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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

Collection Overview

The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress represents the largest collection of original Jefferson documents in the world. The collection includes correspondence, books, financial accounts, and manuscripts. The material covers Jefferson's drafting of the Declaration of Independence, his position as governor of Virginia, his ministerial positions in Europe, and his two administrations as president including Jefferson's role in the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. The collection documents the construction of the capitol city of Washington, D.C., and the sale of Jefferson's personal library to Congress in 1815.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Colonial Settlement, 1492-1763
  • The American Revolution, 1763-1783
  • The New Nation, 1780-1815
  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword. The collection is organized into nine series by date.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.



The Thomas Jefferson Papers from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress chronicle Jefferson's public and private life from his days as a student through his years as a public servant to his retirement at Monticello. In 1815, following the burning of the Library of Congress by the British, Jefferson sold his library to Congress as a replacement for the burned volumes. The online collection includes approximately 83,000 page images, including correspondence, memoranda, notes, drafts of documents, and more. Also available is a rare set of volumes documenting the early history of Virginia (1606-1737), which were part of Jefferson’s personal library.

The collection can be used to explore several periods in American history, including colonial Virginia, the events leading to the American Revolution and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, formation of the party system and conflicts over issues in the Washington administration, the Kentucky Resolution, the Jefferson presidency, and pivotal issues of the 1820s, including the Missouri Compromise. Two timelines presented with the collection — The Virginia Records Timeline and The Thomas Jefferson Papers Timeline — are useful tools for organizing a study of the papers. Another useful feature is the Selected Quotations.

Many of the documents are original handwritten manuscripts. A number of these handwritten documents are difficult to read because of ink bleeding, penmanship, and other factors. Some documents are presented in both handwritten and transcribed formats. The full text of the transcriptions is searchable by word or phrase as well as by the descriptive (bibliographic) information; documents that have not been transcribed can be searched by descriptive information. The collection can also be browsed by the ten series into which the documents are organized.

Colonial Settlement

An avid reader, Jefferson collected thousands of manuscripts for his personal library. The Virginia Records Manuscripts, 1606-1737, are among his collected works. The records provide insights into the early history of the colony. “Instructions to the Governor and Council of State in Virginia,” dated July 24, 1621, is one of the earliest handwritten documents in the collection.

The collection also includes the Peyton Randolph Manuscript of Virginia Laws, 1662-1697, consisting of hundreds of laws and ordinances. Two of these laws were “An act for prohibiting the unlawful assembly of Quakers” and “An act for establishing a fast” as a means of reparations for the “sins of the colony.”

  • What do the two laws cited above suggest about the role of religion in the life of the Virginia colony?
  • Skim through the collection of laws. What else can you deduce about life in Virginia in the mid to late 17th century?

The collection also includes “The Beginning, Progress, and Conclusion of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, In the Years 1675 and 1676.” The document was printed in the Richmond Enquirer in September 1804; it had been copied from an original manuscript by President Jefferson, who had received the document from Rufus King, Jefferson’s minister to Great Britain. King had purchased the document at a bookshop in London. Jefferson wrote an introduction to the document, which can be viewed in the text version.

  • Why did Jefferson feel this document had particular value?
  • What questions might you have about its authenticity?
  • How was Jefferson trying to shape readers’ response to the document through his introduction? Why might he want to do so?
  • What does the account reveal about relations with Native Americans in colonial Virginia?
  • How does the information in this account differ from accounts of the events in secondary sources? How might you resolve any differences?
  • In the last paragraph of the introduction, Jefferson said that, based on this document, “Nathaniel Bacon will no longer be regarded as a rebel, but as a patriot.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

The American Revolution

Jefferson’s participation in the events leading up to the American Revolution is well documented in the collection. For example, a search using the term Continental Congress will produce more than 50 documents, including:

In 1774, Jefferson wrote a pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” originally prepared as instructions for the Virginia delegates to the First Continental Congress. When the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted a more moderate stance, some of Jefferson’s colleagues, with his support, published the pamphlet in Philadelphia and New York, building his reputation as both a proponent of change and a skillful political writer. The pamphlet was also widely circulated in London. In this detailed survey of events that had led to the rift between Britain and the colonies, Jefferson wrote that it was time for his majesty George III to

. . . prevent the passage of laws by any one legislature of the empire, which might bear injuriously on the rights and interests of another. Yet this will not excuse the wanton exercise of this power which we have seen his majesty practise on the laws of the American legislatures for the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Delegates to the Continental Congress, August 1774, ‘A Summary View of the Rights of British America’; Instructions,” page 312

In concluding his list of grievances against the Parliament and crown, Jefferson used a reference to natural rights that was to be the core of the Declaration of Independence he drafted two years later:

. . . That these are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Delegates to the Continental Congress, August 1774, ‘A Summary View of the Rights of British America’; Instructions,” page 320

  • What did Jefferson mean by describing a free people’s rights “as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate”?
  • How did Jefferson’s “Summary View of the Rights of British America” foreshadow the Declaration of Independence?
  • Why do you think the Second Continental Congress selected Jefferson as a member of the committee to draft the Declaration?

Examine Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration, written in June 1776, and his notes on debates in the Continental Congress on the Declaration on June 7, 1776. Also read sections of Jefferson’s Autobiography relating to the Declaration of Independence.

  • Compare Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence to the resolution adopted by the Second Continental Congress. How substantive were the differences in the two accounts?
  • What do you think accounted for the changes?
  • Why did Jefferson believe that some would object to accusations directed at the people of Britain?

Read the excerpts from John Adams’s diary and Jefferson’s response regarding the events surrounding the drafting of the Declaration, both provided in a note in the transcribed fragment of the Autobiography. Also read Jefferson’s letter to Madison, dated August 30, 1823, for Jefferson’s response to controversy over the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

  • On what points did Jefferson and Adams differ?
  • How did Jefferson view Timothy Pickering’s and John Adams’s recollections of the drafting of the Declaration?
  • Do you think that Pickering and Adams were trying to discredit Jefferson’s role in drafting the Declaration? Explain your answer.
  • One of the paragraphs deleted from Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence during the debate condemned slavery and the slave trade:

He waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights to life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain: determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce; and that this assemblage of horrours might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms, among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urged them to commit against the lives of another.

From “Thomas Jefferson, June 1776, Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence,” page 545

  • Why did South Carolina and Georgia strenuously object to this paragraph?
  • Why do you think Jefferson agreed to have the paragraph removed?
  • Using hindsight, do you think the paragraph should have remained in the document? Explain.

From 1776-1778, Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1779, he was elected governor of Virginia and was reelected in 1780. His autobiography discusses the need in the years following the Declaration of Independence to revise Virginia laws to purge them of the remnants of colonial laws. He proposed a number of revisions to the statutes while in the House and later, as governor, continued his efforts to secure passage of these reforms. The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom proposed during Jefferson’s tenure in the Assembly and finally passed in 1786 was among his proudest accomplishments. In his autobiography, he explains:

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally past; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read "” departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.

From “Thomas Jefferson, July 27, 1821, Autobiography Draft Fragment,” page 538

  • Why do you think Jefferson regarded the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom to be one of his proudest accomplishments? Search the collection for additional evidence of Jefferson’s commitment to the principle of religious freedom.
  • In his Autobiography, Jefferson wrote of four bills that, in his view, formed “a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican.” What were the other three bills? Why do you think Jefferson saw each, including the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, as necessary to republican government? Which proposals were enacted? Which might still be controversial today?

Jefferson’s Service to the New Nation

In 1783, Jefferson was elected to Congress from Virginia. In March 1784, he submitted to Congress his Report of a Plan of Government for the Western Territory, establishing procedures for the entrance of new states into the union. In it, he proposed that slavery be abolished in new states by 1800. Congress rejected this part of the plan and passed a revised Ordinance. The Northwest Ordinance, passed July 13, 1787, contained much of what Jefferson had prescribed.

  • In Jefferson’s proposed plan, what were the five principles on which the governments of new states should rest? Use what you know about Jefferson to identify a reason why each of the principles was important to him.
  • The Thomas Jefferson Timeline suggests that this report “marks the high point of Jefferson’s opposition to slavery.” If you were making a timeline of Jefferson’s writings on slavery, what earlier documents would you include? As you study documents from later in Jefferson’s career, look for evidence that Jefferson’s opposition waned after 1784.

That same year, Jefferson was appointed to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as a minister representing the United States in Europe. In July, he left for Paris, where he would serve for five years. In 1786, Jefferson learned of Shays’ Rebellion in letters from John Adams and John Jay. Shays’ Rebellion arose when farmers in western Massachusetts, angered by rising debts and taxes, took up arms against the government. Abigail Adams, who corresponded regularly with Jefferson, also wrote him about the insurgency. Jefferson responded in a letter dated February 22, 1787.

. . . The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Smith Adams, February 22, 1787”

In a letter to William S. Smith, November 13, 1787, Jefferson again spoke of the rebellion in western Massachusetts:

…Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure….

From “Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, November 13, 1787,” page 515

  • Why do you think Jefferson seemed less concerned about Shays’ Rebellion than most American leaders, including John and Abigail Adams?
  • What did he mean by the line to Abigail Adams, “I like a little rebellion now and then”? What did he mean in writing to William Smith that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”?
  • What impact did Shays’ Rebellion have on the American political scene?

Jefferson, still in Paris in 1787, received details of the constitutional convention’s work from Madison, who wrote Jefferson a series of letters explaining the Constitution. In a reply to one of Madison’s letters, Jefferson wrote of his general support of the document but listed two criticisms.

I will now add what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land. . . . Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.

The second feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is that abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President. From “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787,” page 729

  • What two problems did Jefferson have with the new Constitution?
  • How do these concerns reflect issues that Jefferson had been engaged with over time?
  • What do these concerns suggest about Jefferson’s political philosophy?

While in Paris, Jefferson was an eyewitness to the beginnings of the French Revolution and attended the opening session of the French Estates-General in October 1789. He predicted in a letter to Richard Price (January 8, 1789) that France would, through the Estates General, “press forward to the establishment of a constitution which shall assure to them a good degree of liberty.” Jefferson worked with the Marquis de Lafayette to draft a charter of rights that served as the basis for the French Declaration of Rights that Lafayette presented to the National Assembly in July. Jefferson returned to the United States before the French Revolution became violent.

Jefferson’s Role in the Washington and Adams Administrations

Upon his return to the United States in November 1789, Jefferson learned that he had been appointed Secretary of State; he reluctantly accepted the post. Much of his time was consumed with affairs in France as the revolution there took a violent turn and threatened to involve the United States in a war with Britain. Search the collection using the keyword Genet for multiple references to the maneuvers of Citizen Edmond Genet and the problems he caused in American foreign policy.

On the domestic front, Jefferson opposed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s financial program, which Washington endorsed. Hamilton’s program included federal assumption of state debts incurred during the Revolution, establishment of a mint and a national bank, imposition of various taxes, and a vision of an industrial America. Jefferson, in a February 1791 letter to Washington, argued that aspects of Hamilton’s program violated the Tenth Amendment and could not be justified under the “necessary and proper” clause in Article I. (Note that Jefferson identified the relevant amendment as the Twelfth Amendment because the Bill of Rights originally included twelve proposed amendments, two of which were not ratified at that time by the states.)

George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, August 23, 1792

George Washington to Thomas
Jefferson, August 23, 1792
. Why do
you think President Washington
marked this letter “Private”?

The disagreements between Jefferson and Hamilton disturbed Washington, who wrote to both men in August 1792. In his letter to Jefferson, Washington wrote, “How unfortunate, and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends, that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals.” Jefferson responded in a letter dated September 9, 1792.

. . . If it has been supposed that I have ever intrigued among the members of the legislature to defeat the plans of the Secretary of the Treasury, it is contrary to all truth. . . . That I have utterly, in my private conversations, disapproved of the system of the Secretary of the treasury, I acknowledge & avow: and this was not merely a speculative difference. His system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, & was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature.

From “Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, September 9, 1792,”

Look for other documents in the collection that will help you understand the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton.

  • What was the basis of the conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson?
  • How did these disagreements evolve into the creation of political parties?
  • Why did both Jefferson and Hamilton resign from Washington’s cabinet?

Jefferson resigned from Washington’s cabinet in 1793 and returned to Monticello, where he took up affairs on his estate, which he had long neglected. Politics, however, distracted Jefferson in his “retirement.” In December 1794, he wrote to Madison expressing his concerns about the government’s reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Washington had publicly blamed the outbreak on “democratic societies” while Jefferson laid the blame on Hamilton’s excise tax, which he described as “an infernal one” that might be “the instrument of dismembering the Union.” In April 1796, Jefferson wrote to Philip Mazzei, a friend in Italy, expressing his disillusionment with the political climate in the United States. The letter to Mazzei was first printed in the Italian press and then translated and circulated in the United States. The letter, assumed to be directed at George Washington, stirred controversy and became an issue in the election of 1796.

Although Jefferson did not seek the presidency in 1796, his name was placed on the ballot, accompanied by a firestorm of Federalist opposition. The Federalists supported the candidacy of Vice President John Adams. Although Jefferson and Adams had been colleagues during the Revolutionary era, political philosophy had divided them. Jefferson wrote to Adams on December 28, 1796:

The public & the papers have been much occupied lately in placing us in a point of opposition to each other. I trust with confidence that less of it has been felt by ourselves personally. . . . Our latest intelligence from Philadelphia at present is of the 16th inst. but tho' at that date your election to the first magistracy seems not to have been known as a fact, yet with me it has never been doubted. . . . I have never one single moment expected a different issue; & tho' I know I shall not be believed, yet it is not the less true that I have never wished it. . . . Indeed it is impossible that you may be cheated of your succession by a trick worthy the subtlety of your arch-friend of New York who has been able to make of your real friends tools to defeat their and your just wishes. Most probably he will be disappointed as to you; and my inclinations place me out of his reach. . . . No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself. . . . I have no ambition to govern men. It is a painful and thankless office.

From “Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, December 28, 1796”

  • Why do you think Jefferson began the letter by referring to public and media perceptions of his relationship with Adams? What does this suggest about the purpose of the letter?
  • What did Jefferson mean by “the first magistracy”?
  • Whom was Jefferson referring to when he mentioned “your arch-friend of New York”? What was Jefferson’s attitude toward this person?
  • Why do you think Jefferson said that governing men was “a painful and thankless office”? Do you agree? Why or why not?

After receiving the second highest number of electoral votes, Jefferson was sworn in as John Adams’ vice president. Despite Jefferson’s suggestion that he and Adams were not in such great opposition as the press and public believed, conflicts between Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans continued through the Adams administration. These differences were particularly strong regarding issues related to a possible conflict with France and Britain. When it appeared probable that the United States would be drawn into war, Federalists in Congress secured passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. In the Kentucky Resolution, which he wrote privately, Jefferson forcibly expressed opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, which he believed were a first step toward establishing a dictatorship or monarchy:

. . . to take from the States all the powers of self-government and transfer them to a general and consolidated government, without regard to the special delegations and reservations solemnly agreed to in that compact, is not for the peace, happiness, or prosperity of these States; and that therefore this commonwealth is determined . . . to submit to undelegated, and consequently unlimited powers in no man, or, body of men on earth: . . . where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact . . . to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: that without this right they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them.

From “Thomas Jefferson, November 16, 1798, Kentucky Resolution,”

Examine the Kentucky Resolution in Jefferson’s hand or in transcription.

  • What is the compact to which Jefferson referred?
  • What course of action was Jefferson recommending?
  • Does a state have the right to nullify an act of the federal government? If so, under what circumstances?

Note that Jefferson’s fellow Republican James Madison wrote similar resolutions to be introduced to the Virginia legislature. Both Kentucky and Virginia passed the resolutions, which had no legal bearing on the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Jefferson Presidency

After four years as vice president, Jefferson ran against the incumbent for the presidency in 1800. Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received the same number of electoral votes, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. The House took repeated votes over a period of six days, finally electing Jefferson on the 36th ballot, just two weeks before inauguration.

The collection includes some of Jefferson’s correspondence regarding the election. In a letter to Madison on December 26, 1800, Jefferson wrote that the Federalists “appear determined to prevent an election, & to pass a bill giving the government to Mr. Jay, appointed Chief Justice, or to Marshall as Secy of state.” Read the December 26 letter, as well as a letter to Madison written December 19, 1800, and one to Caesar Rodney written December 21, 1800, for two additional accounts of the disputed election from Jefferson’s perspective.

  • When it appeared the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives, what did Jefferson predict would happen? How accurate were his predictions?
  • What concerns about the government did Jefferson express in these letters? Conduct research to find out how Jefferson dealt with those issues in his administration.

In the last hours of the Adams administration, the president appointed 16 federal judges and selected John Marshall, an avowed Federalist, as Chief Justice. Jefferson and the Republicans were infuriated by the appointment of these “midnight judges.” In an 1804 letter to Abigail Adams, Jefferson referred to the judicial appointments.

. . . I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind. They were from among my most ardent political enemies, from whom no faithful co-operation could ever be expected; and laid me under the embarrassment of acting thro' men whose views were to defeat mine, or to encounter the odium of putting others in their places. It seemed but common justice to leave a successor free to act by instruments of his own choice. If my respect for him did not permit me to ascribe the whole blame to the influence of others, it left something for friendship to forgive, and after brooding over it for some little time, and not always resisting the expression of it, I forgave it cordially, and returned to the same state of esteem & respect for him which had so long subsisted.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Smith Adams, June 13, 1804”

A festering problem with pirates in the Mediterranean was one of the first foreign policy problems to confront the new administration. Jefferson had written about this problem as early as 1786, saying in a letter to John Adams “I acknowledge I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro’ the medium of war” and listing reasons why a war with the Barbary Pirates would be the only feasible solution to the harassment of shipping in the Mediterranean. Jefferson wrote an account of events leading to the Barbary War in an 1801 letter to Wilson Cary Nicholas. A brief essay on the Barbary Pirates accompanies the collection.

The purchase of Louisiana was one of the hallmarks of the Jefferson administration. There was, however, opposition to the annexation of western territory, especially among the Federalists. Jefferson himself questioned his authority to purchase Louisiana. See “Queries on Louisiana” and Jefferson’s proposal for a constitutional amendment for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory. In a letter to John C. Breckinridge, Jefferson mentioned objections to the purchase and talk of exchanging Louisiana, or part of the Louisiana territory, for Florida, noting, “But, as I have said, we shall get the Floridas without, and I would not give one inch of the waters of the Mississippi to any nation.”

  • Why was Jefferson fearful of French control of Louisiana? Why was it important to have the “right of deposit” in New Orleans?
  • Why would Jefferson feel it necessary to amend the Constitution before he could legitimately purchase Louisiana from France?
  • How did Federalists and Republicans react to the acquisition of Louisiana?
  • Why was Jefferson unwilling to have any nation control the Mississippi River?

On June 20, 1803, Jefferson wrote instructions to Meriwether Lewis regarding the mission he and George Rogers Clark were to undertake. Search the collection using Lewis and Clark as a search term to locate additional correspondence to and from Jefferson regarding the scientific mission of discovery. You may also want to search the American Memory Map Collections for a map drawn during the expedition with annotations by Meriwether Lewis.

  • What importance did Jefferson place on the Lewis and Clark expedition?
  • What were his instructions to Meriwether Lewis?
  • What benefits did the nation reap from the expedition?

Jefferson’s second term was troubled by war in Europe and the threat of U.S. involvement. France, to cripple English trade and commerce, passed a series of decrees establishing a blockade, and England responded with the “Orders in Council,” which effectively kept ships from neutral countries from reaching France. Both nations threatened American shipping. Jefferson, to avoid war, initiated a series of trade restrictions that angered Federalist New England. Jefferson was assailed by the press and received letters in opposition to his policies, which took an economic toll on merchant seamen, dockworkers, and farmers who had made up much of the Republican constituency.

Jefferson in Retirement

Subscription for the Author of the Declaration of Independence, 1826

Subscription for the Author of the
Declaration of Independence, 1826
In his later years, Jefferson had
financial problems, prompting
groups to seek contributions for
“personal relief.” When Jefferson
died on July 4, 1826, he was more
than $100,000 in debt.

In 1809, James Madison was elected to succeed Jefferson as president. Jefferson retired to his beloved Monticello, where he spent his time experimenting with plants, pursuing scientific interests, writing his autobiography, and corresponding with friends on subjects as diverse as his many interests. He also worked to establish the University of Virginia, one of the proudest achievements of his life.

Although Jefferson never again left Virginia, politics was always on his mind. In a letter to Congressman John Holmes of Maine, April 22, 1820, he expressed concern for the union in the wake of the Missouri Compromise’s passage, referring to the sectional issue over slavery and its extension as “the fire bell in the night.”

Complete your timeline of Jefferson’s writings about slavery. Summarize the evolution of his views on slavery. What provisions would you have expected Jefferson to have made for his slaves upon his death? Find out if your prediction was correct.


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Constructing a Timeline of Jefferson’s Accomplishments

Thomas Jefferson, no date, Design for Mould Board Plow

Thomas Jefferson, no date, Design for Mould Board Plow. What important benefits to the nation resulted from Jefferson’s interest in agriculture?

In September 1800, Jefferson wrote, “A Memorandum of Services to My Country,” in which he pondered, “I have sometimes asked myself whether my country is the better for my having lived at all?” In the memorandum, Jefferson included a rough timeline of some of the contributions he deemed important. These ranged from writing the Declaration of Independence to importing olive plants from France and rice from Africa, both for planting in Southern states.

  • What services performed for his country did Jefferson note in his memorandum?
  • What does the memo reveal about Jefferson’s values and beliefs?

Develop a more complete timeline of Jefferson’s services to his country. You may use The Thomas Jefferson Papers Timeline: 1743-1827 as one source, but you should also consider information you have gathered from examining documents in the collection. Be selective; that is, do not include everything Jefferson did in his lifetime. Instead, choose no more than 10 to 15 services, picking them based on your own values and beliefs about what was most important in making the United States “better.”

Chronological Thinking: Identifying Cause-and-Effect Relationships on Timelines

Study the two timelines that accompany the collection: the Virginia Records Timeline, 1553-1743 and the Thomas Jefferson Papers Timeline, 1743-1827. As you study the timelines, pay special attention to the relationships between different events listed on the timelines.

  • What cause-and-effect relationships are revealed in these timelines?
  • Look for an event for which multiple causes are shown. Look for an event for which multiple effects are shown.
  • Write a paragraph explaining how timelines can be useful in understanding cause-and-effect relationships.

Historical Comprehension: Evidencing Historical Perspectives

The inaugural address—the speech a President gives following his swearing-in—is an important opportunity for the newly inaugurated leader to share his or her views with supporters and opponents alike. Some very famous quotations come from inaugural addresses: think of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” or Abraham Lincoln’s “With malice toward none, with charity toward all.” While many presidents emphasize the nation’s shared democratic principles, events of the time also influence what the president says.

Examine Jefferson’s first and second inaugural addresses. (Note that both are available in transcription.) Think about the events occurring at the time of each inauguration as you read the addresses.

  • What was the main focus of Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address? Why do you think Jefferson chose this focus?
  • To what extent did the First Inaugural Address respond to the bitter partisan conflicts in the election of 1800?
  • What was Jefferson’s emphasis in his Second Inaugural Address? Why do you think Jefferson chose this focus to launch his second term?
  • How are the two addresses similar? How are they different? Discuss how the context in which each was delivered accounts for the differences.
  • Find a passage in one of Jefferson’s inaugural addresses that you find particularly inspiring or insightful. Create a poster that conveys the passage visually. Be sure to include the passage itself somewhere on your poster. Why do you think this passage remains meaningful in today’s historical context?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Comparing and Contrasting Differing Ideas about Government

While the framers of the Constitution hoped to avoid development of political factions or parties by giving them no role in the Constitution, factions in fact grew around the debate over whether to ratify the Constitution. By the time President Washington left office, two political parties—the Republicans and the Federalists—had developed. The many disagreements between Jefferson, who was Washington’s Secretary of State, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton traced the division of the two factions.

Analyze the dispute between the Federalists and Republicans during the early national period. Examine the Thomas Jefferson Timeline to identify disagreements between Jefferson and Hamilton. Read accounts of the differing political philosophies and explain the issues that divided the two political parties.

Read Jefferson’s “Introduction to the ‘Anas’.” The “Anas” was a collection of letters, notes, and reports written while he was Secretary of State but collected some years later. In the “Introduction,” written on February 4, 1818, Jefferson stated, “Could these documents, all, be laid open to the public eye, they might be compared, contrasted, weighed, & the truth fairly sifted out of them, for we are not to suppose that every thing found among Genl. Washington’s papers is to be taken as gospel truth” (page 627). Jefferson expressed concern over the way in which the Republican Party had been portrayed by Washington and the Federalists, and he attacked Hamilton’s financial program, which had been supported by Washington and largely enacted into law by Federalists in the Congress. Jefferson accused Hamilton and the Federalists of looking after self-interest rather than the public good: “That even in this, the birth of our government, some members were found sordid enough to bend their duty to their interests, and to look after personal, rather than public good” (page 628).

  • On what issues did Jefferson and Hamilton disagree? How did their disagreements reflect their differing political philosophies?
  • What was Jefferson’s perspective on George Washington? What did he say about the support that Washington gave to Hamilton and the Federalists?
  • What issues did Jefferson raise in the introduction to the “Anas”?
  • What were Jefferson’s apparent motives for compiling the documents in the “Anas”?
  • Can you see any parallels between the differences that separated the Federalists and the Republicans and the differences between political parties today? Explain your answer.

During the Adams administration, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed with the support of the Federalists, who claimed these acts would protect the United States from seditious attacks. The Republicans opposed the acts as unconstitutional, claiming their intent was to protect Adams from criticism. Jefferson and James Madison developed a strategy for getting states to block the acts. Madison drafted resolutions to be introduced in the Virginia, and Jefferson did the same for the Kentucky legislature. Examine the Kentucky Resolution of 1798. Also look at the later “Declaration and Protest of the U.S. Constitution,” which voiced opposition to broad federal powers advocated by President John Quincy Adams in 1825.

  • How are the two protests against expansive federal power similar?
  • Why was the South antagonized by Adams’ support of the “American System,” an economic plan that involved (1) using funds generated from high tariffs to support such internal improvements as building roads and a national university and (2) a national bank to encourage economic growth?
  • How do the opposing positions on the expansion of federal power reflect the differing views of government that resulted in the original development of political parties?

Historical Research: Formulating Questions about the Burr Conspiracy

Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s first vice president, is a controversial figure in U.S. history. Not only did he kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but he was also the author of a conspiracy to start a new nation in the western territories of the United States.

Learn as much as you can about this conspiracy by examining the Thomas Jefferson Timeline for the years 1805-1807. Formulate two questions about the so-called Burr conspiracy and its aftermath.

Search the collection using Aaron Burr or Burr conspiracy as keywords. The search, in addition to generating a list of correspondence about the conspiracy, reveals Jefferson’s message to Congress on January 22, 1807, regarding the conspiracy and trial of his former vice president. Can you answer the two questions you wrote using sources from the collection? If not, where else might you look for additional primary sources on this series of events?

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Freedom of Religion

In 1801, a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote President Jefferson a letter, complaining that, in their state, religious liberties for minority groups such as theirs were regarded as special privileges granted by the legislature, rather than constitutional rights due to all groups. Jefferson’s reply, penned on January 1, 1802, after discussion with colleagues from the northeast, contained a phrase that has been used by many to describe the First Amendment’s protection against the establishment of religion:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association, January 1, 1802”

  • What phrase did Jefferson use to describe the prohibition against an established religion?
  • The U.S. Supreme Court used the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in a number of cases between 1947 and the 1970s. Why do you think the phrase became a popular way of encapsulating this aspect of religious freedom?
  • Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has backed away from the wall of separation metaphor. Why do you think this might be the case?

Create a timeline that highlights Establishment Clause issues from the era in which Jefferson wrote his letter to the Danbury Baptists to the present. Based on your timeline, what could you conclude about the enduring nature of issues related to the establishment of religion? How has our understanding of the Establishment Clause changed over time? Based on what you know about Jefferson, describe how he would react to a current issue related to the establishment of religion, such as the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.


Arts & Humanities


Thomas Jefferson had a lifelong interest in learning as evidenced by his vast library, which included books on science, history, political theory, and agriculture, as well as works of poetry, drama, and novels. In 1771, Robert Skipwith, the brother-in-law of Jefferson’s future wife, asked Jefferson to recommend a library of books that could be purchased for about 50 pounds (British currency). Jefferson responded:

…we are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, August 3, 1771”

Read the entire letter to Skipwith, as well as a letter to John Minor, in which Jefferson recounted a plan of reading he had sent to a young friend. Jefferson wrote the letter to Minor in 1814, describing the reading plan as written “near 50 years ago.”

  • Why did Jefferson decide not to do what Skipwith had asked? What did he do instead?
  • What value did Jefferson place on reading fiction? Give an example of a novel from which you have learned about a “moral rule of life.”
  • How does the Skipwith letter show Jefferson’s love of learning? What do you think of the reading plan laid out in the Minor letter? What does it suggest about Jefferson’s interests?

Literary Commonplace Books

Literary Commonplace Book, image 416

Literary Commonplace Book, image 416. This page shows a passage from Euripedes written in Greek. Scan the book to find other writers Jefferson included.

One of the series in the Thomas Jefferson Papers collection is Commonplace Books. A commonplace book is not what you might expect from the name. Rather than something ordinary, a commonplace book is a journal or notebook in which a student, reader, or writer compiles quotations, poems, letters, and information, along with the compiler’s notes and reactions. Students from the 1600s through the 1800s were required to keep commonplace books as learning tools. The Commonplace Books series contains two books compiled by Jefferson in his student years. One was a legal commonplace book, compiled while he was studying the law and containing abstracts of important cases. The second was a literary commonplace book, started as a student and maintained until his marriage. In the literary commonplace book, Jefferson included quotations from a wide array of books he read. Entries are in English, Latin, and Greek.

