Thomas Jefferson was one of the founding fathers of American democracy. His actions and ideas helped create a new nation and give it direction. Over the course of his long life, he was instrumental in encouraging the Unites States to declare independence, in helping the young country gain recognition on the international scene, and in giving shape to the American political system. In the process, he articulated a vision of America and its place in the world that remains influential to this day.
Born into a wealthy Virginia family, Jefferson appeared destined to the conventional life of an aristocratic gentleman. But when the British parliament challenged colonial rights to self-government, Jefferson took a stand against what he saw as British tyranny in the name of freedom and equality. Driven by historical accident as much as personal conviction, he assumed increasingly prominent roles as an advocate of the new nation, serving as a congressman, a governor, an ambassador, and finally as the first secretary of state. When, in the 1780s, he discovered the new nation's leadership following an ideology he judged antithetical to the "Spirit of 1776," Jefferson dedicated the next twenty years of his life to overthrowing it, founding a party and winning the presidency along the way. He retired from politics in 1809 to resume the patrician life he might otherwise have led at his beloved Virginia plantation. Always attuned to the power of ideas, Jefferson dedicated the last years of his life to founding a new university to train the next generation of self-governing citizens. He died fifty years to the day after the publication of his Declaration of Independence, leaving behind a pile of debts, a mound of contradictions, and a mountainous legacy whose long shadow we can still see.