Thomas Jefferson
In the
thick of party conflict in 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a private letter,
"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of
tyranny over the mind of man." This powerful advocate of liberty was born
in 1743 in Albermarle County, Virginia, inheriting from his father, a planter
and surveyor, some 5,000 acres of land, and from his mother, a Randolph, high
social standing. He studied at the College of William and Mary, then read law.

In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow, and took her to live in his
partly constructed mountaintop home, Monticello. Freckled and sandy-haired,
rather tall and awkward, Jefferson was eloquent as a correspondent, but he was
no public speaker. In the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental

Congress, he contributed his pen rather than his voice to the patriot cause. As
the "silent member" of the Congress, Jefferson, at 33, drafted the

Declaration of Independence. In years following he labored to make its words a
reality in Virginia. Most notably, he wrote a bill establishing religious
freedom, enacted in 1786. Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to

France in 1785. His sympathy for the French Revolution led him into conflict
with Alexander Hamilton when Jefferson was Secretary of State in President

Washington's Cabinet. He resigned in 1793. Sharp political conflict developed,
and two separate parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, began
to form. Jefferson gradually assumed leadership of the Republicans, who
sympathized with the revolutionary cause in France. Attacking Federalist
policies, he opposed a strong centralized Government and championed the rights
of states. As a reluctant candidate for President in 1796, Jefferson came within
three votes of election. Through a flaw in the Constitution, he became Vice

President, although an opponent of President Adams. In 1800 the defect caused a
more serious problem. Republican electors, attempting to name both a President
and a Vice President from their own party, cast a tie vote between Jefferson and

Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives settled the tie. Hamilton, disliking
both Jefferson and Burr, nevertheless urged Jefferson's election. When Jefferson
assumed the Presidency, the crisis in France had passed. He slashed Army and

Navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated the tax on whiskey so unpopular in
the West, yet reduced the national debt by a third. He also sent a naval
squadron to fight the Barbary pirates, who were harassing American commerce in
the Mediterranean. Further, although the Constitution made no provision for the
acquisition of new land, Jefferson suppressed his qualms over constitutionality
when he had the opportunity to acquire the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in

1803. During Jefferson's second term, he was increasingly preoccupied with
keeping the Nation from involvement in the Napoleonic wars, though both England
and France interfered with the neutral rights of American merchantmen.

Jefferson's attempted solution, an embargo upon American shipping, worked badly
and was unpopular. Jefferson retired to Monticello to ponder such projects as
his grand designs for the University of Virginia. A French nobleman observed
that he had placed his house and his mind "on an elevated situation, from
which he might contemplate the universe." He died on July 4, 1826.