Thomas Jefferson - The Sage of Monticello
Created | Updated Jul 23, 2013
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'My friend, you and I have lived in serious times,' John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson as they both neared the end of a heroic life's journey through the wilds of revolution and long, weighty days of American independence. Serious times they certainly were, and Jefferson was among the most serious to witness them.
Not possessing the wit and charm of many of his contemporaries, Jefferson was more interested in his books than people. When standing, his lanky, lean frame was generally seen with arms folded across the chest - uninviting body language. At six feet, two and-a-half inches tall, with bright copper hair and multitudes of freckles dotting his face, Jefferson's conspicuous body was a crisp contrast to his unassuming, quiet personality.
Yet Jefferson, an unremarkable man if you met him socially, found a part for himself in the story of early America, and made a name for himself as one of his country's most important and intelligent citizens. Well versed in government, agriculture, music, architecture, language, invention, art and literature, he may have been a solitary academic but for a solid streak of ambition that ran through his veins (which he always denied the existence of). In another time, he may have lived without distinction, but, as Adams said, he lived in ‘serious times’.
The Man From the Mountain-top
And our own dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? - mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms! How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet! and the glorious Sun when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains, and giving life to all nature!
- Jefferson, from a letter written in 1786
In the 18th Century, Virginia was the largest and most populous of the British colonies lining the American Atlantic coast. It had a lot of fertile land and many men became rich from their profitable plantations. For years, the high end of the political and social life in Virginia was dominated by the wealthy members of the so-called Virginia 'planter class' - a local aristocracy owning millions of acres of land and thousands of captive African slaves. To be a Lee, Burwell, Fitzhugh, Carter, Randolph, Berkeley, Custis or Harrison (etc) was to gain acceptance in elite circles and have unique opportunities not afforded to other people. As it happened, in 1739 a tobacco planter named Peter Jefferson married a Randolph.
In 1743 the third offspring of this marriage, a boy named Thomas, was born well into a society where birth dictated many important things. He would always regard Virginia - his 'country' - with a great deal of fondness, which is not surprising given his advantages in life. As a child he was carefully attended to by family slaves1 and eventually sent off for an education.
Just as sons of New England went to Harvard, young Virginians went to the College of William & Mary, where Jefferson began to study in 1760. After a couple of years of intense, even obsessive, study, he began to learn law during a five-year apprenticeship under another prominent Virginian. He then practised law independently for some time, but never took to it with any interest or great relish.
Not a natural public speaker, Jefferson was known as a competent, but by no means passionate or brilliant, lawyer. Owing to his pedigree and growing reputation as a young man of intelligence, he was elected in 1769 to the Virginia House of Burgesses - a colonial assembly which Jefferson believed to be stocked with some of the best minds on the continent.
At about the time of his election, he began to design and construct a house on a mountain overlooking land he inherited after his father died. Inspired by the style of Andrea Palladio, a 16th Century Italian architect, this house would come to be one of his lifelong obsessions. He called it 'Monticello', meaning 'little mountain'.
His expensive and beautiful home was partially financed by a marriage to a young widow named Martha Wayles Skelton, who came with a great deal of money and land. He took up residence in this house overlooking his plantation well before construction was completed - and with Jefferson's exacting tastes and eye for perfection, it would not be finished for many years.
Jefferson's lavish spending on his home was financed by the lands he owned. As a ‘good Virginian’, he did not consider himself wealthy because of a quantity of pieces of paper, rather his ownership of huge swaths of Virginian land. The men of the wealthy families who dominated Virginia considered themselves gentlemen farmers. The truth was that many never touched a plough with their own hands. Jefferson was probably one of these. He was interested in the process of farming and growing crops, but not enough to attempt the back-breaking labour that inevitably accompanied cultivation.
He probably never knew the true toil and hard work of farming. Characteristically, he was much more interested in the theory of farming. His personal correspondence with other luminaries of the era, such as George Washington, is filled with thoughts on crop rotation and irrigation (to the considerable annoyance of historians searching for morsels of Jeffersonian wisdom and eloquence, only to find information on corn and soil).
Singing and Signing
He seemed to most of his political contemporaries a hovering and ever-silent presence, like one of those foreigners at a dinner party who nod politely as they move from group to group but never reveal whether or not they can speak the language.
-Historian Joseph Ellis
On 22 June, 1775, the 32-year-old Virginian rolled into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in an elaborate four-horse carriage accompanied by three of his slaves. Unselfconsciously, Jefferson was probably singing a song under his breath to relieve the boredom of a 300-mile trip from his home in Virginia. He was known to sing quietly to himself when he took a walk or went riding. He even supposedly sang to himself while he read.
Jefferson had been unexpectedly selected to serve as a member of the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress. The Congress was meeting in Philadelphia to address a rift between the colonies and British government. He was chosen as a sort of an afterthought, once his distinguished mentor and relative Peyton Randolph chose not to attend. While Jefferson was thought of a man of great potential, he was not yet prominent enough to serve alongside eminent Virginia figures such as Patrick Henry and Washington. His political experience was limited to a bit of writing and acting mostly in the capacity of an observer in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
What was known of him was that he had a sharp pen and was decidedly in the 'radical' Patriot camp that opposed the rights of the British king and parliament to rule and tax the American colonies. As Jefferson's carriage rumbled over unfinished roads into Philadelphia, the rumblings of what would become the American Revolutionary War had already commenced.
Not a strong public speaker, Jefferson lurked nervously in the shadows of the Congress. While his silence was definitely a liability in terms of gaining prestige, any effort at recognition would have been overshadowed by the emotional, powerful speeches of fellow Virginian Patrick Henry.
Jefferson took a room in Philadelphia in a building that was owned by a relative of his mother named Benjamin Randolph. During the summer, Jefferson asked Randolph to build him a portable, lap-top writing desk. Naturally, the design was drawn up by the ever-inventive Jefferson. In its final form, the desk was made of a reddish mahogany, with side compartments for paper and pen. The flat writing surface had stilts underneath which could be used to create the desired tilt for writing, and the desk could be unfolded to create a larger writing surface.
It was at this desk, and not on the floor of the Congress or in the various committees thereof, that Jefferson distinguished himself in his efforts to advance the American Revolution. His first assignment was to draft a document called ‘Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms.’ It was a necessary argument to make. By this time the first shots of the American Revolution had been fired in Lexington and Concord, and war was a reality. However, the colonies had yet to assert their independence from Britain. Jefferson's draft of this document was eloquent and strong (although it was somewhat watered down from his radical views to appease moderates in Congress). Scholars would later look back at this document and see similarities with Jefferson's greatest work for the Congress.
More Than Three Sentences
Adams once said of Jefferson: 'During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.' While this must have been a characteristic exaggeration on Adams' part, there is no record of Jefferson ever having given a speech in Congress. There is also no record of him participating much in the informal chats in which many decisions were made, or in formal committees where a lot of the real work of Congress was done. However hopelessly shy or reserved Jefferson may have been2, the Congress soon found it could apply his talents in other constructive ways. He was appointed to several drafting committees, charged with the task of writing reports, declarations, resolutions and protests.
Jefferson spent some of his free time writing up a draft of a proposed constitution for the new state of Virginia. Greatly influenced by Adams’ pamphlet 'Thoughts on Government', Jefferson helped to shape the future of the commonwealth of Virginia considerably.
When the radical forces of independence finally won the day in Congress (led by Adams), Jefferson was placed on a subcommittee, along with Adams and others, to draft a declaration. He was chosen to write the document. Nobody really thought the text of this particular declaration would be very important. Others were more concerned with arguing for its adoption on the floor of Congress, or with their various state constitutions. Years later, Adams would relate in a letter one story of how Jefferson was chosen:
The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught I said, "I will not." "You should do it." "Oh! no." "Why will you not? You ought do it." "I will not." "Why?" "Reasons enough." "What can be your reasons?" "Reason first - You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second - I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are much otherwise. Reason third - You can write ten times better than I can."
Adams was probably bending the truth to appear modest and important in later years (which he often did). But whether there is some truth in that story, we can assume nobody thought the assignment would prove significant. If Adams had thought it important, he would have surely grabbed the job for himself, being famously vain. However, Jefferson was really the obvious choice. He would later tell the story in a much more succinct fashion. According to Jefferson, the sub-committee met and unanimously chose him to write it, and he agreed.
