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.
Thomas Jefferson modeled his handwriting on the neat penmanship of his legal mentor, George Wythe. Like Wythe, Jefferson did not use any capital letters.
Jefferson was a very musical fellow. Not only was he a fantastic violinist, but he also loved to sing. In fact, Jefferson would sing or hum to himself under his breath all the time. He was, almost literally, never without a tune on his lips.
Jefferson's violin playing came to an end in 1786, when he broke his wrist trying to impress the young, beautiful, married Maria Cosway. She was a notorious heartbreaker with whom Jefferson became hopelessly infatuated. Although his heart eventually healed, his wrist never fully recovered.
Jefferson had no tolerance for ceremony. While president, he would receive foreign dignitaries, who would come to meet him dressed in full diplomatic regalia, with plumed hats and swords, while wearing nothing but work-clothes and slippers.
While in France, Jefferson developed a taste for exorbitantly expensive fine wines. He never broke the habit. The wine bill for his first term as president ran to roughly $10,000 (or nearly $190,000 in today's dollars!).
Although Jefferson was awfully proud of the University of Virginia's students, some of their behaviors irked him. After dark, early UVA students would run around the campus, making loud noises, cursing, and firing revolvers. Jefferson didn't really know what to make of these "Calathumps," but they made him mad, forcing the students to start wearing masks to avoid expulsion.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day: 4 July 1826, exactly fifty years after the publication of the Declaration of Independence. Famously, Adams' last words were either "Thomas Jefferson survives" or "Thomas Jefferson still lives." Either way, Adams was wrong: Jefferson beat Adams to the hereafter by about five hours. Some Virginians thought Adams's reported death was one last "d--n'd Yankee trick" to steal the spotlight from Jefferson.
Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time (1948-1982)
This is the closest we may ever get to a definitive biography of Thomas Jefferson. Written by one of the greatest Jefferson scholars of all time, this six-volume, Pulitzer prize-winning monument of a book took Malone the better part of his adult life to finish. It's a beautiful read too. Probably not the biography to read straight through, but if you're writing a paper, and you need to know something in detail about Jefferson's life, Malone is your go-to guy. Your town's library probably has a copy.
Merrill Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1986)
Generally acknowledged to be the best one-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. Peterson, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation professor of history, emeritus at UVA, is probably the greatest living scholar of Thomas Jefferson. His book is the product of a lifetime of study. It's another whopper though, clocking in at just over 1100 pages.
Robert Bernstein, Thomas Jefferson (2003)
A short, clear, readable, and reasonably complete one-volume biography by a respected constitutional historian. If you're going to read one biography of Thomas Jefferson, this is the biography to read.
Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx (1998)
American Sphinx is a wonderful and strange book. Instead of trying to tell the story of Jefferson's life, American Sphinx tries to figure out what Jefferson was thinking and feeling. Its overwhelming problem is that of understanding Jefferson. As a result, it doesn't cover his whole life in much detail, but zooms in on a handful of events and uses them to pick apart Jefferson's psyche. It won the National Book Award, which is a pretty big deal. Really readable, and comparatively short too. If you're only going to read one biography, read Bernstein or Peterson's book. But if you're going to read two, you should consider checking this one out.
Adrienne Koch, Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration (1951)
Scholars have point out that from the time of their first meeting in the Virginia legislature until Jefferson's death in 1826, Jefferson and Madison were so close it was often difficult to figure out where one's thought started and the other's ended. Jefferson dreamed of getting Madison to move near his house at Monticello; Madison succeeded Jefferson as Secretary of State, President of the United States, and even Rector of the University of Virginia. Koch's study of the pair's collaboration, though old, is still a standard work.
Peter Onuf, Jeffersonian Legacies (1993)
This book, an edited collection of papers delivered at a conference about Thomas Jefferson, marked the point Jefferson scholarship took the tack it's still on. If you want to get a sense for the field—the questions scholars are asking about Jefferson, and why they're asking them—this book is a great place to start.
An early sketch for Monticello
A picture of Monticello from the air
The classic shot of Monticello
Reverse view of Jefferson's famous manor at Monticello.
Jefferson's portrait by Charles Peale in 1791
Jefferson the President, Term I
Jefferson's portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1800
Jefferson the President, Term II
Jefferson's portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1805
The Declaration of Independence
John Trubmull's famous painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence.
A representation of Houdon's 1789 sculpture of Jefferson
Jefferson on Mount Rushmore
Jefferson's Wheel Cipher
A picture of an encryption machine Thomas Jefferson invented.
Jefferson's letter-copying machine
A picture of the copying machine Jefferson invented to keep doubles of his letters.
A photograph of the tomb Jefferson designed for himself.
