Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Virginia. His father was a surveyor and his mother a member of the powerful and wealthy Randolph family. He attended the College of William and Mary, where he studied natural and moral philosophy, and joined the Virginia bar in 1766. Two years later, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, and soon became involved in the political agitation against British colonial policies. He served on Virginia’s committee of correspondence, and in the illegally reconstituted colonial legislature after it had been suspended by the British.

By 1774, as the conflict with Britain was mounting, he published the “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” arguing that Parliament had no legal power over the colonial legislatures. In 1775, he traveled to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and was appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence. After the Declaration had been signed, Jefferson returned to Virginia, where he served first as a representative to the House of Delegates and then as the state’s second governor. During this time, he advanced two important reforms – the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom to disestablish the Episcopal Church in the state, which was passed in 1786, and the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which would have set up a statewide network of public schools, but he measure failed.

In 1785, Jefferson was appointed Minister to France, a post he held until 1789. While in Paris, he befriended important French intellectuals and came to support the French Revolution, a position that would set him at odds with the rest of George Washington’s pro-British cabinet on his return to the US and form part of the basis of the first party system in US history. Jefferson served as Washington’s Secretary of State, and then, on losing the 1796 election to John Adams, as Adams’s Vice President. His political career in the 1790s was marked by the rise of the Democratic-Republicans as an organized opposition party hostile to the Federalists’ centralizing aims and economic reforms, their antipathy to the French Revolution, and their perceived elitism. These disputes came to a head over the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed by Adams in 1798 to quell the anti-government attacks of the Republican press. In response, Jefferson, along with James Madison, drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, calling the Acts unconstitutional and encouraging individual states to nullify the law.

Jefferson was elected President in the contentious election of 1800, and re-elected by a much larger margin in 1804. With the help of an overwhelmingly Republican Congress, he attempted to implement a Republican vision of limited federal power and deference to the rights of the common man. To that end, he reversed many Federalist policies (permitting the Alien and Sedition Acts to expire, for example), eliminated a number of federal administrative posts, repealed internal taxes, and abandoned many of the social formalities on which the Federalists had insisted, once appearing to meet the British Ambassador “not merely in an undress, but actually standing in slippers down at the heels, and both pantaloons, coat, and under-clothes indicative of utter slovenliness and indifference, to appearances and in a state of negligence actually studied.”

Although he opposed both military build-up and unaccountable executive action in principle, as President, Jefferson took aggressive military measures against Tripoli in 1801 when it raised its demands for tribute to insure American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean against piracy. In 1803, Jefferson made an executive decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory, land which both parties wanted and which doubled the size of the US, but for whose purchase Jefferson had no clear constitutional sanction.

At the conclusion of his second term as President, Jefferson retired to Monticello and set to work on his last public project, the founding of the University of Virginia, whose campus and first curriculum he designed. In a final instance of serendipity, Jefferson died the same day as John Adams, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of Declaration of Independence.