Seventh and Market
The Philadelphia of the 1700s was the largest and most diverse city in America with a population of 30,000. It was the busiest port city in the colonies, and traffic on the centrally planned, straight streets was brisk throughout the day. In the summertime it could be stiflingly hot. An army of mosquitoes and flies would invade the city and conquer the diverse Quaker, English, Welsh, Scottish and German population with equal viciousness.
Yet, because the city was still relatively new, the metropolis only extended so far. Travelling on the main street, known as Market Street, the busy corners became largely uninhabited green land at around Sixth Street. It was during the summer of 1776 that Jefferson withdrew into a house at the intersection of Seventh and Market Street. He hoped the open spaces would allow more breezes and comfort. It was in the parlour of this house that he composed his most famous work: the Declaration of Independence. Sitting in a wooden Windsor chair with his mahogany lap-desk, he composed the words which would find their way into immortality...
We hold these truths to be self-evident3, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
While the particular phrasing and wording of the Declaration is now considered to be the definitive statement of the ideals of the American Revolution, it was by no means the first document to make the points it did. Jefferson owed much to his earlier works, which in places are remarkably similar to the Declaration. The influence of George Mason, James Wilson, Adams and gaggles of philosophers throughout history is evident. Jefferson would later declare with honesty:
Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.
The Declaration was adopted by Congress on 4 July, 1776. After that, Jefferson wanted to go home to attend to his pregnant wife, but was bound by duty to stay in Philadelphia. On 2 August, the Declaration was signed by all members of Congress. More than a bit miffed by the changes made to his draft by Congress, Jefferson affixed his signature to the document despite claiming his words had been 'mangled'. Posterity has judged it to be pretty good, though - probably better with the changes, in fact. Whatever Jefferson's ultimate judgment, he headed home to Monticello.
Living His Words
When Jefferson was throwing together a draft of the Virginia constitution in 1776, he probably did not realise he would be working in a couple of the positions specified quite so soon. He was elected to the State House of Delegates and introduced some very important bills, including a bill guaranteeing religious freedom in Virginia. Most of his bills were not passed for several years, however. When the Statute for Religious Freedom was passed, Virginia became the first state to assure religious tolerance, and Jefferson's words were a forerunner to the First Amendment.
In the draft of the Virginia constitution, Jefferson had decided the executive branch of government should not be very strong compared with the legislature. To reflect this, he named the executive the 'administrator' - a name which did not survive various edits. It suited him perfectly that he had seen fit to make the chief executive of the Commonwealth of Virginia a very weak office, because in 1779 he was selected by the Assembly to serve as the second governor of his state. True to his original intention, he 'administrated' rather than 'governed', and did very little. His most famous act as governor was leaving the capital city undefended and fleeing into the woods when the British came. Mercifully, a governor's term in Virginia only lasted a year and after two terms too many he left office in 1781. He considered himself to be retired from public life, and told his friends so.
In his spare time, Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia - the only book he ever wrote.
Paris, Je T'aime
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
While Jefferson was temporarily retired, a delegation in France, including Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Adams and others, negotiated a treaty of friendship with the country. Then, once the French helped to kick British general Cornwallis's butt at the Battle of Yorktown, these diplomats negotiated a treaty ending the war with Britain.
Jefferson had been appointed as one of the original commissioners to peace talks, but refused to go; his wife had been very ill. When she eventually died in 1782, he wanted to be away from Monticello and its painful memories, and accepted a diplomatic post in Paris. In 1784, he left the US from the port of Boston on a clear, sunny day. The undisturbed Atlantic reminded his daughter, who was travelling with him, of a calm river. Once in Paris, in 1784, Jefferson settled into a home near the opera house and took in all the culture the city had to offer. France charmed him.
Jefferson worked with Franklin and Adams on a commercial treaty, but ended up accomplishing nothing of note. He did, however, come to appreciate French society, and spent exorbitant sums of money, far beyond his means. He acquired 2,000 books while in Paris, and purchased dozens of pieces of art. Unable to restrain himself, this threw him into considerable debt from which he never really emerged.
During his time as a diplomat, Jefferson became very close to Adams and his family. When Adams was made ambassador to Britain, Jefferson even went to London for a two-month visit. He befriended the young John Quincy Adams, who would go on to be president at the time of Jefferson's death.
Jefferson also became good friends with a married woman4 who was two decades his junior, Maria Cosway. He spent a great deal of time with her, but their 'courtship' slowed after he attempted to jump over a fence to impress her and dislocated his right wrist.
Writing letters with his left hand for several months, he expressed his disapproval of a document which came out of Philadelphia - a proposed new Constitution. He believed it gave too much power to a single executive figure: the president. Jefferson feared that this man would turn into a US monarch and the great experiment of democratic government would fail.
Within a few months, the Constitution had been ratified and came into effect, Jefferson's fears notwithstanding. Not long after, Jefferson asked to be allowed to return home from France and was granted permission. Landing in Norfolk, Virginia, he was informed he had been made secretary of state by the newly elected president of the US, George Washington. Much had happened while he was away, it seemed.
As secretary of state, Jefferson was primarily concerned with issues of foreign policy. As it happened, the French Revolution was beginning just as Jefferson left the country. After the Bastille was stormed, men were decapitated and beaten, while Jefferson looked on approvingly. He earnestly believed the French Revolution was one of the first echoes of the American Revolution that could be expected from Europe. He also believed a little blood was a small price to pay for liberty.
US citizens were divided in either being outraged by, or supportive of, the French Revolution. Jefferson was unquestionably the man who most strongly carried the pro-revolutionary banner in the US.
A State of War
There is yet another class of opponents to the government and its administration, who are of too much consequence not to be mentioned: a sect of political doctors; a kind of Popes in government; standards of political orthodoxy, who brand with heresy all opinions but their own; men of sublimated imaginations and weak judgments; pretenders of profound knowledge, yet ignorant of the most useful of all sciences - the science of human nature
- Alexander Hamilton, no doubt referring to Jefferson in the 18th Century equivalent of a vicious put-down
Everything president Washington did set a precedent of some kind, whether he intended it or not. One intentional precedent was the creation of a cabinet, to consist of only three men: a secretary of state, treasury and war. For these roles, Washington plucked three superb minds: Jefferson to head the State Department, Hamilton of New York city for the Treasury, and Henry Knox of Boston for the war office.
It did not take long for Jefferson and Hamilton to be at each other's throats. Washington watched helplessly as his cabinet, along with vice-president Adams, dissolved into petty squabbling. Jefferson and his lifelong friend Madison, who was hugely influential in the House of Representatives, took up the leadership of a faction which called itself the 'Democratic-Republicans' or 'Republicans' (or even 'Jeffersonians'). On the other hand, Hamilton and Adams stood at the head of a faction which called itself the 'Federalists' and favoured a strong central government.
The Republicans vilified Hamilton, and the Federalists attacked Jefferson. Each side had newspapers working for it, and Jefferson actually put a friendly newspaper publisher on the State Department payroll. The attacks on each side ranged from calling the other side monarchists or accusing them of faking yellow fever, to implying they engaged in improper relations with livestock. It was really quite indecent, and can be very entertaining to read if you ever have a free afternoon.
Despite the fact that almost none of the argument concerned policy, the two factions did have genuine policy disputes. President Washington was fair-minded and seems to have valued Jefferson's counsel on all matters. However, despite transcending the rancour of the politics of the day, he was ideologically more aligned with Hamilton than anyone else.
Jefferson became tired of being on the losing side of every political question, and repeatedly resigned, only to be dissuaded by Washington. Eventually, Jefferson and Madison convinced each other that Hamilton was preying on the senile old president's decaying mind, manipulating Washington for his monarchist schemes like a sort of early US Rasputin. This was all paranoid drivel of course, as Washington was perfectly capable of using his own judgment. Nevertheless, Jefferson and Madison traded letters for years (written in a secret code) that bemoaned the mental fall of the Virginian titan. Jefferson resigned for good at the end of 1793 and went home to Monticello.
There is one story that, shortly after Jefferson’s resignation, Hamilton and Washington were sitting together in a room when he passed by the window. Washington told Hamilton he regretted Jefferson's departure and expected him to devote the rest of his life to his farm and books. Hamilton looked at Washington in disbelief and explained that he had been holding his tongue but felt free to unburden himself now that Jefferson was no longer a colleague. Hamilton believed Jefferson was retiring because he would have otherwise found it necessary to take decisions that would run contrary to his Republican ideology, and this would have been politically inconvenient for him in the future. He thought Jefferson was extremely ambitious and had decided to wait out certain events before re-entering public life. Hamilton claimed that if he was not proven right by history he would 'forfeit all title to a knowledge of mankind'. Washington would later tell Hamilton:
[N]ot a day has elapsed since my retirement from public life in which I have not thought of that conversation. Every event has proved the truth of your view of his character. You foretold what has happened with the spirit of prophecy.
It is entirely likely that Jefferson had greater ambitions and believed it would be advantageous to stay away from public life for a few years while events took shape. If this was his intention, he made a very good decision. While he spent time in Monticello overseeing farm work and occasionally exchanging letters of Republican strategy with Madison, the Federalists began to collapse as an organisation. The rancour between Adams and Hamilton split the Federalists into two wings - the more moderate being led by Adams and the 'High Federalist' wing by Hamilton.
The election of 1796 was contested by the Republican forces (led by Madison), who put Jefferson forward as their candidate and campaigned heavily for him. Feigning disinterest from his perch in Monticello, Jefferson did nothing to dissuade the members of the Electoral College from voting for him, and finished a close second to Adams. By the quirky rules of the day, this made him vice-president. With the previous occupant to the vice-presidential office (Adams) having recently declared, 'I am Vice President, in this I am nothing', Jefferson could remain comfortably in semi-retirement. He was happy to stay out of active public service for a while yet, for the same reasons he left his post as secretary of state. In fact, with a Machiavellian tone, he wrote to Madison, ‘The President [Washington] is fortunate to get off just as the bubble is bursting, leaving others to hold the bag. Yet, as his departure will mark the moment when difficulties begin to work, you will see, that they will be ascribed to the new administration [of John Adams].’
So a cycle developed. For four years as vice-president to an ideologically unfriendly administration5, Jefferson performed his constitutionally prescribed duty of having a pulse.
A New Century
The end of the 18th Century heralded some great changes. Washington died at his home in Mount Vernon just weeks before the 19th Century began. Napoleon Bonaparte took singular control of France. And the capital of the US moved from Philadelphia to a site on the Potomac River that would later be called Washington, DC. The change of century also saw what was sure to be an important and hotly contested presidential election. The election of 1800 was a grudge match from four years earlier, pitting Adams against Jefferson once more. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
With Washington and his enormous prestige gone, the Federalists under Adams, with their generally unpopular policies and actions (such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which curtailed personal freedoms, and Adam’s anti-war approach to France during the so-called Quasi-War), were outmatched. Jefferson was touted as a 'man of the people', and even Adams expected to fail to be re-elected.
Despite the Sedition Act, which had recently outlawed all criticism of the president (in blatant violation of the First Amendment), Republican forces distributed a lot of propaganda material throughout the states. Jefferson encouraged this privately, but was careful not to have his name connected with any of it. James Callender, a key Jeffersonian foot-soldier in the US press, called Adams a 'hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman'.
Jefferson, who was so averse to conflict he avoided all verbal arguments and disagreements where possible, was content to see shameless surrogates insult and degrade his opposition. He wrote to Callender, after reviewing his work, 'Such papers cannot fail to produce the best effects.' Callender, for his part, was quickly thrown in jail for nine months for insulting the president6, which only made the Adams administration appear more tyrannical.
Naturally, Jefferson did not escape the attacks of the newspapers of the day. He was called 'godless', a Frenchman, weak, a coward, a Jacobin, and an adulterer. It was during the 1800 election that rumours first sprung up that Jefferson was having sex with his slaves. While very little of what was said during the election was true, later investigation and DNA testing showed this was probably right on the mark. During the time he spent in Monticello, Jefferson seems to have fathered several very light-skinned slave children with a woman named Sally Hemings (although, to be fair, this was not entirely uncommon in the the south at that time).
