Thomas Jefferson was born near the Blue Ridge Mountains of the British-ruled colony of Virginia on April 13, 1743. From the age of nine, Jefferson studied away from home and lived with his tutor. His father—a landowner, surveyor, and government official—died when his son was 14. Later Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. His education included science, mathematics, philosophy, law, English language and literature, Latin, Greek, French, and dancing.
"LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS"
After college, Jefferson became a lawyer. By age 26 he was a member of Virginia’s colonial legislature, or government. Like George Washington, Jefferson spoke out against Great Britain’s rule over the 13 North American colonies. When the colonists decided to demand their independence from Great Britain, Jefferson was chosen to write a document explaining why the colonies should be free. The document became known as the Declaration of Independence. It’s still admired today for its call for freedom, equality, and its demand that all citizens deserve "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Before he became president, Jefferson was governor of Virginia before the Revolutionary War. After the war, he served as U.S. minister to France, secretary of state for President George Washington, and vice president for President John Adams, the country’s second president.
GO WEST, YOUNG NATION
When Jefferson became the third president of the United States in 1801, the country basically ended at the Mississippi River; France controlled much of what was west. That included the Port of New Orleans, in what is now Louisiana. It’s coastal location made it a key spot for trade—and Jefferson wanted it. In 1803, he made what’s known as one of the greatest real estate deals in history: the Louisiana Purchase.
France agreed to sell the entire city of New Orleans, which included the port, to the United States for $10 million; they threw in the rest of the territory they owned for an additional $5 million. The agreement—which gave the United States about 828,000 square miles of land—almost doubled the size of the nearly 30-year-old nation. Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to join William Clark in leading an expedition to the West Coast to explore the country’s new land. The Louisiana Purchase is thought by many to be Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment as president.
Jefferson retired to Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the end of his second term. He designed and founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville during his retirement.
Jefferson left a complicated legacy: The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence—which states that "all men are created equal"—also enslaved more than 600 people during his lifetime. But according to his writings, Jefferson knew that future generations would have to end the enslavement of people, and that it would be a long, terrible process.
Like his friend John Adams, Jefferson died 50 years to the day after the approval of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826.
• Jefferson is credited with first introducing french fries to the United States.
• As secretary of state, Jefferson organized a contest to design the White House. Historians think he secretly entered—and lost.
• Jefferson loved cheese so much, a Massachusetts farmer once gifted him with a 1,300-pound piece.