Jefferson's sketch for the University of Virginia Rotunda
The Declaration of Independence
The first page of Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence
The Jefferson Memorial
A picture of the Jefferson Memorial, in Washington DC
Thomas Jefferson—a Film by Ken Burns (1997)
The king of the PBS documentary does it again. It features beautiful imagery, historical reenactments, interviews with brilliant Jefferson scholars, and Burns' trademark documentary music. It covers all of Jefferson's life, in just about three hours. Highly recommended.
Founding Brothers (2002)
The History Channel takes a crack at adapting Joseph Ellis' Pulitzer prize-winning group portrait of the revolutionary generation. It's a long special, and touches on all the founding fathers, not just Jefferson, but it's a fun watch, and paints a richer portrait of Jefferson for putting him into his generational context.
John Adams (2008)
We know, not actually Thomas Jefferson. But Jefferson makes major cameos. Adams and Jefferson had the longest and most tumultuous relationship of all the founding fathers. Watch Paul Giamati as John and Laura Linney as Abigail as they struggle over what to do with that pesky Jefferson, played by Stephen Dilane. Come on, it's HBO!
The Hollywood adaptation of the classic Broadway musical. If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out from your local library. You have not understood the struggles of the American Revolution until you've seen John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson sing off over what bird should be America's mascot.
Jefferson in Paris (1995)
Movies may get worse than this, but not much. Watch Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson and Gwyneth Paltrow as his daughter, as they film explore what Jefferson's life in Paris might really have been like. In this version, that mostly involves a sordid affair with Sally Hemings. Watch it at your own risk.
Thomas Jefferson: A Resource Guide
Your first stop for any online Thomas Jefferson research. The Library of Congress (created when Thomas Jefferson sold Congress his own library) maintains this website for anyone interested in Thomas Jefferson. It includes timelines, online access to scans and transcripts of Thomas Jefferson's papers, supplementary essays, bibliographies, and a thorough (and trustworthy) list of links to other Jefferson sites and resources. Make sure to check out the Library of Congress's 2000 exhibition on Thomas Jefferson, under the "Related Online Resources" link.
The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
A great resource for general Jefferson questions. Monticello.org runs this wiki for Jefferson scholars and specialists. All the information is vetted and reliable, and it covers all facets of Jefferson's life, from his family to his daily schedule. All cited information includes references. The parent site, Monticello.org, is run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and includes a digital tour of Monticello, photos of Jefferson's houses, belongings, and grounds, various research reports, and a host of other Jeffersonian goodies.
The Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive
The Jeffersonian motherlode. Maintained by the University of Virginia, the school he founded, the Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive includes access to the Jefferson Cyclopedia (a compilation of Jefferson's opinions, organized by theme, correspondent, and place), over 1700 documents produced by Jefferson, biographies, analytical essays, bibliographies, and too many other resources to list.
American President: An Online Reference Resource. Thomas Jefferson
A wonderful little website which gives a snapshot of Jefferson and his presidential administrations through short biographies. Also includes links to some of Jefferson's works, a bibliography, and information on tracking down Jefferson's papers.
Thomas Jefferson: A Film by Ken Burns
A companion site to Ken Burns' acclaimed documentary about Thomas Jefferson. It includes photographs, essays, which are not all that interested, and, transcripts of the interviews Burns conducted with the scholars for his documentary, which are very interesting. As a whole, the site isn't as thorough, or as useful as some of the other sites profiled, but it's not a bad resource.
Jefferson-Hemings DNA Testing: An On-Line Resource
From the time James Callender broke the story in 1802, until Nature published its groundbreaking paper on Jefferson's DNA in 1998, it was the raging controversy among Jefferson scholars. Did Jefferson engage in sexual relations with his slave, Sally Hemings? The debate can feel a little passé, but if you want to figure out what people were talking about, there really is no better place to start than here. Maintained by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, this resource page has links to all the major documents in the "Hemings Controversy," including a wonderful "Brief Account" that offers a rich bibliography and a careful review of the evidence.
The Thomas Jefferson Hour
An hour long weekly comment by Thomas Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson Live!
A short interview/documentary with a Jefferson impersonator, J.D. Sutton.
Road Scholars: Interview with Bill Barker
A three-part interview with Bill Barker, a Thomas Jefferson scholar and interpreter.
Dutch Burghers: Jefferson and Liberty
A rendering of the early campaign song "Jefferson and Liberty."
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams at the Drive Through
A humorous take on what would happen if the Revolution's most high-profile friends found themselves at the drive through
Anti-Thomas Jefferson Attack Ad
A mock attack ad from the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
The Avalon Project: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson
An online repository of Jefferson's seminal papers, courtesy of the Yale Law Library.
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Julian Boyd
The online home of the definitive edition of Thomas Jefferson's writings, courtesy of Princeton University.
Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive
The Massachusetts Historical Society's impressive collection of Jefferson papers