Skip navigation

The Core Curriculum

Thomas Jefferson

1743 CE – 1826 CE

  Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in London by Mather Brown, 1786 (Wikimedia Commons) Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in London by Mather Brown, 1786 (Wikimedia Commons) President, Vice President, Governor of Virginia, the first Secretary of State of the US, philosopher, scientist, architect, Deist, inventor, farmer:  these all describe Jefferson’s life projects and accomplishments.  His epitaph reads:  “Writer of the Declaration of Independence, The Statute of Religious Freedom of Virginia, and the founder of the University of Virginia.” Jefferson doubled the size of the US through the Louisiana Purchase (1803), supported the Lewis and Clark Expedition, (1803-1806), and worked, along with others, to found the United States as more than a confederation of states.  Like the fledgling nation he would guide, his biography evinces the conflict between ideals of liberty and equality and the political realities of founding a nation.  Jefferson held slaves and likely fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings.  At the same time, he wrote that   “All Men are Created Equal.”

Life, Influence & Influences

Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia.  His mother was from an established family and his father was an accomplished surveyor and planter.  From 1760-62, he attended the College of William and Mary and later studied law. Jefferson’s interests and projects in architecture found first footing early; at 21 he inherited a substantial plot of land and began to construct his house, Monticello.  He continued to work on the house throughout his life and the architecture reflects profound classical influences and his inventiveness.  Jefferson married his wife, Martha, when he was 29.  She died 10 years later, in 1782.  The loss of his wife was one loss among many, as all but one of his six children with Martha passed away prematurely. 

Jefferson wrote on education and religion, as well as politics. The years 1778 and 1788 included two key works by Jefferson.  These two texts, one regarding the pressing need of publically funded education for republican governance and an educated citizenry, and the other, arguing for a pragmatic separation between religion and politics, are set against the needs of the nascent republic, an attempt to both guide and reflect the concerns of the time.  Using a razor to cut out and then arrange verses across the canonical gospels, he composed his own version of the New Testament, which omitted the supernatural moments noted by the gospel writers to emphasize Jesus’ moral teachings.   

Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia from 1779-1781. In 1783 Jefferson was again a delegate to Congress.  His time spent in France during the Revolutionary War was formative.   The Presidential election of 1800 resulted in a narrow win for Jefferson, over John Adams.   Jefferson served two terms in office.  His second term was noted for a disasterous embargo.  After his second term he returned to Monticello and lived for seventeen years without returning to Washington, D.C.  He spent his retirement gardening, taking care of his many grandchildren, and engaging in study.  He reconciled with his alternately friend, then foe, and later friend,  John Adams, in a famous correspondence.  Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, personally surveying the grounds.  He sold his books to pay his debts, a collection that became the core of the Library of Congress.  In 1826, Adams was ill and Jefferson was in failing health.  Though personally bankrupt, Monticello unfinished, his agrarian republican society on a verge of the industrial revolution that could be seen as a perversion of his ideals, Jefferson’s optimism regarding his vision for the U.S. reigned supreme.   Fifty years to the date of the signing of the Declaration, both Adams and Jefferson died on July, 4th 1826. Although Jefferson had died some hours earlier, Adams’ last words were, “Jefferson still lives.” 


Jefferson & Slavery

Jefferson owned slaves and while he was a scrupulous bookkeeper, the exact numbers remain a matter of discussion (counts range between 200 to 700).  Along with Washington, Jefferson had moral misgivings about the peculiar institution, misgivings manifested at various moments and expressed to various degrees, but racism and the economic investments of white southerners in slavery frustrated early attempts at ending the practice.  Biographers and historians have reached a rough consensus that he had a romantic relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, that resulted in six children. 

Ever the man of paradox, like the new nation, Jefferson presided over the abolition of the international slave trade in 1807.   Washington freed his slaves at his death; Jefferson did not. Although some call him a hypocrite, others a man conflicted and trapped by his circumstances, few underestimate the complexities of his life and times, and even fewer his influence. Inconsistent, perhaps, thoughtful for sure, fragmented, certainly.


Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, 6th Edition

The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson