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Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743-July 4, 1826) signed America’s Declaration of Independence after drafting most of it, including its catalytic words: “all Men are created equal... endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness...” He subsequently wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the precursor to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Jefferson was instrumental in shaping politics in the early years of the Republic. A fierce opponent of the Federalists, he led what would become the Democratic Party. Jefferson was the second governor of Virginia, succeeding Patrick Henry, and the first U.S. Secretary of State, serving in George Washington’s cabinet. He succeeded John Adams as the country’s second vice president. In 1801, he became the third president of the United States.

During his presidency, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the country’s size. This monumental and lasting accomplishment greatly enlarged the nation’s natural resources, propelled its westward expansion, confirmed the federal government’s constitutional authority to acquire new territory and materially lessened the hold of European powers on North America.

Jefferson's Personal Life

In 1772, Jefferson married a widow, Martha Skelton Wayles. Among the enslaved people she brought to their marriage was Betty Hemmings and her six children, the youngest of whom was an infant named Sarah (Sally) Hemings.

Jefferson and Martha had six children. Martha died shortly after the birth of their last child. Compelling evidence confirms that, years later, Jefferson began a relationship with Sally Hemings and fathered six more children, all of whom were enslaved. He never acknowledged them as his own, but they received privileged treatment at Monticello and were freed either before his death or at it.

Jefferson possessed an intellectually brilliant, energetic mind. He richly appreciated fine things and did not deny himself their enjoyment. He designed and built two extremely expensive, architecturally splendid homes for himself: Monticello in Albemarle County and, 70 miles to its southwest, Poplar Forest in Bedford County. Jefferson’s library at Monticello was extraordinary in size and substance; it became seed corn for the Library of Congress, when he sold his books to the Federal Government at a moment of acute financial need.

In his last years, Jefferson gained legislative approval for the construction of a state university in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a site that could be seen from Monticello. He determined the new school’s precise location, designed its architecture and grounds, prescribed its curriculum, hired its faculty, and controlled its early governance. He hoped the University of Virginia “would train a generation of political leaders who would not only perpetuate the republic but solve those problems left by his own generation.”

Jefferson directed that his epitaph say, "Here was Buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the American Declaration of Independence, of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia."

Jefferson and Slavery

Jefferson acquired his first enslaved people at age 14 when his father died. At the death of Martha’s father, she added 135 people to the 52 he enslaved when they married. During his long life, Jefferson enslaved at various times a total of 600 people.

Jefferson depended on enslaved labor for the leisure to pursue his myriad intellectual interests and for the time to hold public offices at home and abroad. Enslaved workers executed his construction projects and generated revenue from his fields and various manufactures. Despite his dependence on enslaved labor, some of a very skilled sort, Jefferson was racially biased. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he made clear his belief that Blacks were an inferior race, "mentally inferior to whites in the faculties of reason and imagination."

In the Republic’s early years, Jefferson was among slavery’s strongest critics, speaking and writing against it. He represented enslaved people seeking freedom in two Virginia cases, Samuel Howell v. Wade Netherland, April 1770 and George Manly v. Richard Callaway, November 1772. His original draft of the Declaration of Independence castigated George III for allegedly forcing the slave trade on the colonies. He urged, unsuccessfully, that the new Virginia constitution include a provision that “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held within the same in slavery under any pretext whatever.” He gave money to help build the first free Black church in Philadelphia. He supported education for enslaved people. He urged in 1784 the adoption of a congressional ordinance banning slavery in the U.S. western territories. In 1806 he urged Congress to prohibit the international slave trade as quickly as possible. In his private correspondence he decried slavery as a "hideous blot," an "abomination" and "a moral and political depravity."

Jefferson’s public opposition to slavery declined as his political career blossomed. His electoral and congressional strength came from the South. His private view that slavery had to end in America endured. Jefferson opposed the piecemeal freeing of enslaved individuals, calling instead for collective action across the country to remove all Black people to Africa or Haiti. He feared that continued racial diversity in the country would lead to conflict and “convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or another.” He thought of no practical means of mass deportation, however, relying meaninglessly on the weak workings of the American Colonization Society.

