Thomas Jefferson possessed one of the greatest leading minds of colonial America. Literate in political theory, scientific farming, natural history, and architecture, Thomas Jefferson personified the optimistic spirit of Enlightenment thinking. Thomas Jefferson proved to be one of the major forces in the founding and developing of America. When Jefferson became the third President of the United States, he immediately made an impact on the lives of average Americans by reiterating his idea of a Jeffersonian Republican Yeoman Farmer. Leading the nation, Jefferson made significant changes in the government, spurred the idea of American movement westward, and worked to fix the ever-growing slavery issues and better the education system to spring America forward and develop it into the prosperous nation it is today.
Prior to Jefferson’s presidency, Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as the minister to France in 1785. As Secretary of State, Jefferson took part in both domestic and world affairs. Jefferson clashed frequently on many issues with Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (Bernstein 101). The conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton caused many other disagreements in American politics that pinned former allies against one another. With the government on opposite ends, two political parties began to form: the Federalist Party lead by Hamilton and the Jeffersonian Republicans lead by Jefferson. The Jeffersonian Republicans were opposed to a strong central government whereas the Federalists favored the strong central government. Jefferson preferred a less centralized government with more power for the states. Jefferson, being a brilliant man, drafted the Northwest Ordinance also known as the Ordinance of 1787. This ordinance provided a structure for government of the Northwest Territory. Jefferson’s outstanding leadership led to his being elected President of the United States in the 1800 election.
Jefferson’s most lasting contribution to America is the Declaration of Independence. Specifically chosen, Jefferson needed to carefully choose his wording so that the document would be persuasive enough towards a number of parties (“The Declaration of Independence”). Congress intended for Americans to read it and want to become a part of the patriot cause and foreign powers read it and want to aid the militia. In the first part of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson expresses key concepts at the core of American beliefs such as “all men are created equal,” “unalienable rights,” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the next section, Jefferson listed injustices that the colonies considered independence worthy. Jefferson accused King George of trying to construct “absolute tyranny” in America so in the conclusion, Jefferson officially destroys all ties with Britain and is now guilty of treason. Everyone in the congregation could be condemned to the gallows if prosecuted before a royal court. By a vote of twelve to zero, the colonies approved the document and declared independence from Britain on July 4, 1776.
One of Jefferson’s greatest achievements as President includes his investment on the Louisiana Territory owned by the French. Jefferson visualized American westward expansion and took advantage of the opportunity presented to him. Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s ruler, needed money to fund the war against the British so he offered all of France’s claims in North America to Jefferson. With the territory stretching a vast 820,000 square miles, the transaction would amount to about three cents per acre totaling a whopping $15 million dollars. However, Congress originally only approved to spend $10 million, so the purchase sent the nation into a large debt. This famous transaction came to be known as the Louisiana Purchase. The United States, now doubled in size, grew beyond the Mississippi River to include forests, plains, prairies, and mountains. Surprisingly, Jefferson did not intend to buy all of the Louisiana Territory, just the port of New Orleans so that the United States, not its competitors such as Spain, France, and Great Britain, could control the mouth of the Mississippi River (De Cesar). With the Louisiana Purchase fulfilling his dreams of westward expansion, Jefferson now sought to launch an expedition to explore the new addition to America.
Minus what French traders and fur trappers and Spanish and British explorers shared about the west, nobody really knew what the western part of the country held. Jefferson assigned a prominent frontiersman named Meriwether Lewis to lead the U.S. Army expedition (known today as the “Corps of Discovery”). Then Lewis hired William Clark to accompany him on the journey, hence the name The Lewis and Clark Expedition. Jefferson sent a letter to Congress asking for $2,500 to fund the trip through the Louisiana Territory and on to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson’s main goals included establishing trade with the Native American people of the West as well as to find a straight shot water route to the Pacific (“Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark Expedition”). Jefferson also assigned Lewis and Clark the task of documenting the geography of the West, how the Native Americans communicated and lived, and how things like the plants and animals, the soil, the rocks, and the weather differed from those in the East. The total round trip lasted two years and four months and the work of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery instituted an American presence all across the continent.
A major problem Jefferson faced during his Presidency involved the Barbary Pirates from the Barbary States of Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria, and independent Morocco. These pirates harassed and preyed on the commercial shippers that traveled through the Mediterranean Sea. Soon debate began on how to deal with these pirates. After an American brig faced capture by a Moroccan pirate ship in the Atlantic Jefferson stressed,
“Our trade to Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean is annihilated unless we do
something decisive. Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these of pirates…Why not
begin a navy then and decide on war?” (Roberts).
In 1801 Jefferson refused to pay tribute to the pirates and deployed a U.S. Navy force to the Mediterranean. If the United States wished to continue their commercial trade, they would need a protective force at sea (Roberts). The U.S. Navy took military actions against pirates by blockading the Barbary ports to achieve a deadlock and included an American land assault to gain control of the main city. By 1805, Jefferson signed a treaty ending the Barbary Wars and made peace with the Barbary States.
Like most wealthy American men in Jefferson’s time, he owned slaves. However, Jefferson opposed slavery his whole life and felt it went against the laws of nature. He knew everyone had a right to personal liberty (“Thomas Jefferson and Slavery”). Jefferson worked to abolish slavery but did not have strong political support. When drafting and proposing many ordinances, he tried somehow to work in the ordinance banning slavery. When he drafted the Northwest Ordinance, it outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territories. Jefferson continued to support abolition but slavery continued to grow because the demand for laborers increased. To try and end Virginia’s support towards slavery, Jefferson encouraged growing crops that required little slave labor. If the abolition of slavery did not happen, Jefferson feared the federal union would be destroyed by slavery and result in a civil war that could tear the nation apart (“Thomas Jefferson and Slavery”). Jefferson became deeply concerned the next generation of leaders would not end slavery.
One of Jefferson’s lasting legacies and greatest accomplishments is the founding of the University of Virginia. Ideas of educating the common man occupied Jefferson’s mind. In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote,
“ Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to;
convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the
preservation of a due degree of liberty.” (“Quotations on Education”). Jefferson developed much of the University and designed the curriculum, secured its funding, and generated how to hire teachers. The University of Virginia is a public university funded by the state of Virginia. Jefferson intended the university to be dedicated to teaching and grooming future leaders. Jefferson believed they needed to be educated in practical affairs and public services (“Founding of the University”).
Jefferson retired from office in 1808 but still continued to contribute to the nation. When speaking with James Madison, Jefferson said he wanted to be remembered as two things: the author of the Declaration of Independence and the founder of the University of Virginia (Kindig). Jefferson’s wishes came true because this is what Jefferson is most famously known for. Overall, Jefferson created a positive lasting effect on America. Today in Washington D.C. there stands an enormous 19-foot statue of Jefferson that is surrounded by passages from the Declaration of Independence as well as passages from his other writings. The Jefferson Memorial stands as a timeless monument dedicated to one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers.