Thomas Jefferson was the son of a prominent Virginia landowner whose roots were firmly planted in Virginia soil. Classically educated with a college degree, Jefferson had all the advantages that family wealth and influence could provide, but he also had a sharp intellect and a solid sense of what was right. All of these attributes put him on the path to the U.S. presidency from an early age, but it was his own initiative that ultimately led him to the highest office in the land.
Education and Background
When Jefferson was nine years old, he began studies at a local private school where he learned Greek and Latin. At 14, he furthered his classical knowledge with scholar Reverend James Maury and also studied mathematics and literature.
In 1760, the 16-year-old Jefferson went to the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., which, along with Harvard, was one of only two colleges in the colonies. There, he completed his formal education. His studies included natural philosophy, such as physics and mathematics, and moral philosophy such as ethics and logic.
Jefferson would later attribute many of his accomplishments in life to his mathematics professor, Dr. William Small. Professor George Wythe, with whom Jefferson went on to read law, was another influential figure in Jefferson's early adulthood. Through his professors, Jefferson met Virginia's governor, Francis Fauquier, and became a frequent visitor to the governor's mansion.
In 1767, Jefferson passed the bar, and thanks to the rigors of Wythe's tutelage, was among the most well-educated lawyers in the colonies. His eclectic interests included architecture, music, botany, archeology and bird watching in addition to the law.
Thomas Jefferson's Political Party
As a newly practicing lawyer in 1768, Jefferson ran successfully to represent Albemarle County in Virginia's House of Burgesses where George Washington also served. Radical members of this legislative body were already coming out in opposition to increasing British taxation, as member Thomas Henry had expressed in the "Virginia Resolves." In 1769, the House of Burgesses asserted that only the governor of Virginia and the legislature had the authority to levy taxes.
When the House of Burgesses supported the colonists rebelling against the crown in 1774, the British-appointed governor dissolved the assembly. In that same year, Thomas Jefferson established his reputation as writer and advocate for independence in "A Summary View of the Rights of British America."
The members of the dissolved legislature began meeting on their own in a series of assemblies known as the Virginia Conventions. The body also sent representative to the Continental Congress, and in 1776, declared the state, newly renamed the Commonwealth of Virginia, independent of British rule.
Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence
The founding fathers chose Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston to create a document declaring the nation's independence. Based upon the merit of his earlier political writings, this Committee of Five selected Jefferson to draft the statement. Jefferson's eloquent Declaration of Independence would become one of the best-known and beloved documents in American history.
The Years Leading to the Jefferson Presidency
From 1776 to 1779, Thomas Jefferson furthered his political clout in the Virginia House of Delegates. He also wrote the "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom" during this time.
In 1779, Jefferson became Virginia's second governor. He served two, two-year terms as governor while the Revolutionary War raged. He stepped down in 1871 after a difficult tenure.
Two years later, he returned to politics as Virginia's delegate to the Continental Congress, and in 1785, he received an appointment as ambassador to France. He would remain in Paris as the U.S. representative for almost five years.
The Inner Circle of Political Power
Upon Jefferson's return stateside, newly elected President George Washington tapped him to be the U.S. Secretary of State. He became one of Washington's closest advisors in a turbulent post-war time. Finally, in 1797, the Republican Party nominated Jefferson for the office of President of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson Becomes President
This first time he ran for president, Jefferson lost to former Vice President John Adams. According to the law of the time, Jefferson would act as Adams' vice president. Running again in 1800, Jefferson tied for the win with fellow Republican Aaron Burr, but the House of Representatives selected Jefferson for the top post. He would serve two consecutive terms as the nation's third president.