Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia.1 He was educated at the College of William and Mary and read law under the eminent Virginia jurist George Wythe. A member of the group of Virginia radicals who opposed Parliamentary policy from the early stages of the American Revolution, Jefferson came to special prominence in 1774 as the author of the influential pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America. The following year he was elected to the Second Continental Congress, where he was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence at the age of thirty-three.
Let me describe to you a man, not yet forty, tall, and with a mild and pleasing countenance…. An American, who without ever having quitted his own country, is at once a musician, skilled in drawing, a geometrician, an astronomer, a natural philosopher, legislator, and statesman…. Sometimes natural philosophy, at others politics or the arts, were the topics of our conversation, for no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson; and it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe.
After the American colonies declared independence from Britain, Jefferson worked for the revision of the laws of his home state of Virginia in order to bring them into conformity with the principles he had articulated in the Declaration. Near the close of the Revolution, he also served two terms as Virginia’s governor. After a brief retirement that ended with the death of his young wife of ten years, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, in 1782, Jefferson returned to Congress and crafted legislation that laid the foundation for governance of America’s western territories.
Although he had drafted a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1777, Virginia’s General Assembly postponed its passage. In January 1786, through the efforts of James Madison, the bill was passed as An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. Pioneering in its affirmation of the absolute right to freedom of belief (or unbelief)—in Jefferson’s words, “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”—it was widely hailed in Europe, where Jefferson was then serving as America’s minister to France, and has since been recognized as a landmark in the development of human rights.
Returning to the United States after the ratification of the Constitution, Jefferson served as the nation’s first secretary of state and then as its vice president. During these years, he became the first leader of one of the nation’s two earliest political parties, the Republican Party, from which today’s Democratic Party descends.
In the election of 1800, which he and his followers framed as a contest between aristocratic Federalists and the more democratic Republicans, Jefferson defeated his old friend John Adams to become the third president of the United States. In that capacity he skillfully merged the roles of president and party leader, setting a precedent that all presidents since have followed. Highlights of his two-term presidency included the acquisition of the vast Louisiana Territory from France and Jefferson’s initiation and guidance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
These achievements were in some measure offset in his second term by the Embargo of American maritime commerce and navigation, a desperate attempt to keep the young nation out of war with Britain. The deeply unpopular Embargo failed and was repealed as Jefferson left office. War with Britain followed in 1812, and in 1814 the British set fire to the U.S. Capitol, destroying the fledgling Congressional Library. As an inveterate collector of books, Jefferson was able to sell his superb personal library to Congress in 1815 as the foundation of the new Library of Congress.
The last years of his life were spent in retirement at his Virginia estate, Monticello External, in the house he designed External. Although Jefferson had no formal architectural training, his influential designs and lifelong commitment to the importance of architecture in the life of the nation did much to establish a distinctive American classicism. And in the eight years before his death on July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of American independence—Jefferson founded, designed, and directed the building of the University of Virginia. External
Jurist, diplomat, writer, philosopher, architect, gardener, statesman, and principal founder of the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson requested that only three of his many accomplishments be noted on his tomb at Monticello: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
The Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827, includes approximately 27,000 documents, or some 83,000 images, from the Library’s collection of Jefferson’s papers, which is the largest group of original Jefferson documents in the world. The online version of the collection also includes additional features such as an essay on Jefferson by the historian Joseph J. Ellis and timelines of Jefferson’s life and of the early Virginia history whose records Jefferson collected and preserved with his own.
- With the intention of more accurately reflecting a solar year, the Julian (“Old Style”) Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. At that time Thomas Jefferson’s April 2, 1743, birth date was adjusted to the “New Style” date of April 13, 1743. (Return to text)
- For letters and documents related to the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, search the collection of Jefferson’s papers on religious freedom.
- To retrieve images of Jefferson’s correspondence with the Marquis de Chastellux, who visited him in 1782, search the Thomas Jefferson Papers on the keyword Chastellux.
- Read the book in which Chastellux describes his visit to Jefferson in the collection American Notes: Travels in America, 1750 to 1920.
- The exhibit Thomas Jefferson focuses on the life of this multifaceted Founding Father. It traces Jefferson’s intellectual development from his earliest days to his twilight years.
- Explore the library Jefferson sold to Congress, which became the foundation of today’s Library of Congress, in the online exhibition Thomas Jefferson’s Library.
- The online exhibition Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents gives more background on the process by which the Declaration of Independence reached the form in which it is known today.
- See Religion and the State Governments from the exhibit Religion and the Founding of the American Republic to learn more about Virginia’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom drafted by Jefferson.
- The American Treasures of the Library of Congress online exhibition includes many artifacts of Thomas Jefferson among its Top Treasures. The exhibition itself is organized according to Jefferson’s classification scheme for his library: recipe for vanilla ice cream and his design for a pasta machine!
- For more background on Jefferson’s contribution to the Congressional Library, read the publication Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress by John Y. Cole, Library of Congress Historian and former director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.
- Search for historical documents of the United States Congress as well as current legislation using Congress.gov, a project originally named for Jefferson in the spirit of his belief in the importance of the people’s participation in their government.
- To find out more about Jefferson’s architecture, search on the word Monticello or on the exact phrases University of Virginia, Virginia State Capitol, or Poplar Forest in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS/HAER).
- Find information on many more materials about Jefferson in the Library’s research guide Thomas Jefferson: An American Man for All Seasons, and in the Related Resources feature of the Library’s online collection of Jefferson’s papers.