Thomas Jefferson

THOMAS JEFFERSON, the third President of the United States of America, was born April 2, (old style,) 1743, at Shadwell, in Albemarle County, Virginia, and was the eldest of eight children. His father, though his education had been entirely neglected in early life, being a man of strong mind, acquired, by subsequent study, considerable information. He died when the subject of our sketch was about twelve years old, having previously given him every means of knowledge that could be procured, and left him a considerable estate. After going through a course of school instruction, young Jefferson entered the college of William and Mary where he remained for two years. He then commenced the study of law under the guidance of the celebrated George Wythe, by whom, in 1767, he was introduced to its practice, at the bar of the general court of the colony, at which he continued until the revolution. In 1769 he was elected a member of the provincial legislature from the county where he resided, and made a fruitless effort, in that body, for the emancipation of the slaves. By this time a spirit of opposition had been excited in the colonies to the arbitrary measures of the British government and when the governor of Virginia dissolved the general assembly, in 1769, in consequence of the sympathy which was displayed by the majority of its members with the feelings which had been manifested in Massachusetts, they met, the next day, in the public room of the Raleigh tavern, formed themselves into a convention, drew up articles of association against the use of any merchandise imported from Great Britain, and signed and recommended them to the people. They then repaired to their respective counties, and were all reelected, except those few who had declined assenting to their proceedings. In 1773 Mr. Jefferson associated himself with several of the boldest and most active of his companions in the house, not thinking,' as he says himself, ' the old and leading members up to the point of forwardness and zeal which the times required,') and with them formed the system of committees of correspondence, in a private room of the same Raleigh tavern. This system was adopted as the best instrument for communication between the different colonies, by which they might be brought to a mutual understanding, and a unity of action produced. This end was completely accomplished, as well as another object, that of exciting through out the colonies a desire for a general congress. It was accordingly resolved that one should be held, and in Virginia a convention was assembled for the purpose of choosing delegates. Of this convention Mr. Jefferson was elected a member but being suddenly taken ill on the road, as he was repairing to Williamsburg, its place of meeting, he sent on to its chairman, Peyton Randolph, a draft of instructions which he had prepared as proper to be given to the delegates who should be sent to congress. It was laid on the table for perusal; but, though approved by many, the sentiments contained in it were too bold to be adopted by the majority: tamer sentiments,' in his own words, were preferred, and, I believe, wisely preferred; the leap I proposed being too long, as yet, for the mass of our citizens.' The position that he maintained was, that the relation between Great Britain and the colonies was exactly the same as that between England and Scotland, after the accession of James, and until the union, and the same as her relations with Hanover, having the same executive chief, but no other political connection. In this doctrine, however, the only person who entirely concurred with him was George Wythe, the other patriots stopping at the half-way house of John Dickinson, who admitted that England had a right to regulate our commerce, and to lay duties on it for the purposes of regulation, but not of raising revenue.' Though the paper was not adopted, the convention, nevertheless, caused it to be printed in a pamphlet form, under the title of a Summary View of the Rights of British America. Having found its way to England, it was taken up by the opposition, and, with a few interpolations of Mr. Burke, passed through several editions. It procured for its author considerable reputation, and likewise the dangerous honor of having his name placed on a list of proscriptions, in a bill of attainder, which was commenced in one of the houses of parliament, but was speedily suppressed. June 21, 1775, Mr. Jefferson took his seat for the first time in congress, having been chosen to fill the place of Peyton Randolph, who had resigned. In this new capacity, he persevered in the decided tone which he had assumed, always maintaining that no accommodation should be made between the two countries, unless on the broadest and most liberal basis. After serving on several committees, he was at length appointed a member of that, whose report has linked the name of its author with the history of American independence. June 7, 1776, the delegates from Virginia, in compliance with the instructions of the convention, moved that congress should declare the United Colonies free and independent states. This gave rise to a warm and protracted debate; for as yet there were many who continued to cling to the hope of a peaceful adjustment. In the course of the discussion, it appearing that several colonies were not yet fully ripe for separation, it was deemed prudent to defer the final decision of the question for a short time; and, in the meanwhile, a committee was appointed to prepare a declaration of independence, consisting of John Adams, doctor Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Mr. Jefferson. The last named gentleman was requested to draw up the paper, which he did, and it was reported to the