The biggest barrier to finding accurate information about Thomas Jefferson can sometimes be the grandeur of his legacy in American folklore. As the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, Jefferson is secondary only to George Washington in the pantheon of Founding Fathers. His face is on the nickel and high schools throughout the nation carry his name. Modern politicians on both sides of the aisle draw on the ideals of Jefferson's classical liberalism, often parsing through his numerous letters and policies to find some historical support for their own positions. Through all the fog around his legacy, we can discern a lot of info about Thomas Jefferson through his own writing; hundreds of his letters and journal entries expose a mortal man with thoughts, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses just like all of us. Jefferson had many ideas that were ahead of their time, but his inspirational stance on the equality of all men seems starkly hypocritical as the owner of a large plantation who never challenged the institution of slavery.
Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia as the third child in a moderately wealthy planter family. Upon his father's death in 1757, Jefferson inherited half of his land including the Monticello estate and upwards of forty slaves. However, young Jefferson was preoccupied with his education and at age 16 he enrolled at the College of William & Mary where he studied a wide variety of subjects and displayed a mastery of nearly all of them. After graduating in just two years, Jefferson worked as a law clerk and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. While working as a lawyer with a long list of elite clients, Jefferson entered the world of politics and became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. It was here that Jefferson first showed his propensity for writing inspirational speeches and essays. Jefferson was chosen as a delegate to represent Virginia at the Second Continental Congress of 1775 and it was here that his lifelong friendship with another significant Founding Father, John Adams, would begin.
Much of the info on Thomas Jefferson and his personal views are known because of the debates he would share with John Adams in letters they shared throughout their political careers and in retirement. After the death of his wife in 1782, Jefferson was consoled as a guest in the Adams home and developed a close friendship with both John and Abigail. He had served as wartime Governor of Virginia, but earned an appointment as Minister to France which brought him to Paris in 1784. Upon his return in 1789, Jefferson was appointed to be the first Secretary of State and serve on President Washington's Cabinet. As ideological divides began to demarcate rival parties, Jefferson found himself running for president against his old friend John Adams. After four years as Vice President, Jefferson won the election of 1800 and became the third President of the United States. His accomplishments as President include the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826, fifty years after publishing the Declaration of Independence and only hours before the death of John Adams.