For a guy who's been dead for almost 200 years, he sure gets around a lot. You probably have a couple pictures of him in your pocket right now. You can see him in Hollywood, on Broadway, and even on TV—his second HBO miniseries is currently in production.blank">Declaration of Independence (which was thought to be a divine sign!), he has been a symbol for democratic equality. Just mention "Thomas Jefferson" and listen to the catchphrases pour out: equality and freedom; self-governance; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. His name alone evokes a vision.
This would be all well and good if there were only a name. But behind that long-dead name, there was once a living man, and what that man did doesn't always seem to match up with what the name has come to stand for. Jefferson-the-name stands for freedom, but Jefferson-the-man kept slaves—lots of them. Jefferson-the-name stands for equality, but Jefferson-the-man believed that some people were naturally better than others, and some races naturally better than others too. Jefferson-the-name stands for popular self-government, but Jefferson-the-man believed in a natural aristocracy, destined to rule over the unqualified rabble.
So what's the deal? How did a slaveholding aristocrat from Virginia come to stand for the radical promise of freedom and equality?
The tension goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson's origins. Jefferson was born on 13 April 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, later a part of Albemarle County. His mother, Jane Randolph, was from a wealthy family that claimed descent from the kings of Scotland and England. Jane's cousin, Peyton Randolph, was the most important man in the Virginia House of Burgesses and well respected throughout the Thirteen Colonies for his oratorical and political savvy. From his mother's side, Jefferson inherited, at birth, a prominent place in the Virginia aristocracy. His radical streak came from his dad. Peter Jefferson was not a part of the Virginia gentry. He was from a modest family, and had made his fortune as a farmer and surveyor. You might say that Thomas Jefferson's life, just like his thought, took place at the intersection of equality and elitism.
Times could be rough back then, even for a wealthy Virginia family. Of Jefferson's nine siblings, only five lived past thirty. Jefferson became the head of his family when his father passed away in 1757; he was just 14 years old. Luckily, a family friend stepped in to run the household until Jefferson could finish his education, but young Tom knew he would have to grow up quickly. It seems like he fell in love with reading at about this time. In the midst of personal trouble, Jefferson did what countless youths had done before and since: he turned to his books.
Jefferson's education focused on Greek and Latin and drew heavily upon the classical ideal of the statesman. For the Greeks and the Romans, participation in politics was one of a free man's most important responsibilities. Taking part in politics was what it meant to be a free citizen. But—and this is crucial—taking part in politics was only one part of what it meant to be a free citizen. A free citizen had to take part in politics selflessly. And for that, he had to be un-coerced and independent. He had to be able to provide for his own food, run his own household, and dispose of his own time, all without being beholden to anyone else. If he wasn't independent, then he couldn't participate independently in politics, and so he wouldn't be able to assume the responsibilities of being a free citizen either. Life in public then, as a politician, was made possible by life in private. It was only because the free citizen led an independent private life that he could have a proper public life at all. The ideal statesman, then? A self-supporting independent man who participated in politics only out of duty. The Roman general Cincinnatus provided the archetype. A farmer who was elected dictator to fight a war for Rome, he raised an army and led it to victory, only to resign his commission upon the war's end to return to his farm.blank" rel="nofollow">House of Burgesses, the local legislature, the very next year. He set up a law practice, tended to his affairs, and started looking for a wife. To any outside observer, it would have looked like Jefferson was becoming a traditional gentleman. If Jefferson had been born a hundred years earlier, that's probably what he would have become. History, however, had other things in store.
It just so happened that Jefferson entered colonial politics at a time of tremendous unrest. In 1765, the British Parliament passed the infamous Stamp Act, which infuriated American colonists who felt Parliament did not have the right to tax them at all. Although Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, it didn't concede its right to tax. The dispute was quieted, but ultimately unresolved; it was just a matter of time before it resumed.
It wouldn't be fair to say that Jefferson was oblivious to the Stamp Act crisis, but he certainly had other things on his mind. That whole business of finding a wife was proving to be more trouble than he'd thought. You see, Jefferson was not exactly a hit with the ladies. Oh sure, he was handsome and wealthy. But he was incredibly shy, and did not really know how to talk to women. While in college he had fallen for the local beauty, Rebecca Burwell, but she rejected him outright. A few years later, he tried and failed to seduce his neighbor's wife, embarrassing himself in the process. Having a family was very important to Jefferson—it was a necessary piece of the classical statesman's ideal—but he wasn't having any luck.
Finally he caught a break; sometime in the early 1770s, he met the recently widowed Martha Skelton. No portrait of her survives, but from written descriptions we know that she was slight, pretty, and—luckily for Jefferson—into brainy guys. She was very cultured; the young couple bonded over their shared love of Tristram Shandy and flirted together while playing duets. They were married on New Year's Day, 1772.
His new family kept Jefferson busy and distracted. Within a year, Martha's father had died, doubling Jefferson's holdings in land and slaves (by then he owned about two hundred) and saddling him with massive debts. Jefferson's first daughter, Martha (known as "Patsy") was born in September 1772 while construction of the new family house at Monticello dragged on. Although Jefferson did not neglect his elected duties, between his wife, his new daughter, his dead father-in-law's debts, his land holdings, and the new home he was building for his family, he was mostly focused on his personal life.
On 16 December 1773, Jefferson was abruptly pulled out of that private world and thrust fully into politics. It was on that day that in Boston Harbor, Samuel Adams and a band of rabble-rousers protested a new British tax on tea by tossing tons of the stuff into the Charles River, in what has come to be known as the Boston Tea Party. It was a provocation designed to push colonists to take up again the fight over the Stamp Act, and the British Parliament was only too happy to oblige. It ordered the port of Boston closed, stripped Massachusetts of most of its powers of self-government, and even gave British soldiers de-facto immunity for any crimes committed while imposing order on the colonies.
These "Intolerable Acts" drove the colonists to action. Jefferson helped take the lead in crafting Virginia's response. He had been serving on a correspondence committee, which kept him up to date on developments in the other twelve colonies. When he heard about the Intolerable Acts, Jefferson called for a day of fasting to show solidarity with Massachusetts. Virginia's royal governor took the display of sympathy as a sign of insurrection (which it probably was), and promptly disbanded the House of Burgesses. Unfazed, Jefferson and his peers walked down the street to the Apollo Tavern, deciding then and there to join in the Continental Congress to coordinate the colonists' response to this British injustice.
Jefferson didn't stop with organizing a meeting though. He believed that Parliament had done nothing short of violating the colonists' basic rights as free men. Although he wasn't high-profile enough to be sent to the Congress, Jefferson wrote a pamphlet to tell Virginia's delegates what he thought they should do. A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson's first published work, purported to show how the colonial right to self-governance emerged from the depths of British history. It was widely read as a sweeping and elegant denunciation of Parliament's right to rule the colonies at all, and got people talking about the smart young radical from Virginia. You could say it gave him his revolutionary credentials. He was going to need them.
In the months after the Intolerable Acts, events began to move quickly. The First Continental Congress met in September 1774, and accomplished two things: it passed a boycott of British goods and called for a Second Continental Congress to meet the next May. Britain, the colonies' major trading partner, increased its military presence in response. The soldiers and the restless colonists came into increasing tension. On 19 April 1775, the tension snapped with a single shot heard around the world, as the battles of Lexington and Concord plunged the colonies into the Revolutionary War.
The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May 1775, less than a month after the first bloodshed. When the Virginia delegation arrived, it caused quite a stir. Not only was it the most opulent delegation (Virginia's planter elites were the wealthiest of all the colonists) it was also the most famous. We're talking eighteenth-century rock stars here. George Washington, the hero of the French and Indian War and perhaps the most respected man in America, arrived in full military uniform, ready to lead the war against Britain. His co-delegate Patrick Henry was the continent's most famous orator for spearheading the fight against the Stamp Act. And the leader of the Virginia delegation, Jefferson's cousin Peyton Randolph, was so highly esteemed by colonial politicians that he had been elected president of the First Continental Congress and was immediately elected president of the Second as well.
Notably absent was Thomas Jefferson. It is notable for us anyway; at the time, no one would have expected to see him there. He still wasn't a big enough deal to be a Virginia representative, and besides, he preferred staying home. But when his cousin Randolph was called back to Virginia to become president of the House of Burgesses. Jefferson was sent in his stead. He was widely seen as Randolph's political heir; if Randolph was coming home, it made perfect sense to the other Virginia delegates that Jefferson should take his place in Congress.
Jefferson was not exactly thrilled to go. He felt like the real work of the revolution was taking place at home, in Virginia, where they were drafting a new state constitution. He hated cities, missed his wife, and did not like public speaking. Thus, Jefferson took what would be the most consequential trip of his life begrudgingly. Almost from the day he arrived, he wrote letters back to Virginia begging to be recalled.
While he waited for Virginia to send someone to replace him, Jefferson worked as Congress's draftsman. His reputation as a writer (what John Adams called his "peculiar felicity of expression") had preceded him, and so he landed most of Congress's written assignments, drafting memoranda and writing declarations. It bothered him less than the Congress' other work—at least he didn't have to speak in public, and it left him plenty of time to read. There was, then, nothing unusual when he found himself assigned to a committee charged with producing a draft for a declaration of independence; indeed, it would have been surprising if he hadn't been assigned to the job. Nothing unusual either in his writing the entire document alone: the other committee members had more important things to do, and besides, Jefferson had already basically written the thing for Congress already.blank" rel="nofollow">classical statesman's ideal. He wanted a world of free, independent individuals. With that goal in mind, he set out to eliminate the things he felt stood in the way of making that world possible. He drafted laws to end the practice of entailment, which prevented heirs from breaking up estates and so fostered the creation of landed elites, and tried to protect freedom of thought. He even lobbied for a public education system. If we look at the logic of Jefferson's reforms, we can start to see the outlines of what would later be called his Republican political program. Jefferson's democracy would be made up of private citizens coming together to take care of business. They would need to be free citizens, as in the classical ideal—free to support themselves, and free to think. And since they were going to come together to make political decisions, they would need to be educated enough to make those decisions well.
It was an interesting idea. But as Jefferson was about to learn, to become a viable political vision, it was going to need to some work.
Jefferson's rise through Virginia's politics reached its apogee on 1 June 1779, when he was elected the state's second governor. It was the fulfillment of everything a classical statesman could want. Jefferson had the respect of his peers and the chance to lead his own community, all while living in his own home, able to go on living his private life. He saw it not just as validation of his work, but as a chance to put his political ideas into practice, and to show the world what good government could mean.
Unfortunately for Jefferson, he happened to take office in the worst possible circumstance for trying out novel political ideas: the middle of a war. When Jefferson assumed the governorship, the American colonists were several years deep into their revolutionary conflict with Britain, and things were not going well. Virginia hadn't yet been attacked by Redcoat soldiers, but it was a prime target and one almost completely undefended. Any other governor might have raised an army, but not Thomas Jefferson; his ideals forbade him. It was part of his understanding of a democratic people that they would spontaneously act in their own defense in times of danger. This was their country; if they loved it enough to get together in times of peace, why wouldn't they get together in times of war?
Unfortunately Jefferson's vision of democratic self-defense worked better in the abstract than in reality. In the winter of 1781, a British army under the command of turncoat general Benedict Arnold invaded Virginia, forcing the government to flee from the new capital of Richmond. In the Spring, Lord Charles Cornwallis launched a repeat of Arnold's assault, forcing Jefferson to flee again. Jefferson was bewildered, unable to understand why the people hadn't risen to their own defense. Exhausted and confused, he declined to seek reelection after his second one-year term ended. He went home the very day his tenure expired, on 4 June 1781, even before a replacement had been elected, leaving Virginia with no executive in wartime for more than a week.
After he finished his term as governor, Jefferson was ready to retire from public life. Like Cincinnatus, he wanted to get home to his farm. He crowed to friends around the country that he was done with politics for good, and he probably meant it. It isn't difficult to imagine an alternate universe in which Jefferson went home in 1781 and never left again.
But as happened so many times in Jefferson's life, historical circumstances intervened. In August 1782, Martha Jefferson gave birth to her sixth child. The pregnancy, like all of her prior pregnancies, had been difficult, and after giving birth Martha fell terribly ill. She never recovered. On 6 September 1782, Martha Jefferson passed away. Jefferson was destroyed. His older daughter Patsy recalled that he wandered around the grounds of Monticello aimlessly, babbling under his breath. On her deathbed, Martha had started to copy out a passage of Tristram Shandy but had been too weak to finish it. Jefferson completed it in his own hand. He kept the passage—half in his handwriting, half in hers—and a lock of her hair with him for the rest of his life.