In the waning days of the campaign, Jefferson received political help from an unexpected quarter when his arch-enemy Hamilton came out with a 54-page pamphlet attacking Adams, a fellow Federalist. Madison would write to Jefferson to say that, because of the pamphlet, 'I rejoice with you that Republicanism is likely to be so completely triumphant.'
The fate of the election was all but sealed when a New York Republican named Aaron Burr successfully led a campaign to flip the New York legislature to a Republican majority, which assured Jefferson of the state's 12 electoral votes. In gratitude, Jefferson gave Burr the position of vice-president. In the end, Jefferson won more popular votes and electoral votes than Adams (although it was closer than expected) and seemed poised become the next president. However, because of a bungled vote in the Electoral College, Burr and Jefferson ended up tied in electoral votes. According to the constitution, this meant the House of Representatives had to decide the outcome of the election.
Burr, being at least a little bit unhinged, tried to get the House of Representatives to select him, which understandably angered Jefferson. The House of Representatives was at this point still controlled by the Federalists, creating an awkward situation in which the losing party got to choose between two members of the opposing party for the highest position in the country. Hamilton, who had declined considerably in stature by this time, had just enough influence with the Representatives he knew to swing the election. He convinced several of them to vote for his old nemesis Jefferson, who he considered to be at least 'less dangerous' than Burr, and Jefferson won7.
It was in this messy manner that Jefferson ascended from his Virginia mountain-top to the highest peak of US politics. He rode into Washington, DC - not terribly far from home - and gave his inaugural address in the Senate chamber. While his soft, feminine voice did not carry well and few of the people present could hear him, later publication revealed a conciliatory tone. Jefferson declared: 'But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.'
Don't Fool Yourself, He Was a Republican
The Revolution of 1776 is now, and for the first time, arrived at its completion.
- From a rowdy pro-Jefferson newspaper called the Aurora
Jefferson had devoted considerable time and energy to the design and location of the new federal capital on the banks of the Potomac. So it must have pleased him in 1801 to take residence in the presidential mansion8 - at the time, the largest home in the country.
While the expectations of his Republican constituency were great, Jefferson's first actions were largely ceremonial. Not much of a public speaker, he ended the tradition of giving a speech to Congress on the State of the Union and sent a message instead. He also cut down on the number of formal public receptions. They reminded him of conceited kings, and took up too much of the president's time, anyway.
Jefferson was more socially reserved than either of the previous presidents. He frequently hosted small, informal dinners at the presidential mansion, and characteristically disallowed any talk of politics at the table. At first experimenting with a bipartisan guest-list, he soon grew wary of politically tinged jokes about his French wine and began a practice of entertain Federalists on separate nights to Republicans. Jefferson chose to shun crowds, speeches and public appearances. So people could only come into contact with him if they had a dinner invitation.
The one group that was allowed regular access to Jefferson was his cabinet. He had selected a strong cast of characters. His ally Madison was secretary of state, a brilliant Swiss man named Albert Gallatin headed the Treasury, and Henry Dearborn, a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill, was secretary of war. To complement his team, Jefferson decided early in his term that he needed to remove as many Federalist office-holders as possible - even very minor ones.
After 12 years of uninterrupted Federalist power, there were quite a few of these, and Jefferson's purge was intense. He fired Federalists at all levels of the federal government, sometimes replacing them with Republicans, sometimes eliminating the position entirely. If this mass-weeding of Federalist sentiment was useful to him for patronage or political purposes, well, that was a lucky upside. His explicit justification was simple: 'To appoint a monarchist [read: Federalist] to conduct the affairs of a republic is like appointing an atheist to the priesthood.' Opponents rightly pointed out that this did not sit well with the stirring phrase of his inaugural address, 'We are all Federalists.'
Jefferson governed as a true Republican. He worked to retire the national debt. He allowed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts to lapse, and freed political prisoners who had been jailed under the legislation. Taxes levied under the previous administrations were cut. An ardent believer in the states' rights to govern, he scaled back the federal government wherever possible.
A consequence of this was that the military - the navy, in particular - deteriorated on Jefferson's watch. To borrow the later formulation of Teddy Roosevelt, Jefferson was always able to 'talk lightly', spending cuts left him without a 'big stick' to carry (diplomatically speaking). When Jefferson had to deal with Britain's capture of US sailors, and Barbary Coast pirates, a strong navy would have been useful both in warfare and as leverage for negotiations. And when a conflict with Britain exploded four years after Jefferson left office - it became the War of 1812 - the US would have been well served by a strong navy. Years later Jefferson privately conceded this.
News that peace had been made with France reached the US just days after Jefferson's electoral victory. So he was allowed to conduct himself affably with the government of France - a country he had lived in for years and grown to love. Improved relations with France meant that when Napoleon decided to unburden his empire of a huge swath of the North American continent known as Louisiana, Jefferson was only too willing to take it off of his hands for a relatively inconsequential price.
Despite Jefferson's constitutional qualms about whether the president and federal government were empowered to buy land, he decided to make the purchase. With a swift pen-stroke, Jefferson doubled the country’s size. This vast piece of land would eventually make up parts of 15 different states. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 (as well as setting off the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the newly acquired land) would remain his most important accomplishment as president.
In 1804, Jefferson was re-elected by a landslide. Ironically, he was ideologically distrustful of the executive branch. He believed power should reside mostly with the legislative side of the federal government, specifically the House of Representatives. It was the monarchical Federalists who believed in a vigorous and strong executive branch. Therefore, apparently distrusting his own judgment or susceptibility to the spirit of tyranny, he did not do a lot in his second term. In fact, his only real actions came in response to events that required a response.
Most importantly, in his second term he became fed up with England and France’s (the two great European powers of the day) refusal to respect US sovereignty. Jefferson decided the best way to achieve this respect was to shut down all foreign trade with the Embargo Act of 1807. Enormously wrongheaded, this decision hurt US citizens much more than Britain or France, and the Act backfired. It caused serious damage to US commerce and Jefferson agreed to its repeal just before leaving office.
Jefferson's secretary of state and long-time ally Madison assumed the mantle of the Republicans and was elected to succeed Jefferson. As was Jefferson’s custom after completing any kind of public service, he gratefully went home to Monticello.
Jefferson was someone who needed to be occupied at all times. He had built Monticello, then rebuilt it, doubling its size. He then built further a home on another part of his property. Once out of public life, Jefferson found two new major projects to keep himself occupied at his by now advanced age.
The first was the creation of the University of Virginia. It was his idea to create a new place of learning for Virginians, and he would be listed as the university's 'founder'. He did much more than come up with the idea, though. Jefferson micro-managed the project from the start, and supervised the creation of the curriculum, the hiring of professors, the design, and the actual building.
His architectural plan reflected his vision for the university. He expected it to be democratic - a place where all would be equal and all voices would be heard. To make this point, he clustered the buildings around a common lawn to create the feeling of a village. At the front of this lawn, he placed an imposing building called the Rotunda, somewhat reminiscent of Monticello with its classical, Palladian architecture. The Rotunda was meant to express his desire that the university be well grounded in the classics - the Latin and Greek authors he adored. This would be one of his proudest accomplishments.
His second project was rebuilding his friendship with Adams. The famous Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush was a friend of both. He encouraged them to resume a correspondence and, after quite a few years' consideration, Adams cautiously ventured a letter to Monticello in 1812. It would be the beginning of a remarkable correspondence which lasted until their deaths.
They exchanged views on just about everything under the sun: politics, shared memories, the nature of humanity, farm life, Sir Isaac Newton, family, and just about whatever crossed their minds. You get the feeling that they were both writing for the eyes of posterity, and they probably were.
Most importantly, though, their friendship, which had been strained for a decade or two, resumed warmly. Jefferson congratulated Adams when his son John Quincy was elected president, and mourned with his friend when Abigail Adams died. As two of the three last surviving signatories of the Declaration of Independence, they most probably had each other on their minds as they grew closer to death.
As it happened, the lives of Jefferson and Adams came to be tied together in death. Inexplicably, when Jefferson died on 4 July, 1826 - the 50th anniversary, to the day, of American Independence - Adams followed just five hours later. Jefferson's last words were 'Is it the fourth?' He was vainly hoping to poetically pass away on the 50th anniversary of his nation's birth. As for Adams' last words, he deliriously whispered: 'Thomas Jefferson still lives.' They could not have planned it better.