house, after receiving a few alterations from doctor Franklin and Mr. Adams. On the first of July, the day selected for deciding upon the original motion of the Virginia delegates, it was carried in the affirmative by a large majority, and two or three days afterwards by a unanimous vote. The declaration of independence was then brought before the house, by which, though generally approved, it was, in some respects, modified. Those passages, especially, which conveyed censure upon the people of England, were either greatly softened, or entirely omitted, as the idea was still entertained that the colonies possessed friends in England, whose good will it would be proper to cherish; and a clause reprobating the slave-trade was canceled, in complaisance to some of the Southern States, who were largely engaged in the traffic. The debates respecting the declaration occupied three days, on the last of which, the fourth of July, it was signed by every member present, except John Dickinson, who deemed a rupture with the mother country, at that moment, rash and premature. September 2, 1776, Mr. Jefferson retired from his seat in congress, and, on the 7th of October, took his place in the legislature of Virginia, of which he had been elected a member from his county. In this situation he was indefatigable in his labors to improve the imperfect constitution of the state, which had been recently and hastily adopted before a draft of one which he had formed on the purest principles of republicanism, had reached the convention, which was deliberating at Richmond. The chief service which he performed was as a member of a commission for revising the laws, consisting, besides himself, of Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Mason, and Thomas Ludwell Lee, by whom no less than 126 bills were prepared, from which are derived all the most liberal features of the existing laws of the commonwealth. The share of Mr. Jefferson in this great task was prominent and laborious. June 1, 1779, he was chosen the successor of Mr. Henry in the office of governor of the state, and continued in it for two years, at the end of which period he resigned, from a belief,' as he says, that, under the pressure of the invasion under which we were then laboring, the public would have more confidence in a military chief, and that, the military commander being invested with the civil power also, both might be wielded with more energy, promptitude, and effect, for the defense of the state.' General Nelson was appointed in his stead. Two days after his retirement from the government, he narrowly escaped capture by the enemy, a troop of horse having been despatched to Monticello, where he was residing, for the purpose of making him prisoner. He was breakfasting, when a neighbor rode up at full speed with the intelligence that the troop was ascending a neighboring hill. He first sent off his family in a carriage, and, after a short delay for some indispensable arrangements, mounted his horse, and, taking a course through the woods, joined them at the house of a friend, a flight in which it would be difficult to discern any thing dishonorable, although it has been made the subject of sarcasm and reproach without end by the spirit of party. June 15, 1781, Mr. Jefferson was appointed minister plenipotentiary, in conjunction with others, to negotiate peace then expected to be effected, through the mediation of the empress of Russia but he declined, for the same reason that had induced him, in 1776, to decline also the appointment of a commissioner, with doctor Franklin, to go to France in order to negotiate treaties of alliance and commerce with that government. On both occasions the state of his family was such that he could not leave it, and he could not expose it to the dangers of the sea, and of capture by the British ships then covering the ocean.' He saw, too, that the laboring oar was really at home,' especially at the time of his first appointment. But, in November, 1782, congress having received assurances that a general peace would be concluded in the winter and spring, renewed the offer which they had made the previous year; and this time it was accepted; but the preliminary articles being agreed upon before he left the country, he returned to Monticello, and was chosen (June 6, 1783) a member of congress. It was during the session at Annapolis, that, in consequence of Mr. Jefferson's proposal, an executive committee was formed, called the committee of the states, consisting of a member from each state. Previously, executive and legislative functions were both imposed upon congress; and it was to obviate the bad effects of this junction, that Mr. Jefferson's proposition was adopted. Success, however, did not attend the plan; the members composing the committee quarreled, and finding it impossible, on account of their altercations, to fulfill their duties, they abandoned their post, after a short period, and thus left the government without any visible head, during the adjournment of congress. May 7, 1784, congress, having resolved to appoint another minister, in addition to Mr. Adams and doctor Franklin, for negotiating treaties of commerce with foreign nations, selected Mr. Jefferson, who accordingly sailed from Boston, July 5, and arrived in Paris August 6. Doctor Franklin was already there, and Mr. Adams having, soon after, joined them, they entered upon the duties of their mission. They were not very successful, however, in forming the desired commercial treaties, and, after some reflection and experience, it was thought better not to urge them too strongly, but to leave such regulations to flow voluntarily from the amicable dispositions and the evident interests of the several nations. In June, 1785, Mr. Adams repaired to London, on being appointed minister plenipotentiary at the court of St. James, and, in July, doctor Franklin returned to America, and Mr. Jefferson was named his successor at Paris. In the February of 1786, he received a pressing letter from Mr. Adams, requesting him to proceed to London immediately, as symptoms of a better disposition towards America were beginning to appear in the British cabinet, than had been manifested since the treaty of peace. On this account he left Paris in the following March, and on his arrival in London, agreed with Mr. Adams on a very summary form of treaty, proposing an exchange of citizenship for our citizens, our ships, and our productions generally, except as to office.' At the usual presentation, however, to the king and queen, both Mr. Adams and himself were received in the most ungracious manner, and, after a few vague and ineffectual conferences, he returned to Paris. Here he remained, with the exception of a visit to Holland, to Piedmont and the south of France, until the autumn of 1789, zealously pursuing whatever was beneficial to his country. September 26 of that year he left Paris for Havre, and, crossing over to Cowes, embarked for the United States. November 23 he landed at Norfolk, Va., and, while on his way home, received a letter from President Washington, covering the appointment of secretary of state, under the new constitution, which was just commencing its operation. He soon afterwards received a second letter from the same quarter, giving him the option of returning to France, in his ministerial capacity, or of accepting the secretaryship, but conveying a strong intimation of desire that he would choose the latter office. This communication was produced by a letter from Mr. Jefferson to the president, in reply to the one first written, in which he had expressed a decided inclination to go back to the French metropolis. He then, however, consented to forego his preference, and, March 21, arrived in New York, where congress was in session, and immediately entered upon the duties of his post. It would be altogether inconsistent with our limits to give a minute account of the rest of Mr. Jefferson's political life. This could not be done without writing the history of the United States for a certain period. We must therefore content ourselves with stating that he continued to fill the secretaryship of state, until the 31st of December, 1793, when he resigned. From that period until February, 1797, he lived in retirement. In this year he was elected vice-president of the United States, and, in 1801, was chosen president by a majority of one vote over his competitor, Mr. Adams. At the expiration of eight years he again retired to private life, from which he never afterwards emerged. The rest of his life was passed at Monticello, which was a continued scene of the blandest and most liberal hospitality. Such, indeed, was the extent to which calls upon it were made, by foreigners as well as Americans, that the closing year of his life was embittered by distressing pecuniary embarrassments. He was forced to ask permission of the Virginia legislature to sell his estate by lottery, which was granted. Shortly after Mr. Jefferson's return to Monticello, it having been proposed to form a college in his neighborhood, he addressed a letter to the trustees, in which he sketched a plan for the establishment of a general system of education in Virginia. This appears to have led the way to an act of the legislature, in the year 1818, by which commissioners were appointed with authority to select a site, and form a plan for a university, on a large scale. Of these commissioners, Mr. Jefferson was unanimously chosen the chairman, and, Aug. 4, 1818, he framed a report, embracing the principles on which it was proposed the institution should be formed. The situation selected for it was at Charlottesville, a town at the foot of the mountain on which Mr. Jefferson resided. He lived to see the university - the child of his old age in prosperous operation, and giving promise of extensive usefulness. He fulfilled the duties of its rector until a short period before his death, which occurred on the 4th of July, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of independence, and within the hour in which he had signed it.

In person, Mr. Jefferson was tall and well formed his countenance was bland and expressive his conversation fluent, imaginative, various and eloquent. Few men equaled him in the faculty of pleasing in personal intercourse, and acquiring ascendancy in political connection. He was the acknowledged head of the republican party, from the period of its organization down to that of his retirement from public life. The unbounded praise and blame which he received as a politician, must be left for the judgment of the historian and posterity. In the four volumes of his posthumous works, edited by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, there are abundant materials to guide the literary or historical Critic in forming an estimate of his powers, acquirements, feelings and opinions. His name is one of the brightest in the revolutionary galaxy. Mr. Jefferson was a zealous cultivator of literature and science. As early as 1781, he was favorably known as an author, by his Notes on Virginia. He published, also, various essays on political and philosophical subjects, and a manual of Parliamentary Practice, for the use of the Senate of the United States. In the year 1800 the French national institute chose him one of their foreign members. The volumes of posthumous works, in addition to an auto-biography of the author to the year 1790, consist principally of letters from the year 1775 to the time of his death, and embrace a great variety of subjects.