, marquis de Mirabeau. And in 1789, he was an informal adviser to the drafting of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.
When Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789, President George Washington appointed him secretary of state, a position in which most of the times in the next three years he unsuccessfully negotiated with European powers. During his time as secretary of state, Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury became involved in a conflict. Hamilton was a Federalist, who favoured the interests of business, and the upper class, while Jefferson favoured agricultural interests. Hamilton emerged the winner in the conflict and Jefferson and his party formed a group known as the Republicans, which evolved into today’s Democratic Party. The dispute between Hamilton and Jefferson was the Bank of the United States, which Hamilton approved of, but Jefferson felt was unconstitutional.
Jefferson gave up his secretary of state position at the end of 1793 and once again quit public life, but in 1796 the Republicans made him their presidential candidate against John Adams. Adams won by a small margin and became President of the United States and Jefferson Vice President. The Republicans doubled their efforts in the next presidential campaign in 1800, which was an extremely bitter one. Jefferson and Aaron Burr ended in a tie, and Alexander Hamilton who despised Burr more than he did Jefferson, lobbied the Federalists in the House to elect Jefferson. Jefferson became the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801 in the new national capital, Washington D.C. When Jefferson was sworn in, he appealed for harmony among all political parties.
Jefferson worked with congress to restore freedom of the press, scaled down the army and navy, ended all internal taxation, and began paying off the national debt. He reformed the economic plans of government by reducing their means of power, and sought to further peace, individual freedoms and to help to solidify the American way of life.
He had many shining moments in his life, but Jefferson’s greatest triumph came in foreign affairs when he successfully negotiated the purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803 for approximately $15 million, nearly doubling the size of the United States. Jefferson was easily re-elected in 1804, but soon encountered trouble both at home and abroad. There was disharmony within the Republican Party and Jefferson had to fight hard to maintain control of Congress.
Jefferson encountered problems of attacks on independent US ships by England and France, which were engaged in war. Tension between American and France reached boiling point, and Jefferson avoided war when Congress passed the Nonimportation Act of 1806, forbidding the importation of British goods, and the Embargo Act in December 1807. The embargo met with some success but was extremely expensive and detrimental to the US trade. Near to the end of Jefferson’s second term as president, Congress reversed the embargo. At the end of his term, Jefferson retired to his estate, Monticello.
Jefferson served as the president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1815. During his retirement, he corresponded with many, and repaired his relationship with John Adams. He also helped to found the University of Virginia in 1819. He died at Monticello, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and a few hours before John Adams. Months before his death, Jefferson wrote his epitaph, which read:
“Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
Tidbits About Thomas Jefferson
- From 1790-93, Thomas Jefferson served as examiner of patents. He is credited with helping to define the duties and regulations of the U.S. Patent Office. He refused to patent his inventions because he believed that the availability of patents and free sharing on knowledge would spur inventions, and also create prosperity for all.
- Throughout his life, Jefferson conducted scientific studies and collected data:
- Studied new methods for determining the heights of mountains, tested atmospheric moisture with a hygrometer, and used double-refraction optical instruments to measure small angles, eclipses, lunar movement, and Earth’s longitude.
- Recorded the appearance of many plants, animals, and birds on his Monticello estate and wherever his travels took him.
- Kept weather data all his life and shared it with other meteorological observers around the country.
- Invented a swivel chair, a writing desk that could be placed on one’s lap, a walking cane that converted to a chair, and a copying machine that duplicated letters as they were being written.
- Supported other inventions, including the hot-air balloon, dry docks for ships, the submarine, fireproofing for houses, telescopes, the camera obscura, carriage odometers, and personal pedometers.
- While Jefferson was president he conducted botanical expeditions around the Washington, DC, area and distributed European seeds to the local vegetable markets.
- Though he declared that he was a friend of Native Americans, Jefferson ran them off their land as fast as any president before or since. He wrote about the evils of African American slavery, but did nothing effectual to limit its growth after 1800, let alone to begin its abolition.
- In 1998 a DNA analysis of evidence from descendants of Eston Hemings and descendants of Jefferson’s uncle Field Jefferson, found a match indicating that a male member of Jefferson’s family was the father of Eston Hemings.
- “By 1814 when the British burned the nation’s Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. Congress purchased Jefferson’s library for $23,950 in 1815. A second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851, destroyed nearly two thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.”
Thomas Jefferson’s Steps to Success
- Had a solid education.
- Great orator and prolific writer who drafted many important documents including the Declaration of Independence.
- Held many positions which prepared him for the US presidency.
- Investigated every branch of science, from botany to biology, meteorology, archaeology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, mathematics, paleontology, and ethnology. This helped him to appreciate technological innovations and inventions.
- Dedicated himself to improving education in Virginia, advocating a statewide system based on a proposal that he had initiated many years earlier.
- Worked to create the University of Virginia, which was finally chartered in 1819, and opened in 1825. Jefferson helped to define the university.
- Designed the curriculum at the new University of Virginia (1819) to revolve around a core of natural philosophy (science), including physics, engineering, and mineralogy, when most American colleges still focused exclusively on the liberal arts and divinity.
Why Thomas Jefferson’s Contribution Matters
- He was the third president of the US.
- Drafted the Declaration of Independence.
- Initiated measures for establishing a decimal system for a standard coinage, and a system of weights and measures.
- Instrumental in developing a system for granting patents.
Lessons from Thomas Jefferson
- Developed a solid foundation which he built on.
- Used the skills he was good at to become successful.
- Free thinker, which allowed him to deviate when he was designing the curriculum for the University of Virginia.
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President Thomas Jefferson Biography
Book links are affiliate links.
Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography
UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography
Science and Its Times, Volume 4
West’s Encyclopedia of American Law
Encyclopedia of Science, Technology and Ethics
Encyclopedia of the New American Nation
International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences