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Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia. When he was 14, he inherited his father’s estate and slaves. Soon after, Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary where he studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy. In 1767, Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia Bar and practiced law. Jefferson remained influential at the College of William and Mary throughout his life and helped institute the nation’s first student honor code.
In 1769, when he was just 26, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Representatives. In 1772, Jefferson began building his home, Monticello. That same year, he married Martha Wayles Skelton. The couple would eventually have six children.
As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence with help from Benjamin Franklin and others. In 1779, he was elected as governor of Virginia. Although he resigned in 1781, during his term as governor, Jefferson wrote the famous statute on religious freedom. Jefferson’s writings also formed the basis of the Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787. From 1785–1789, Jefferson served as minister to France. In 1789, George Washington appointed him secretary of state.
Due to political differences concerning the role of the government with other cabinet members, Jefferson resigned as secretary of state in 1793. After serving in Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party. Jefferson soon ran for president but was defeated in 1796 by John Adams. Nevertheless, he was appointed vice president. Although Jefferson and Aaron Burr received equal electoral votes for presidency, Jefferson was elected president by the House of Representatives in 1800. During Jefferson’s term, both the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition occurred. Jefferson served two presidential terms. He later established the University of Virginia. He died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Coincidentally, John Adams died the same day.
Thomas Jefferson is remembered as one of the most brilliant men to ever inhabit the White House, whose views on individual freedom, religion, and education still influence today. In fact, the establishment of the University of Virginia reflected Jefferson’s views about the role of religion in education—it was the first university in America to be centered around a library rather than a church. Jefferson believed in the strict separation of church and state (national affairs, including education, should not be influenced by a dominant religion). Jefferson was also an accomplished surveyor, author, architect, and agriculturalist.
Today, buildings, cities, counties, corporations, and monuments bear Jefferson’s name. He is honored on the United States two-dollar bill and nickel.