Reading Level: Elementary School
Thomas Jefferson is famous for writing the Declaration of Independence and for being the third president of the United States. Jefferson had many other interests and identities. He loved architecture and designed his own house. He loved science and studied the natural world. He was a plantation owner. He was a father and grandfather to his large family. Jefferson lived a very long and full life.
Jefferson’s early years helped shape his life. He was born April 13, 1743 at Shadwell, a plantation in central Virginia. His father was Peter Jefferson, a planter and surveyor. His mother was Jane Randolph Jefferson, the daughter of a well-known Virginia family. In school, Jefferson studied Latin, Greek and French. In 1760, he went to the College of William and Mary. He studied and practiced law for a number of years. He was described as “tall, sandy-haired and freckled.” He was a skilled horseman and violin player.
When Thomas Jefferson was fourteen, his father died. In his will, he left Thomas Jefferson about 3,000 acres of land and about thirty enslaved people. When Jefferson was twenty-six years old, enslaved people began constructing Monticello. The name means “little mountain” in Italian. Jefferson designed the house, gardens and workshops. Skilled free white workers and enslaved workers built and tended them.
Jefferson loved Monticello. He made notes on everything. He wrote about the rainfall and daily weather. He wrote about his trees and crops. He even kept a gardening diary. We know about life at Monticello from his records and from accounts left by some of the enslaved people and others of Jefferson’s family members.
New Year’s Day 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton. Together they had six children. Of the six children, only two lived to be adults. Their names were Martha and Maria. Jefferson described his marriage to Martha as ten years of happiness, and he was overcome with sadness when she died in 1782. He became a devoted father to his daughters and never remarried.
Jefferson later had children with a woman named Sally Hemings. She was enslaved by Jefferson at Monticello, and their four surviving children were also enslaved until they were young adults. Beverley and Harriet were the two oldest, and they left Monticello without being freed officially by their father. Madison and Eston were the two youngest and their father freed them when he died. Their mother, Sally Hemings, was not freed but she was allowed to live with her sons in Charlottesville for the rest of her life.
In 1775, Jefferson was elected to the Continental Congress. He was picked to write the Declaration of Independence. It states the importance of rights and freedoms. It states that “all men are created equal.” It also stated the reasons the colonists wanted to separate from England.
Jefferson was governor of Virginia from 1779-1781. When he was elected, the American people were fighting the Revolutionary War. After he was governor, he returned to Monticello to run his plantation.
In 1785, Jefferson was sent to France as a diplomat. He represented the United States government. At the time, France was ruled by a king. Jefferson saw many poor people in the “lower class.” Jefferson’s time in France made his belief in “freedom for all” stronger. Martha and Maria spent time with him in France and attended school there. They enjoyed French sights, cooking and art. James and Sally Hemings were also in France with Jefferson. They were brother and sister, and they were enslaved by Jefferson. James Hemings was trained as a chef while they were in France, and Sally Hemings was an assistant or companion to Jefferson’s daughters.
Jefferson, his two daughters, and James and Sally Hemings left France in 1789. President George Washington picked Jefferson to be the first Secretary of State. In 1796, he ran for president. He lost to John Adams. Because Jefferson had the second highest number of votes, he became the vice president.
Four years later, Jefferson became the President of the United States. He ran against John Adams and won. Jefferson was president from 1801-1809. He guided the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. The United States paid France $15 million for the land. It added 827,000 square miles to the United States. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the new wilderness.
After he was president, Jefferson remained busy. He returned to Monticello. His daughter Martha and her family joined him. At Monticello he was free to do the things he loved. He read his books and wrote letters. He designed gardens, rode horses and played with the grandchildren who lived with him. He also started the University of Virginia. He designed the buildings and served as its first president.
On July 4, 1826 Jefferson died at Monticello. He was eighty-three years old. The day was also the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.