Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson

Reading Level: Middle School

“The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”

Lawyer. Father. Scientist. Author. Governor. Vice-president. President. Philosopher. Architect. Slave Owner.

Many words describe Thomas Jefferson. He is best remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States.

Shadwell House Foundation

Archaeologists excavate the site of the Shadwell house, Jefferson’s boyhood home.

“My father’s education had been quite neglected; but being of sound mind, sound judgment and eager after information, he read much and improved himself . . .”

Jefferson’s early life helped shape his career and accomplishments. He was born April 13, 1743 at Shadwell, a plantation in central Virginia where enslaved people grew tobacco. He was the third child of Peter Jefferson, a planter and surveyor, and Jane Randolph Jefferson, the daughter of a well-known Virginia family. His father died when Jefferson was fourteen but left him with a love of books, mathematics and the outdoors.

Jefferson studied Latin, Greek and French. In 1760, he entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He liked to study for fifteen hours a day. After graduating, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1767. He practiced law for a number of years. He was described as “tall, loose-jointed, sandy-haired and freckled,” and a skilled horseman and gifted musician.

Aerial of Monticello Mountain

“I know of no condition happier than that of a Virginia Farmer”

When his father died, Jefferson inherited about three thousand acres of land and about thirty slaves. He later inherited more land and more people from his father-in-law. When Jefferson was twenty-six years old, enslaved and free people began building Monticello (which means little mountain in Italian). The house, gardens, working farms and workshops were designed by Jefferson.

Jefferson was at the head of a 5,000 acre working plantation.  It was made up of four quarter farms and about 200 enslaved people at any given point in time.  Enslaved people performed various kinds of forced labor at and around Monticello, growing tobacco and wheat, and supporting the plantation in other ways.

For fifty years, the care and building of the plantation occupied Jefferson’s attention and imagination. He recorded everything that went on at Monticello.  This included notes about what he bought and sold, what he observed on the plantation, and the rations he gave to the enslaved people.  He was described as the “father of weather observers,” noting daily rainfall and temperatures, and he kept a gardening diary. These records are valuable information about life at Monticello.

“no society is so precious as that of one’s own family.”

New Year’s Day in 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow. Martha was a “very agreeable sensible and accomplished lady.” She brought to the marriage land, slaves, and her father’s debts. In the ten years they were married, the Jeffersons had six children. Two daughters and a son died as infants. Two-year-old Lucy died from whooping cough. Two daughters, Martha and Maria, survived to adulthood.  In 1782, his wife Martha died, leaving three daughters, Martha, Maria and Lucy. Jefferson was overcome with sadness by the death of his wife. He became a devoted father to his daughters and never remarried.

Jefferson later had at least six 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.  Jefferson and Hemings never wrote about their connection, but their son Madison Hemings and others who lived at or visited Monticello did.


Engraving of the Declaration of Independence

Engraving of the Declaration of Independence. Image courtesy the National Archive and Records Administration

” . . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In 1775, Jefferson was elected to the Continental Congress. While a member, he was picked to write the Declaration of Independence. The document stated the importance of individual rights and liberties, and the equality of man. It declared the reasons the colonists wanted to be free from the King of England’s rule.

Jefferson believed in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and yet he enslaved over 600 people over the course of his life.  This is a great complexity about Jefferson.  He, and his peers, had prejudices against people who were not white men, and these wrong ideas contributed to their justification for slavery.

Jefferson believed that everyone should have the freedom to practice whatever religion they chose, so he drafted the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which established religious freedom in Virginia. In 1786, twenty-five years later, the bill passed.

Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia from 1779-1781. When he was elected, the American people had been fighting the Revolutionary War for four years. After being governor, he went back to Monticello and tended his plantation.

“so ask the traveled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on earth would you rather live?—certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest & sweetest affections and recollections of my life.—which would be your second choice?—France.”

In 1785, Jefferson was appointed minister to France. In the five years he lived in France, which was ruled by a king, he observed the poverty of the lower class. This strengthened his democratic beliefs. He also loved French culture and sent books, seeds, art and scientific instruments back to Monticello.

Jefferson left France in 1789. President George Washington appointed him as the first Secretary of State under the new government. In the presidential election of 1796, Jefferson lost to John Adams. Jefferson, with the second highest number of votes, became vice president.

 “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and mind.”

Detail from an Engraving of the President's House

Prior to the War of 1812, the White House was known as the President’s House, here depicted in an engraving from the book Stranger in America by Charles Jansen.

Four years later, Jefferson became the President of the United States. In 1800, he ran as a Democratic-Republican against John Adams, a Federalist, and won.

Jefferson served two terms. During his presidency, he engineered the Louisiana Purchase, which added 827,000 square miles to the United States. He sent Lewis and Clark to explore the western lands and gather information.  On their journey, they met over forty Native American nations whose people had lived there for thousands of years.

During Jefferson’s presidency, conflicts grew between Britain and France. Jefferson tried to keep the United States neutral, but relationships with Britain grew worse. In response, Jefferson enacted the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited American ships from trading in all foreign ports.

“though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Jefferson remained busy after his presidency. He designed and founded the University of Virginia, serving as its first rector (president). He spent his days amongst his family at Monticello. There he was free to pursue his interests in astronomy, reading, gardening, designing and landscaping.


Painting of Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully

Painting of Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully

“. .. all my wishes end where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”

Jefferson died July 4th 1826 at Monticello at the age of eighty-three. The date was also the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Because Jefferson died in debt, his house, his land, and most of his belongings were sold.  He freed his enslaved sons and three other men in his will, but 130 other enslaved people were sold at auction.

On his tomb stone Jefferson wished to be remembered for the things he had given the American people: