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President Thomas Jefferson

Updated on January 6, 2017

Thomas Jefferson, (1743-1826), 3rd President of the USA, born at Goochland, Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of a planter, educated at William and Mary College. He became a lawyer. A gifted speaker, he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775 and became famous as the writer of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted with only a few slight changes. He was made governor of Virginia in 1779, and narrowly escaped capture by Tarleton. He succeeded Benjamin Franklin as the American envoy to France and later when Washington became president of the USA he made Jefferson secretary of state. It was largely owing to Jefferson that the capital of the USA was established on the banks of the Potomac River, in what is now the city of Washington and he himself was afterwards the first president inaugurated there.

In 1796 Hamilton was the natural leader of the Federalist party, but John Adams was nominated for the presidency and Jefferson, as the leader of the Democratic Republicans, ran against him. Adams was elected president, and Jefferson vice-president. In 1800 Jefferson once more ran for the presidency with Aaron Burr as his party's candidate for vice-president, Jefferson's party won, but both Jefferson and Burr had received an equal vote. Jefferson, however, was chosen by the House of Representatives on the advice of his old antagonist Hamilton. In 1804 Jefferson was re-elected by an overwhelming majority. The greatest and most far-reaching act of his presidency was the Louisiana purchase, whereby the USA secured a vast territory west of the Mississippi River, some 7,042,980 km in extent. This purchase completely changed the future history of the USA. It paved the way for continental expansion and made the Mississippi entirely an American-owned river. During Jefferson's term also the USA sent an expedition against the Tripoli pirates and stopped their raids, considerably reduced the national debt, and issued the famous embargo act prohibiting the sailing of American vessels for foreign ports while the British and French navies were chasing each other on the high seas.

Jefferson was a statesman of compromises; for Jefferson the philosopher, in the 18th-century sense, was rather a different man from Jefferson as manager of his own large properties and as office-holder. Thus, while he hated slavery and tried to suppress the traffic he remained the owner of 200 blacks; he was always suspicious of bankers, yet he turned to London for the funds needed for the Louisiana purchase; and he hated political chicanery, yet he must have been aware that a bargain was being struck between his supporters and those of Alexander Hamilton to obtain his election as president. Nevertheless Jefferson's positive and outstanding achievements were very great: in his own state of Virginia, the termination of feudal land tenure, separation of Church and state, the foundation of a programme of free education; in the USA, the public land system, the Bill of Rights, and the Louisiana Purchase - besides contributions to the theory of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal constitution.

Jefferson retired to his home, Monticello, in Virginia, which he had designed and built in 1796-1809. He also designed the new University of Virginia at Charlottesville, opened in 1825; and the Capitol at Richmond, Virginia, 1785-1809. Outside politics, Jefferson was an outstanding patron of the arts and a distinguished 'amateur' architect. He, who had held so many high offices, wrote this epitaph for his tomb: 'Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia'.

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