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U.S. President Thomas Jefferson Career Before Presidency

About the U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, early life and career before the presidency, history and biography.

FULL PORTRAITS OF SELECTED PRESIDENTS

3rd President

THOMAS JEFFERSON

BEFORE THE PRESIDENCY

Career: Jefferson's father was a frontier planter and surveyor who had bettered his social position by marrying into one of Virginia's most distinguished families. Young Thomas enrolled at William and Mary College at the age of 16; there his brilliant and versatile mind brought him to the attention of Williamsburg's intellectual elite. After graduation, he was admitted to study law under one of the most distinguished jurists in the colonies. After establishing a highly lucrative law practice, Jefferson was elected to the House of Burgesses at the age of 26. He immediately associated himself with the revolutionary, anti-British faction in Virginia politics, and in 1774 his Summary View of the Rights of British America, a radical, clearly reasoned plea for colonial self-government, established his reputation as a writer and propagandist of rare gifts and raised eyebrows as far away as London. In 1776, as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he was selected for the committee of five assigned to prepare a declaration of independence, and his colleagues quickly chose the 33-year-old Jefferson to write a first draft. After two weeks of work, Jefferson completed a document that was eventually accepted by Congress, with some key changes, including the elimination of a strongly worded passage condemning slavery. Nevertheless, Jefferson's work on the Declaration made him famous, and when he returned to Virginia in the middle of the Revolutionary War, he pushed for reforms in the social order, including his celebrated statute guaranteeing complete religious freedom to all Virginians. In 1779 Jefferson was elected governor, succeeding Patrick Henry; unfortunately, it was a case of the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time. Jefferson's pacific temperament was appalled by war, and he left Virginia totally defenseless against British attack. When that attack came, he resigned as governor and fled to Monticello. The British troops followed him there, hoping to capture and try the archtraitor, but Jefferson galloped away just minutes ahead of them. This course of action led to charges of cowardice and to a vote by the legislature asking for an official investigation of Jefferson's conduct. Though these charges were eventually dropped, his humiliation led Jefferson to announce the first of his many "retirements" from public life. However, 1783 found him once more in Congress, urging acceptance of a decimal monetary system (rather than the British system of pounds and shillings), a proposal that was ultimately adopted. In 1784 Jefferson sailed to Paris as the new American minister to France. Though he loved the excitement and sophistication of Parisian life, he was horrified by the conditions he found among ordinary Frenchmen. "I was much an enemy to monarchy before I came to Europe," he wrote. "I am ten thousand times more so since I have seen what they are." Jefferson was delighted by the beginning of the French Revolution and was openly sympathetic to moderate revolutionary elements. He was less enthusiastic over the work of his colleagues at home, who, in his absence, had drafted a constitution calling for the sort of strong central government that Jefferson feared. Nonetheless, when the new President, George Washington, named Jefferson as the nation's first secretary of state, Jefferson, after some hesitation and further talk of retirement, accepted the appointment.

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