Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

Third U.S. President, Author of the Declaration of Independence, Founding Father

Born in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson would later build Monticello, Italian for “little mountain,” one of the most famous houses in the world. Architect, writer, musician, farmer, and inveterate gadgeteer, he called his estate a “workshop in the clouds.” Though he always professed his reluctance to leave it, much of his life was spent far from home. A reforming member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Jefferson was elected to the Second Continental Congress and was the principal draftsman of the Declaration of Independence. He served as governor of Virginia during the American Revolution, and later succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to France. Upon his return to the United States in 1789, he learned of his appointment by President George Washington as the first secretary of state. He resigned as secretary in 1793, having battled Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton over the future direction of the country, and began to organize America’s first opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans. In 1796 he was elected vice president, and in 1800 he defeated the incumbent John Adams to become the third president of the United States. During his first term he doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase and organized the famed western expedition by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. His second term was darkened by war in Europe and the intrigues of his first vice president, Aaron Burr. But he succeeded in his goals of reducing the size and power of the federal government and eliminating the monarchical trappings that he thought marked the administrations of Washington and Adams. Jefferson left the White House in 1809 and returned to Monticello for a long and productive retirement, during which he founded the University of Virginia within sight of his beloved mountaintop. But this foremost champion of liberty presided over a community of enslaved people, and his final years were clouded by debt. His legacy is tarnished by his ownership of human beings, but his writings have inspired freedom fighters around the world.