Jefferson's friends in Congress had never believed in his retirement, and pressured him to return to national politics. After Martha's death they offered him the chance to go to Europe with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate foreign treaties. Jefferson, who had rejected all prior assignments, made an abrupt about-face, and left for Europe immediately. He needed to get out Virginia. In 1785, the aging Franklin retired from the Foreign Service, and Jefferson became America's minister plenipotentiary to France. It was as far away as he could get from Monticello. And Jefferson loved it.
Jefferson's primary responsibility in Europe was to manage the United States' massive international debt. During the Revolutionary War, the various states and Congress had taken out large loans to finance the fight with Britain. Now those loans were coming due, and Jefferson had to nail down the terms with America's European creditors. This was much harder to do than you might think: under the Articles of Confederation, then governing the United States, the national government had very little power—so little that it could not even raise enough revenue to service its debts. European bankers laughed Jefferson out of their offices; what kind of a country could not even raise its own revenues reliably?
The bankers' objections helped force Jefferson to rethink his political vision. Although a strong government might infringe upon citizens' freedoms, a very weak government could have no real international presence. Without an international presence, that government would be at the mercy of other nations' designs, and so its citizens' freedom would come under attack anyway—only from the outside this time. Government then, Jefferson came to believe, needed to be weak domestically, but strong internationally.
He got the chance to articulate this newly integrated political vision in his letters to James Madison. While Jefferson and Adams were struggling to service America's foreign debt, the other Founding Fathers were meeting in Philadelphia, trying to hammer out a new political arrangement for the nation's governance. The Articles of Confederation, it turned out, didn't work much better at home than they did overseas. James Madison, Jefferson's closest friend, led the effort to replace them. Madison and Jefferson had first met during Jefferson's second term in the Virginia legislature, where Madison shepherded parts of Jefferson's reform program through the Virginia legislature. The experience turned the pair into close confidants. Beginning in the spring of 1787, Madison wrote to Jefferson about the strong central government the Constitutional Convention was creating. Jefferson agreed with Madison on the need for a stronger central government—if his experience negotiating with foreign bankers had taught him anything, it was how badly the United States needed one—but he wanted to see more protections for the citizenry. He made his support for the new Constitution contingent upon the inclusion of a bill of rights, able to protect Americans from their own government's power. Madison, originally opposed to the idea of a bill of rights, acquiesced to Jefferson's position, helping to formulate the first ten amendments even before the Constitution was ratified.
Jefferson did not especially want to return from France, but personal circumstances forced him home. He had brought his two eldest daughters to France with him, and sent them to school in a convent. The arrangement seemed to work pretty well—Jefferson could run around Paris, indulging his expensive wine habit, while his daughters were kept safely out of trouble. Then, one day, he received a letter from the fifteen-year-old Patsy, informing him she wanted to convert to Catholicism and become a nun. Jefferson never again acted with such haste; the very next day he went to the convent and withdrew his girls from the school. He immediately began making plans to return to Virginia to place his daughters into what he thought was a more wholesome environment. A Catholic daughter was not something he was prepared for. (Jefferson was a deist, and not a particularly religious one at that. Indeed, in the vicious election of 1804, accusations of his godlessness became so ferocious that he authored a short work, The Philosophy of Jesus, intended to convince the electorate that he was not an atheist.) He would be back in Virginia as soon as he could be.
On 23 November 1789, Jefferson and his family arrived in Norfolk, Virginia to find a rather unexpected letter. By then the United States had changed considerably. The Constitution had been ratified, and George Washington, elected the first president of the United States by a unanimous vote of the Electoral College, was putting together his new national government. Jefferson thought he would come home for a few months, at most—just enough time to settle his daughters and put affairs at Monticello back in order before returning to France to serve American interest. A revolution had just broken out there that he believed had great promise for spreading the ideals of the American Revolution throughout Europe, and it required his continued attentions. But when he arrived in Norfolk, he found waiting for him an offer he could not refuse: a note from George Washington informing him that he had been named and confirmed as the first secretary of state. According to the historian Joseph Ellis, there was only one inviolable rule in early American politics: thou shalt not cross George Washington. Jefferson accepted the post and moved to New York City, the temporary capital of the new republic, on 21 March 1790.
It was not a good time to be the secretary of state. That revolution in France was quickly becoming The French Revolution, and it dominated Europe's diplomatic concerns. Jefferson's foreign policy agenda languished unfulfilled. Still, his service as secretary of state was the most consequential so far in his life. Even though his foreign policy objectives went unaddressed, as secretary of state he served in Washington's cabinet, and so participated in all policy discussions, foreign and domestic. It was the perfect space in which to air his new ideas about democracy. He thought he might have a chance to shape government policy. He couldn't have realized that he would instead shape what is usually considered the most important conflict in American politics. Ever.
You can blame Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was Washington's secretary of the treasury, and was as unlike Jefferson as you could get. Jefferson was well-born, Hamilton was a bastard—literally. Jefferson was measured and graceful, Hamilton was impulsive and insecure. Jefferson preferred farms and rural life. Hamilton lived for New York City. But the fight between Hamilton and Jefferson was less about personalities than competing visions of government. We've already seen that Jefferson imagined a government that was strong and centralized on foreign policy, but was as hands-off and restrained as it could be on domestic matters. He was inherently suspicious of anything that compromised individual self-sufficiency (just look at how he felt about cities!) and was positively horrified at the thought of Americans depending on their government. A citizenry dependent on the government couldn't be independent. Such a turn of events would mean that the collectivity had become the basic unit of society. It would mean that the government had compromised individual private life. This was precisely what Hamilton believed should happen, and he hoped to use the United States Treasury to make his vision reality. Hamilton believed the government should play a strong role in individuals' lives; that the collective, consolidated national identity should be primary. By issuing huge amounts of debt, he hoped to involve the Treasury in the day-to-day operations of the economy, and so give the government a certain purchase over citizen's private lives.
The two contrasting visions of government of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton betrayed two different understandings of American power and the American people. For Hamilton, America's strength lay in its commerce. Hamilton's America was an America of businessmen, entrepreneurs, bankers and financiers. The government needed to help these people compete in a global marketplace. And only the national government could do that. Hamilton was suspicious of state governments, beholden as they were to narrow local interests.
While Jefferson shared Hamilton's admiration for America's commercial might—he had just come back from a stint in Europe negotiating free-trade treaties—he profoundly disagreed with Hamilton about the basic make-up of the American people. Hamilton's financiers, Jefferson claimed, were parasitic commercial elites, dependent for their success on the virtuous labor of independent yeoman farmers. The government, Jefferson believed, had no responsibility to help them. If the government was going to help anyone, it should be helping those farmers on whom the commercialists preyed. And the best way to help those farmers, Jefferson argued, was to leave real power close to them, in their state governments, and keep the federal government out of their way. His fight with Hamilton was, at least as Jefferson saw it, a disagreement about who should rule in the name of the people: Hamilton said the few, and Jefferson said the many.
Although Jefferson and Hamilton managed to work together reasonably well at first, their relations became fraught as Washington's presidency dragged on. By February 1791, the two were locked in an outright struggle, waging a newspaper war by proxy. Jefferson hated conflict, and often thought of resigning, but he hated Hamilton more, and so refused to give him the satisfaction. Sometime in 1793, the conflict just got to be too much for Jefferson. Maybe he decided he would win this fight through other means than debate within Washington's cabinet. On 5 January 1794, the president accepted Jefferson's resignation as secretary of state, and Jefferson set off at once for Monticello. Just as he had done when he finished his term as Virginia governor, he claimed to all who would listen that he was truly retiring from public life, that this time he was moving home for good. Just as before, none of his friends believed him. If Jefferson had been more honest with himself, he wouldn't have believed himself either.
Jefferson wasn't alone in his fight with Hamilton; his lifelong friend and political ally, James Madison, backed him all the way. If Jefferson was the leader of the opposition, which came to be known as "Democratic-Republican," Madison was his first lieutenant. (Federalists, Hamilton's allies, used to refer to Madison as the Republican General, and Jefferson as the Generalissimo.)
