Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is remembered in history not only for the
offices he held, but also for his belief in the natural rights of man
as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and his faith in the
people’s ability to govern themselves. He left an impact on his times
equaled by few others in American history. Born on April 13, 1743,
Jefferson was the third child in the family and grew up with six
sisters and one brother. Though he opposed slavery, his family
had owned slaves. From his father and his environment he developed an
interest in botany, geology, cartography, and North American
exploration, and from his childhood teacher developed a love for Greek
and Latin. In 1760, at the age of 16, Jefferson entered the College of
William and Mary and studied under William Small and George Wythe.
Through Small, he got his first views of the expansion of science and
of the system of things in which we are placed. Through Small and
Wythe, Jefferson became acquainted with Governor Francis Fauquier.
After finishing college in 1762, Jefferson studied law with Wythe and
noticed growing tension between America and Great Britain.
Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767. He successfully practiced
law until public service occupied most of his time. At his home in
Shadwell, he designed and supervised the building of his home,
Monticello, on a nearby hill. He was elected to the Virginia House of
Burgesses in 1769. Jefferson met Martha Wayles Skelton, a wealthy
widow of 23, in 1770 and married her in 1772. They settled in
Monticello and had one son and five daughters. Only two of his
children, Martha and Mary, survived until maturity. Mrs. Martha
Jefferson died in 1782, leaving Thomas to take care of his two
remaining children.
Though not very articulate, Jefferson proved to be an able
writer of laws and resolutions he was very concise and straight to the
point. Jefferson soon became a member in a group which opposed and
took action in the disputes between Britain and the colonies.
Together with other patriots, the group met in the Apollo Room of
Williamsburg’s famous Raleigh Tavern in 1769 and formed a
nonimportation agreement against Britain, vowing not to pay import
duties imposed by the Townshend Acts. After a period of calmness,
problems faced the colonists again, forcing Jefferson to organize
another nonimportation agreement and calling the colonies together to
protest. He was chosen to represent Albermarle County at the First
Virginia Convention, where delegates were elected to the First
Continental Congress. He became ill and was unable to attend the
meeting, but forwarded a message arguing that the British Parliament
had no control over the colonies. He also mentioned the Saxons who
had settled in England hundred of years before from Germany and how
Parliament had no more right to govern the colonies than the Germans
had to govern the English. Most Virginians saw this as too extreme,
though. His views were printed in a pamphlet called A Summary of the
Rights of British America (1774). Jefferson attended the Second
Virginia Convention in 1775 and was chosen as one of the delegates to
the Second Continental Congress, but before he left for Philadelphia,
he was asked by the Virginia Assembly to reply to Lord North’s message
of peace, proposing that Parliament would not try to tax the
settlers if they would tax themselves. Jefferson’s "Reply to Lord
North" was more moderate that the Summary View. Instead of agreeing
with Lord North, Jefferson insisted that a government had been set up
for the Americans and not for the British.
The Declaration of Independence was primarily written by
Jefferson in June 1776. Congress felt that the Declaration was too
strong and gave Dickinson the responsibility of redrafting the
document, but the new version included much of Jefferson’s original
text and ideas. In 1779, Jefferson became governor of Virginia,
guiding Virginians through the final years of the Revolutionary War.
As a member of the Second Continental Congress, he drafted a plan for
decimal coinage and composed an ordinance for the Northwest Territory
that formed the foundation for the Ordinance of 1787. In 1785, he
became minister to France. Appointed secretary of state in President
Washington’s Cabinet in 1790, Jefferson defended local interests