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Thomas Jefferson: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

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Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Library of Congress

Life span: Born: April 13, 1743, Albemarle County, Virginia Died: July 4, 1826, at his home, Monticello, in Virginia.

Jefferson was 83 at the time of his death, which occurred on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which he had written. In an eerie coincidence, John Adams, another Founding Father and early president, died on the same day.

Presidential terms: March 4, 1801 - March 4, 1809

Accomplishments: Perhaps Jefferson's greatest accomplishment was the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, decades before he became president.

Jefferson's greatest accomplishment as president was probably the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. It was controversial at the time, as it was unclear if Jefferson had the authority to buy the enormous tract of land from France. And, there was also a question of whether the land, much of it still unexplored, was worth the $15 million Jefferson paid.

As the Louisiana Purchase doubled the territory of the United States, and has been viewed as a very shrewd move, Jefferson's role in the purchase is considered a great triumph.

Jefferson, though he did not believe in a permanent military, dispatched the young U.S. Navy to fight the Barbary Pirates. And he had to contend with a number of problems related to Britain, which harassed American ships and engaged in the impressment of American sailors.

His response to Britain, the Embargo Act of 1807, was generally thought to be a failure which only postponed the War of 1812.

Supported by: Jefferson's political party was known as the Democratic-Republicans, and his supporters tended to believe in a limited federal government.

Jefferson's political philosophy was influenced by the French Revolution. He preferred a small national government and a limited presidency.

Opposed by: Though he served as the vice president during the presidency of John Adams, Jefferson came to oppose Adams. Believing that Adams was accumulating too much power in the presidency, Jefferson decided to run for the office in 1800 to deny Adams a second term.

Jefferson was also opposed by Alexander Hamilton, who believed in a stronger federal government. Hamilton was also aligned with northern banking interests, while Jefferson aligned himself with southern agricultural interests.

Presidential campaigns: When Jefferson ran for president in the election of 1800 he received the same number of electoral votes as his running mate, Aaron Burr (the incumbent, John Adams, came in third). The election had to be decided in the House of Representatives, and the Constitution was later amended to avoid that scenario from ever being repeated.

In 1804 Jefferson ran again, and easily won a second term.

Spouse and family: Jefferson married Martha Waynes Skelton on January 1, 1772. They had seven children, but only two daughters lived to adulthood.

Martha Jefferson died on September 6, 1782, and Jefferson never remarried. However, there is evidence that he was intimately involved with Sally Hemings, a slave who was the half-sister of his wife. Scientific evidence indicates that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings.

Education: Jefferson was born into a family living on a Virginia farm of 5,000 acres, and, coming from a privileged background, he entered the prestigious College of William and Mary at the age of 17. He was very interested in scientific subjects and would remain so for the rest of his life.

However, as there was no realistic opportunity for a scientific career in the Virginia society in which he lived, he gravitated to the study of law and philosophy.

Early career: Jefferson became a lawyer and entered the bar at the age of 24. He had a legal practice for a time, but abandoned it when the movement toward independence of the colonies became his focus.

Later career: After serving as president Jefferson retired to his plantation in Virginia, Monticello. He kept a busy schedule of reading, writing, inventing, and farming. He often faced very serious financial problems, but still lived a comfortable life.

Unusual facts: Jefferson's great contradiction is that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, declaring that "all men are created equal." Yet he also owned slaves.

Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C., and he began the tradition of inaugurations being held at the U.S. Capitol. To make a point about democratic principles and being a man of the people, Jefferson chose not to ride in a fancy carriage to the ceremony. He walked to the Capitol (some accounts say he rode his own horse).

Jefferson's first inaugural address was considered one of the best of the 19th century. After four years in office, he gave an angry and bitter inaugural address considered one of the worst of the century.

While living in the White House he was known to keep gardening tools in his office, so he could step out and tend the garden he kept on what is now the mansion's south lawn.

Death and funeral: Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, and was buried in the graveyard at Monticello on the following day. There was a very simple ceremony.

Legacy: Thomas Jefferson is considered one of the great Founding Fathers of the United States, and he would have been a notable figure in American history even if he had not been president.

His most important legacy would be the Declaration of Independence, and his most enduring contribution as president would be the Louisiana Purchase.

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