Madison understood what Jefferson was doing better than Jefferson himself did. Madison knew that Jefferson would return to politics: the stakes in the fight with Hamilton were just too high for Jefferson to remain on the sidelines forever. And it would take considerable effort to win that fight for good. In order to dismantle Hamilton's political program, it was going to take nothing less than a wholesale change in the government. If Hamilton couldn't be out-argued in president Washington's cabinet meetings, his program would have to be outvoted by the citizens. It was time for the Republicans to take over the government. And who better to head the take-over than the leader of the Democratic-Republican opposition? From the moment Jefferson left Washington's administration, Madison began to lay the groundwork for Jefferson's run for the presidency.
Presidential campaigns were very different then from the way they are now. For starters, no one could admit he wanted to be president. A gentleman wasn't allowed to ask someone for a vote; that was base. Others were supposed to spontaneously recognize his goodness, and chose to give him their vote. More importantly, most people didn't even get a vote. Presidential electors were chosen by state legislatures. The election cycle was therefore, long and uneven.
Winning required combining incredible political organization with the total denial of political aspiration. Luckily for Jefferson, in Madison he had the most able political organizer of the early American republic. As for the self-denial part, Jefferson had that down pat. He was at home in Monticello, rebuilding his manor house to better conform to his visions of Palladian architecture while sinking deeper into debt. He claimed to be wholly uninterested in politics, and completely engrossed in his farming. He would go on and on about his new plans for crop rotation to anyone willing to listen. But on some level, he must have known his performance was a sham. He prodded Madison to keep fighting Hamilton, and happened—ever so —conveniently—to meet often with the man who would become his running mate. Once the election cycle was clearly underway, he even predicted his own final vote total—quite a feat given the weirdness of the electoral system. Madison's expert organizing guided Jefferson to a second-place finish behind John Adams, a 3-vote loss, making him the country's next Vice President.
Jefferson had some qualms about reuniting with his longtime political partner. Jefferson and Adams had a long history. They had worked together on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence. They had been to Europe together to negotiate foreign treaties. They had served together in Washington's administration (Jefferson as secretary of state, Adams as Washington's VP). Even their families had become close; Abigail Adams, John's wife, was especially fond of Jefferson's daughters, and helped Jefferson care for them while he was in Europe. But the newly formed political parties had divided the two men. Adams, despite his own hatred of Hamilton, backed Washington's government, and had become one of the leaders of the Federalist Party, while Jefferson had become the leader of the opposition. Although Adams sought to pull Jefferson into his administration as a full partner, Jefferson, on Madison's advice, resisted. As Madison pointed out, it might be necessary for the Republicans to oppose Adams's plans, and that would be difficult to do if the Republican Party's leading figure seemed to share ownership of the administration's problems.
As a result, Jefferson played little or no role in John Adams's administration, even though, as vice-president, he was officially its second highest-ranking member. In fact, Jefferson's vice-presidency was among the most apparently apolitical periods in his life. He wrote a handbook of parliamentary procedure, and otherwise seemed dedicated to his studies. He had always been a bit of a naturalist; while in France, he had requested that two stuffed moose be sent to him in order to refute French claims that North American animals were weaker than their European counterparts. Now, as vice-president, he set himself about preparing a short paper on mammoth fossils to deliver to the American Philosophical Society. The Society's members even elected him their president. From the outside, Jefferson looked as disengaged a VP as Adams had been under Washington.
Behind the scenes, however, Jefferson was still vigorously engaged in the fight against the Federalists. He sponsored newspaper attacks on Federalist candidates. He encouraged congressional leaders to back Madison and opposed what he saw as the Federalists' anti-democratic tendencies. His clearest act of opposition was also his most secretive. By 1798, the increasingly violent wars in Europe were having a terrible effect on American shipping. Adams, spurred by the shameful treatment American diplomats received from France during the infamous XYZ affair, pushed the United States Navy to harass French vessels, leading the country into a "quasi-war" with France. When Republican newspapers, which had often been critical of Adams, turned up their venomous attacks, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which severely restricted citizens' right to free speech and landed a number of Republican editors in jail. Jefferson, livid at what he saw as a gross abuse of federal power, joined with Madison to secretly author the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which asserted a state's right to nullify federal laws it didn't agree with. Although the Resolutions did nothing to stop the implementation of the hated acts, they were to be important touchstones over the next eighty years in the ongoing debate over the relative importance of state and federal governments.
The failure of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions strengthened Jefferson's fighting spirit. The Federalists no longer needed to be opposed, he now felt; they needed to be destroyed—removed, root and branch, from the operation of the government. Jefferson entered the election campaign of 1800 ready for political war. The Federalists made his campaign easy. On 15 December 1799, George Washington, beloved leader of the Federalist Party, finally passed away. Without Washington to hold the party together, the two leading Federalist figures, Hamilton and Adams, launched vicious newspaper attacks against each other that damaged both their reputations. As the Federalist Party self-destructed, Jefferson and the Republicans won an easy, sweeping victory in the so-called "Revolution of 1800." Jefferson would finally have his chance to bring the Republic back to what he saw as the true "Spirit of 1776."
It's a great irony of history that Jefferson ended up owing his presidency to his greatest political rival. Jefferson's vice-presidential running mate in 1800 was the sordid Aaron Burr, an opportunist from New York. Because of poor planning by Republican electors and a quirk in the way the Electoral College worked at the time, Burr and Jefferson finished the presidential race in an exact tie. As a result, per the Constitution's instructions, it fell to the House of Representatives to decide the winner. Since the new Republican Congress had yet to take office the House was still controlled by the Federalists—who now had a great opportunity to make mischief. Although Jefferson was clearly intended to be the presidential candidate and Burr his vice-president, Federalist leaders thought of giving the presidency to Burr in exchange for special political favors. Hamilton was incensed. He may have opposed Jefferson, and hated Adams, but he loathed Burr. Hamilton judged Burr dishonest and untrustworthy. When he heard what his Federalist peers were planning, he campaigned vigorously for his old rival Thomas Jefferson, ensuring his selection. The whole episode left Jefferson deeply suspicious of Burr, who would play almost no role in Jefferson's administration—until, of course, he killed Alexander Hamilton in their infamous 1804 duel by pistols.
Although Jefferson arrived in office in 1801 preaching reconciliation, his political program was frankly partisan. Jefferson wanted nothing less than to dismantle the Federalists' government. He appointed his Republican protégés to cabinet posts, repealed the Federalists' 1801 Judiciary Act, freed those imprisoned under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and dedicated the vast bulk of the government's revenues to paying down Hamilton's national debt.
His fight against the Federalists made Jefferson very popular. Many ordinary citizens saw the president as a man of the people, fighting against the aristocratic Federalists. They even sent him gifts to show their support. Famously, Massachusetts farmers sent Jefferson a massive 1235-pound wheel of Cheddar Cheese, which the president was fond of showing to foreign dignitaries.blank">Monticello. This time, he swore, he was going home for good. For once, he was right.
By the time he'd made it back home, Jefferson's personal life was in shambles. His fields were suffering from poor management. His finances had been destroyed by his lavish lifestyle and unpaid debts. His house was perpetually being rebuilt. And Jefferson's family was mostly dead; of the six children born him by his wife, only Patsy, his eldest daughter, survived. It could not have been an easy home to return to.
Nevertheless we know that Jefferson thrilled at returning. He finally had the opportunity to live the life he'd always wanted. And that life was a life of ideas. Ever since he had first gone off to the College of William & Mary, Jefferson thought of himself as an intellectual. He was a lover of books, an amateur naturalist, and a parlor political theorist. He loved thinking—whether about the future of the American people, the natural order of the world, or the ideal shape of government. In his rooms, he kept portraits of the "three greatest men the world has ever produced"—three thinkers, the scientist Isaac Newton, the philosopher of science Francis Bacon, and the political philosopher John Locke.blank">Monticello. His possessions, including most of his slaves, were sold at auction to pay for his debts.
Father: Peter Jefferson, 1708-175, a slave owning surveyor and farmer, whom Jefferson idolized, 1755-1815
Mother: Jane Randolph, 1720-1776, the wealthy descendant of an aristocratic Virginia family, cousin of Peyton Randolph, the head of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Eldest Sister: Jane, 1740-1765
Elder Sister: Mary, 1741-1804
Younger Sister: Elizabeth, 1744-1774
Younger Sister: Martha, 1746-1811
Younger Brother: Peter, 1748-1748
Younger Brother: Unnamed, 1750-1750
Younger Sister: Lucy, 1752-1810
Youngest Sister: Anna, 1755-1828
Youngest Brother: Randolph, 1755-1815
Wife: Martha Wayles Skelton, 1748-1782 (married 1772). One son, John (1767-1771), by a previous marriage to Bathurst Skelton.
Eldest Daughter: Martha (known at Patsy), 1772-1836. Martha is the only one of Thomas Jefferson and Martha Skelton's six children who will survive both her parents.
Daughter: Jane, 1774-1775
Son: Unnamed, 1777-1777
Daughter: Mary (or Maria, known as Polly), 1778-1804
Daughter: Lucy Elizabeth, 1780-1781
Daughter: Lucy Elizabeth, 1782-1784
Son in law: Thomas Mann Randolph, 1768-1828. A distant cousin of Martha Jefferson's, they marry in 1790.
Granddaughter: Anne Cary, 1791-1826
Grandson: Thomas Jefferson, 1792-1875
Granddaughter: Ellen Wayles, 1794-1795
Granddaughter: Ellen Wayles, 1796-1876
Granddaughter: Cornelia Jefferson, 1799-1871
Granddaughter: Virginia Jefferson, 1801-1882
Granddaughter: Mary Jefferson, 1803-1876
Grandson: James Madison, 1806-1834
Grandson: Benjamin Franklin, 1808-1871
Grandson, Meriwether Lewis, 1810-1837
Granddaughter: Septimia Anne, 1814-1887
Grandson: George Wythe, 1818-1867
Son in law: John Wayles Eppes, 1773-1823. A cousin of Mary Jefferson, they marry in 1797.
Granddaughter: Unnamed, 1799-1800
Grandson: Francis Wayles, 1801-1881
Granddaughter: Maria Jefferson, 1804-1807
What's the deal with Sally Hemings?
In the 1800s, a rumor circulated that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Although the rumor remained unconfirmed for two hundred years, a 1998 study appeared in the journal Nature showing a DNA link between Jefferson and Hemings' children. On the strength of the study, most historians now believe the rumor to be true. The following people therefore belong on Jefferson's family tree as well.
Slave Lover: Sally Hemings, 1773-1835, likely daughter of John Wayles and Elizabeth Hemings. She became Jefferson's property in 1774, following John Wayles's death. According to Hemings family tradition, Jefferson began his sexual relationship with Sally sometime after she accompanied his daughter Polly to France in 1787. Hemings family tradition also claims that Sally only agreed to return with Jefferson to Virginia after he promised to free any children he might father with her.
Daughter: Harriet, 1795-1797
Son: Beverly, 1798-1873(?)
Daughter: Unnamed, 1799-1802
Daughter: Harriet, 1801-1863
Son: Madison, 1805-1878
Son: Eston, 1808-1853
Studies in Greek, Latin, and Mathematics with Reverends William Douglas and James Maury, 1752-1760.
Undergraduate degree from the College of William & Mary, 1762.
Private studies in law with George Wythe; admitted to the bar in 1767.
Lawyer, private practice (1767-1774)
Representative from Albemarle, Virginia House of Burgesses (1768-1775)
Representative from Virginia, Second Continental Congress (1775-1776)
Representative from Albemarle, Virginia House of Delegates (1776-1779)
Governor, State of Virginia (1779-1781)
Representative from Albemarle, Virginia House of Delegates (Dec. 1781)
Representative from Virginia, Confederation Congress (1783-1784)
Officer of the Confederation Congress in Europe (1784)
United States Minister plenipotentiary to France (1785-1789)
United States Secretary of State (1790-1794)
Vice President of the United States (1797-1801)
President of the United States of America (1801-1809)
Chair, Rockfish Gap Commission [on Education and the State of Virginia] (1818)
Founder and first rector of the University of Virginia (1819-1826)
A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774
Declaration of Independence, 1776
Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, 1777
Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
First Inaugural Address, 1801
The Philosophy of Jesus, 1804
Letter to Roger C. Wheightman, 1826
The Jefferson Bible, posthumous work, written in the 1820s, published in 1895
Honorary Doctorate of Laws, College of William & Mary (1783)
Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Yale College (1786)
Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Harvard University (1787)
President, American Philosophical Association (1797)
Honorary membership, British Board of Agriculture (1797)
Honorary membership, U.S. Society of Artists (1811)
Honorary membership, American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres (1821)