Thomas Jefferson: Voice of Independence

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• Part 2: President in Training
Part 3: Presidency and Legacy

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Part 1: Rise to Fame

Thomas Jefferson was born into a middle class family in Virginia. His parents didn't have outstanding educations, but they wanted their son to have one. At age 9, Thomas went to live with a Scottish clergyman, who taught him French, Greek and Latin along with his regular subjects. Young Thomas developed a hunger for learning that was never fully fed. He entered William and Mary College at age 16 and, after graduation, studied law.

In 1769, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he developed friendships with other champions of individual liberty like Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee. Six years later, he was elected a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, whose members later asked him to write a declaration of independence. Borrowing from sources as diverse as the Unitarian Church and English philosopher John Locke, Jefferson set down eloquently but plainly the reasons why Americans should not be subject to the authority of the English government. The result was the Declaration of Independence.

Despite writing this politically controversial document, Jefferson had no interest in fighting to defend the country that he had helped create. He thought he could better serve his country as a lawmaker. He resigned from Congress and went back to Virginia to serve once again in the House of Burgesses. One of his first tasks was to stop the uneven distribution of land. Jefferson took on the wealthy landowners with his programs to end entail and primogeniture. Entail required a property owner to, when he died, give his land to a family member. Primogeniture was the practice of leaving all land to the eldest son. Jefferson succeeded in ending both practices. His purpose was to get more people to vote. In order to vote, you had to own land. When large estates were broken up by Jefferson's laws, more people could afford land, more people bought land, and more people could vote.

Jefferson next turned his efforts to ending the privileged status of the Anglican Church, which was not practicing religious toleration. The powers of the Anglican Church (and of other churches as well) thought that Jefferson's proposal for separation of church and state would lead to a decrease in church membership, but the legislature of Virginia eventually agreed with Jefferson.

Jefferson served two one-year terms as governor of Virginia (1779 and 1780), during which time the state suffered the devastating effects of the Revolutionary War. Two years later, Martha Jefferson (his wife) died. Thomas Jefferson retired from public life, and only the goodwill of the people of Virginia brought him back. In 1783, they elected him to Congress. He played a significant role in guiding the Treaty of Paris (which ended the Revolutionary War) through Congress, and he also had a leading role in the land settlement movement of the late 1780s. He was the leading author of the Ordinance of 1784, which proposed to divide the Northwest Territory into several states that would, once admitted to the United States, be equal to the other 13 states. He also included a provision banning slavery west of the Appalachian Mountains, but it lost by a single vote. The Ordinance itself did not pass, but it formed the basis of the Northwest Ordinance, which did pass in 1787.

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