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Generally speaking, you have to do something pre-tty significant to end up on money. Granted, nowadays the nickel isn't the most respected currency (and his archenemy got the $10 bill) but still you have to assume Jefferson is important given that everyone has his face in their wallet. Thomas Jefferson is one of the giants of early American history, one of those Founding Fathers you hear so much about.
Much of his life and legacy is centered in Virginia: he was born, attended college, built a college, built a very famous house (Monticello), and even served as governor in that state (the guy just really likes Virginia, okay?). During that time, he was also President of the United States for two terms, and during his presidency doubled the size of the country. He's kind of a big deal.
Jefferson started out as a lawyer before going into politics as a member of the Second Continental Congress. His shiny, sparkly political star rose after he was assigned to write the Declaration of Independence, and he became governor of Virginia from 1779-1781.
Besides the Declaration, Jefferson was most proud of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, another declaration he wrote that was passed by the Virginia legislature on January 16, 1786. The Virginia Statute set the example for the legal protection of religious freedom in America, by saying that there should be (you got it) legal protection of religious freedom in America.
Jefferson replaced Benjamin Franklin as the United States representative in France from 1785-1789, leaving when the French Revolution broke out. Jefferson, like many Americans, was actually a pretty big fan of the French Revolution for a while, which began following similar principles to the American one…until the Reign of Terror broke out in 1793 and Americans saw that there was a lot more beheading going on than they had been anticipating.
George Washington picked Jefferson to be his first Secretary of State, which is where he first came into conflict with Alexander Hamilton. Dum dum dummm. (Source)
The U.S. Constitution with the Bill of Rights had only been ratified in 1789, and the U.S. government was only in its first presidency, so there was a ton of stuff to figure out. (You'd think setting up a brand-new government uniting thirteen independent colonies would be a piece of cake, but somehow it wasn't.)
Jefferson was really into states' rights, meaning giving the states as much power to make their own laws as possible. And Hamilton liked the idea of a very strong central government. When you have a meeting between two people that have such strongly differing opinions, there are two outcomes—a) they'll fall in love, rom-com style or b) they'll become political nemeses.
And Hamilton and Jefferson did not meet a How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days-style happy ending.
Have you ever thought about the two-party system in the U.S.? Of course you have—who doesn't ponder the two-party system in their spare time? This is where it all begins. Jefferson became the leader of the Democratic-Republican party, and Hamilton the leader of the Federalists.
(Don't assume which party these correspond to today though, because there are big changes—and sometimes complete policy reversals—throughout American history, the biggest being in the years leading up to the Civil War and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.)
Anyway, the Federalists won the first few rounds, and Jefferson lost his first, admittedly reluctant run for president, ending up Vice President for John Adams. (Back then, the person who got the 2nd highest number of votes became VP.) In fact, in the next election, Jefferson tied with Aaron Burr from the same party, and congress had to decide which one got to be President—just like the election in 2000, except in this case the loser still got a pretty big prize. (Source)
After the election in 1800, when the House of Representatives picked Jefferson over Burr (urged on by Hamilton despite their feud, that's how baller Jefferson was), T.J. finally became President of the United States. In office, he repealed the Whiskey Tax that had been instated by Hamilton in 1791 to raise money. The tax had caused the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, during which Hamilton and Jefferson had vehemently disagreed about the use of military force (hint: Jefferson was not a fan). (Source)
As President, Jefferson also cut military expenditures and the governmental budget, so despite repealing the Whiskey Tax he ended up reducing the national debt. (Source)
Then, in 1803, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, gaining a huge amount of land from Napoleon for an exceptionally good price (who doesn't love a good bargain?), and sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (yeah, that Lewis & Clark) on their epic voyage to the Pacific.
Speaking of Napoleon, Jefferson's second term as president is mainly remembered as a constant attempt to avoid getting the United States involved in the Napoleonic Wars going on across Europe, primarily between Britain and France. Britain kept capturing American ships and impressing British-born American men for their military. "Impressment" in this case means forcing someone to enlist, like a draft, not wowing them with your knowledge of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (because that impresses people, right? Right?).
Jefferson sent James Monroe and William Pinckney to England to try to get the Brits to stop kidnapping their sailors, but the British refused to make that a part of the treaty. In 1807, the British went so far as to attack a ship off the coast of Virginia, thinking there were deserters on board. At that point, Jefferson ordered a total embargo of all foreign trade, which really hurt the U.S. more than anyone, so at the end of his presidency he decided to just stop trade with Britain and France. (Source)
In reality, the embargoes were difficult to enforce, and the United States ended up getting involved in the War of 1812 anyway. (Source)
After his second term as president, Jefferson retired to his home at Monticello for the rest of his life. He donated his book collection to form the original core of the Library of Congress. (Source) (Because, once again, Thomas Jefferson was awesome.)
In 1819, at 76 years old, he designed and founded the University of Virginia—yes, he was an architect in his spare time. Spookily (or awesomely, depending on your taste), he died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a few hours before John Adams.
Coincidence? Probably, but you can't help but wonder…
The Declaration of Independence is perhaps what Jefferson's most known for, and most strongly represents his legacy as a Founding Father, author, and politician. Besides playing a key role in the fight for independence, he consistently supported increased rights and freedoms for the people of his new country, especially through the idea of religious freedom and states' rights.
Jefferson also presented an important voice of opposition during Washington's presidency against Hamilton. He provided another idea of government to explore in the early days of the United States, one that still resonates with people today.
The idea of states' rights over the federal government also played a significant role in the outbreak of the Civil War, which many historians view as the conclusion of the American Revolution. Although southern secession is not really what Jefferson had in mind, given that he worked to unite the nation, the debate between him and Hamilton is one that has never been settled among Americans and continues to be a major topic and source of division.
Of course, all of Jefferson's rhetoric about the rights of man is tempered by the fact that he owned slaves his entire life, and though he was not brutal towards his slaves and later in life he wrote against the institution, during his career he didn't fight for the kind of equal rights we would seek today. His slave ownership shouldn't be forgotten, and it has become a regular part of how we study Thomas Jefferson.
Remember, though, that at this stage in American history slavery was a legal, accepted establishment, and few argued against it. Jefferson supposedly included a paragraph in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence denouncing slavery and blaming it on the British, but it was eliminated during congressional edits, probably because other delegates wouldn't support it. (Source)
Why Jefferson didn't free his slaves later we'll never completely know, although there are a few hypotheses, including his pretty significant debt. (Source)
For his time, Jefferson was a significant voice in the revolutionary struggle against government oppression, and even though he didn't include everyone in his vision of legal freedom, he thought and spoke broadly and consistently about inherent human rights more than most Founding Fathers…except perhaps for his good friend John Adams. His eloquence and idealism earned him respect and got him to the presidency, not to mention being chosen to write the Declaration of Independence.
Despite his flaws, he's remembered for his written works, his expansion of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and his staunch support of states' rights. Maybe now it's understandable why his face is on the U.S. nickel…which of course you'll think about the next time you use one to avoid getting 91 cents back in change.
Unless, of course, you're big on using $2 bills, in which case you can gaze upon T.J.'s gorgeous mug every time you need to buy a few things off the dollar menu.