An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America – Our Third President – Thomas Jefferson

Sep 10, 2012 by

Thomas Jefferson

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are up to the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-( during what time period or event or series of events ?)

As has been the case with all the presidents so far, Thomas Jefferson was born before Great Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar. As such, he had a birth date that he would have acknowledged (April 2, 1743) and one (April 13, 1743) that we recognize today. He was born on his family’s plantation in what is now Albemarle County, Virginia, and in 1752 started to attend a local school operated by a minister. Jefferson entered the College of William and Mary at the age of 16, and was such a good student that he was able to complete his degree in only two years. He then worked as a clerk for George Wythe, a well respected Virginia lawyer. He read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1767. By then his father had passed away, and Jefferson inherited over 5,000 acres from his estate. It was upon this ground that Jefferson built a residence that he named Monticello.

At the age of 29, Jefferson married Martha Skelton, and this union brought thousands of additional acres under Jefferson’s control. Jefferson began his political career in 1768, when he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. His reputation as a legislator was established when he took a leading role in shaping Virginia’s opposition to the Intolerable Acts (known as the Coercion Acts in Great Britain) passed by the British Parliament in 1774. Because of the abilities that he had demonstrated in this capacity, he was sent by Virginia as a representative to the Second Continental Congress. Although not an outgoing person, Jefferson was still respected by the other delegates for his abilities as a writer. Recognizing this skill, John Adams asked that Jefferson be one of the five delegates tasked with writing the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776.

Although the others gave Jefferson suggestions, he wrote the vast majority of the document himself. After seeing the Declaration of Independence adopted, Jefferson returned to Virginia and was elected to the legislature. In 1779 he was elected governor of Virginia, and was re-elected in 1780. In 1783 he was elected as a representative to the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and served until he was appointed as our nation’s minister to France.

When the Constitution was adopted and Washington became the first president, he asked Jefferson to serve as his Secretary of State. Jefferson held this position until 1793, when he resigned his position. In the presidential election of 1796, Jefferson received the second highest total of electoral votes, which (according to the wording of the Constitution at that time) made Jefferson the vice-president of the United States. He by that time had become a political rival of the man who won, his former colleague John Adams, and for that reason he ran against Adams in 1800. Jefferson won, and thus became the third president of the United States.

2)      What was he MOST known for?

Thomas Jefferson was truly a renaissance man. He was an inventor, writer, and architect, and held a number of important political positions. If you look at the totality of his life, the Declaration of Independence clearly was his crowning achievement. But as president, his greatest accomplishment was the Louisiana Purchase. He had instructed the American minister to France to purchase New Orleans, but it turned out that Napoleon was willing to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. Even though this exceeded his original goal, Jefferson quickly recognized how this would benefit the young nation and agreed to the purchase.

3)      What would you say were his strengths?

Even though there is no way to independently verify the assertion, as he lived long before the development of intelligence tests, it seems safe to say that Jefferson was one of the most brilliant individuals to ever become president. He was also one of the greatest writers we have ever had as president.

4)      What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Jefferson seemed to have a more favorable view of the French than was always warranted by their actions on the world stage, and this was matched by his less than favorable opinion of the British. This may have been partially due to the fact that the British came very close to taking him prisoner on a raid in Virginia in 1780. These attitudes led him to adopt an embargo policy that drove the United States to the edge of financial ruin by the end of his second term in office.

5)      What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Jefferson left the United States a much stronger nation through his purchase of Louisiana. He also gained respect for the United States through his resolute actions in dealing with the Barbary Pirates. But he also left the nation vulnerable by downsizing the American military at a time when our nation was on the verge of being drawn into conflict with the warring nations of Europe.

6)      In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Jefferson actually left office with a cloud over his head because of the afore-mentioned Embargo Act. But as time has passed, many historians have been willing to look at his presidency as overall a favorable one for the United States. He’s not on a level with the top five, but he’s usually somewhere between 6 and 15.

7)      What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

I would say the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase would be the greatest accomplishments.

8)      Could you provide a summary statement about Jefferson?

John F. Kennedy once hosted a dinner for some of the leading lights in American life, and said to the guests “this is the greatest assemblage of talent in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Perhaps a little bit of an overstatement, but still a pretty good summation of Jefferson.

Series:
An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Legacy of George Washington
An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America

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