Examine the Selected Quotations from the Thomas Jefferson Papers. Select several of these short quotations to start your own literary commonplace book. Write each quotation at the top of a page; below the quotation, write a paragraph applying it to contemporary American society. What other writers would you feature in your book? How might a student, a reader, or a writer benefit from keeping a commonplace book?

Political Writing

Imagine that you are looking for someone to write an important political document. This document might not be quite as important as the Declaration of Independence, but it is important to you because you have some big ideas you want to communicate to the public. What skills would the writer need? For example, you might be looking for someone who can write with passion or can organize a logical progression of ideas. Make a list of the qualities you would look for in a political writer.

Use your list of qualities to evaluate the Declaration of Independence. Keep in mind that the Declaration was written in a time when writing style was different than it is today. Create an outline of the Declaration.

  • How did Jefferson organize the Declaration? Do you think this organizational scheme is effective? Why or why not?
  • What are the strengths of the Declaration as a piece of political writing? What changes would you have recommended to Jefferson?
  • Pick your favorite passage from the Declaration. Explain what characteristics of the writing make this passage effective.

Letter Writing

Writing style is the way in which a writer selects and arranges words to convey ideas and achieve a particular purpose. A writer’s style may vary depending on the audience to whom he or she is writing. The Thomas Jefferson Papers include letters written by Jefferson to a variety of audiences, from his children and grandchildren to friends, political allies, and opponents. Analyze several of Jefferson’s personal letters to relatives and friends, focusing on the style in which he wrote. For example, read a letter he wrote to his daughter in 1783, in which he advised her on how to dress. Also read the letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, written November 24, 1808, in which he gave advice on character and education.

. . . Be a listener only, keep within yourself, and endeavor to establish with yourself the habit of silence, especially on politics. In the fevered state of our country, no good can ever result from any attempt to set one of these fiery zealots to rights, either in fact or principle. . . . Get by them, therefore, as you would by an angry bull; it is not for a man of sense to dispute the road with such an animal. You will be more exposed than others to have these animals shaking their horns at you, because of the relation in which you stand with me.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 24, 1808”

What seemed to be Jefferson’s purposes in writing to his young relatives? How did he adapt his writing style to those purposes and the young people to whom he was writing?

In corresponding with a married woman in whom he seemed to be interested, Jefferson structured a letter in the form of a dialogue between head and heart. His letter to Abigail Adams, responding to her note of condolence on the death of his daughter, expressed both appreciation for her sympathy and a candid appraisal of his political differences with her husband. Compare these letters with letters to professional colleagues, such as James Madison, James Monroe, and George Washington. How did Jefferson’s style change when he wrote to personal acquaintances? Did he structure his sentences similarly or differently? How did he adapt his language choices to the audience addressed?


Thomas Jefferson, no date, Epitaph

Thomas Jefferson, no date, Epitaph. This sketch accompanied Jefferson’s notes on his preferred epitaph.

An epitaph is an inscription on a headstone. Some epitaphs are sentimental, some summarize the person’s achievements, and still others are wry reflections on life and death. By necessity, epitaphs typically must be relatively brief. The collection includes the epitaph Jefferson wrote for his wife:

To the
Martha Jefferson,
Daughter of John Wayles,
Born Oct. 19. 1748. O.S.
Intermarried with
Thomas Jefferson
Jan 1. 1772.
Torn from him by death
Sept. 6. 1782
This Monument of his love
Is Inscribed.

From “Thomas Jefferson, September 6, 1782, Epitaph on the Death of Martha Wayles Jefferson”

Jefferson also gave consideration to his epitaph and, from his many accomplishments, selected three to be inscribed on the obelisk he designed for his gravesite. Jefferson specified that “not a word more” be inscribed: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.”

  • How would you describe each of the two epitaphs written by Jefferson? How are they alike? How are they different?
  • What does the proposed epitaph for himself tell you about Jefferson’s reflections on his life’s work? Would you have selected the same three accomplishments if you had been asked to write his epitaph? Why or why not?
  • Choose another historical or contemporary figure you have studied and write an epitaph highlighting the three most important achievements of that person’s life. If possible, use an autobiography or other document written by the person to support your choices.