Jefferson died deeply in debt, which forced the sale of his homes, household possessions and land. Tragically, the 130 enslaved people in his estate were sold, splitting families in ways they had never expected.

Jefferson's Ties to William & Mary

Jefferson graduated from William & Mary in the Class of 1762, and later he received an honorary degree from the university. As an undergraduate, he was instructed in the liberal arts by Dr. William Small. After graduating, he was mentored in the law by George Wythe, a leading attorney in Williamsburg. Of Professor Small, a polymath from Scotland, Jefferson said, "It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then a professor, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communications, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind." Of George Wythe, Jefferson said, "He was my ancient master, my earliest and best friend, and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life." Jefferson later described Wythe as "one of the greatest men of the age."

At Jefferson’s request and insistence, William & Mary’s Board of Visitors created a law school on December 4, 1779. Jefferson recruited George Wythe to give it life. The school was meant to educate what we now call citizen lawyers. Jefferson wrote James Madison in July 1780: "Our new institution at the College has had a success which has gained it universal applause… this single school by throwing from time-to-time new hands well principled and well informed into the legislature will be of infinite value."

For a time, Jefferson thought highly of the education William & Mary offered. “In 1785 he asserted that, with the exception of modern languages, everything a youth needed could be acquired as well at William & Mary as any place in Europe. He told a young friend it was 'the best place to go.' He even urged John Adams to send his son, John Quincy Adams, to William & Mary... The climate, which was to become so mephitic in Jefferson’s mind when his new university was in prospect, was 'remarkably healthy.'"

Jefferson drew away from William & Mary after George Wythe left it and when the university retained its strong ecclesiastical ties despite Jefferson’s insistence it become secular. During Jefferson’s long campaign to create a state university in his image in Charlottesville, he viewed William & Mary as a serious threat. He dealt harshly with his alma mater, opposing strategic plans that would have provided funding for William & Mary.

Though unfaithful to William & Mary, Jefferson remains among the university’s most consequential and illustrious alumni. He is recognized on campus for his role in creating our law school. A residence hall bears his name, and his portrait hangs in the Wren Building. A statue of Jefferson as a young man stands in a courtyard south of the Sunken Garden – a gift from the University of Virgnia during the 1993 tercentenary. William & Mary is a principal partner of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab) in nearby Newport News.

Jefferson's Legacy

Jefferson’s words have had a vast, lasting impact on his country and the world. His concept that every person is created equal and has certain inalienable rights was galvanizing in 1776. A quarter millennium later, this concept continues to inspire democracies worldwide.

The tragedy of Thomas Jefferson and those whom he enslaved is that he ultimately failed to give substance to his own words – by ensuring that the country he helped to found extended those rights to all human beings.

Jefferson Project at Swem Library

The Jefferson Project was funded by the Papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Delmas Foundation to enable Swem Library to digitize its approximately 700 Jefferson items (documents by and to Jefferson). There is a record for each item with a link to the scan of it in Swem Library's online catalog.

Materials in the Special Collections Research Center

Further Reading

  • Douglas, Davison M. "The Jeffersonian Vision of Legal Education," Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 51, No. 2 (2001)
  • Magness, Philip W. "Finding Phocion: The Federalist Campaign of 1796 and the Nationalization of Proslavery Politics," Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, Vol. 131, No. 2, at pp. 121-158 (2023).
  • O'Shaughnessy, Andrew J. The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2021. See pages 183-210, 246-48.
  • Tate, Thad W., et al. The College of William & Mary: A History, Vol. 1. Williamsburg, Va.: King and Queen Press, 1993.
  • Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Exploring Freedom and the Legacies of Slavery. Accessed April 10, 2024

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A note about the contents of this site

This website contains the best available information from known sources at the time it was written. Unfortunately, many of the early original records of William & Mary were destroyed by fires, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. The information in this website is not complete, and it changes as we continue to research and uncover new sources.