Welcome to Most Vice Presidential! These posts are about of America’s veeps, known and unknown. Because behind every great man, there is another man who we don’t really care about as much. Today we’ll be talking about Thomas Jefferson, our number two number two, if you will.
Also Known As
Apostle of the Constitution/Democracy
Sage of Monticello
Father of the Declaration of Independence
Man of the People
TJ (by me)
Yep, That Sounds Like Me
“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
“To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
“A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
All the pictures we have of Martha Jefferson, including the one above, are based on descriptions of her appearance. There are no pictures of her from when she was alive. She was written to have been “mild and amiable” and to enjoy playing instruments, but not much more is known about her. I guess well-behaved women rarely make history, which is why I ensure my legacy by being an asshole.
Thomas Jefferson was actually her second husband (as well as her third cousin); her first husband was a man with the extreme misfortune to have been named Bathurst Skelton. Additionally, Martha’s father married two times after her mother died. The second woman was named Elizabeth Lomax, whose first husband was Reuben Skelton, Bathurst’s brother. So Martha’s brother-in-law was her stepmother’s first husband.
When she died in 1782, she made Jefferson promise to never remarry. He honored her request. I mean, he had several children by his slave mistress Sally Hemings, but that’s what you get when you try to make a lawyer promise you something.
My Friends Would Say I’m…
My Enemies Would Say I’m
Hobbies and Interests
Growing pot and other plants, but most notably pot
Arguing against slavery
Playing the violin
Architecture–he designed his home plantation of Monticello himself
Studying fossils (there’s a giant sloth named after him!)
Bonding with John Adams over their shared hatred of Alexander Hamilton
In 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia, to Peter Jefferson and Jane Randolph. When Peter’s friend died, the Jeffersons moved to the friend’s plantation for two years to help the family. When they moved back, Peter died. Side note: Jefferson’s family’s house burned down in 1770. A factory was built there in 1835, which also burned down. Take from these events what you will, but I smell a Native American curse.
Jane’s family was very wealthy, so Jefferson got a top-notch education. He studied the classics, mastered three languages, and learned how to ride horses. It was also during that time that he became an obsessive bibliophile. When he was sixteen, he attended the College of William and Mary and graduated in two years.
Jefferson decided to practice law after college. He took on several slaves seeking emancipation as clients, and even did one of those case for free. In 1768, when he was just 25, he was appointed to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Most of the legislation he tried to push through focused on slavery reform. For example, he wrote a bill that would have shifted the power to emancipate from the colonial government to the slave’s owner. He got his cousin to support some of the measures, but he was brushed off by the rest of his peers in the House (And in court. When he tried to use the principles of Natural Law, which state that all men are created equal, in one of his slave cases, the judge straight up stopped him mid-speech and ruled against Jefferson’s client).
1768 was also the year that Jefferson began construction of Monticello, which would be a longtime project for him. Work on Monticello continued until 1809, and Jefferson remodeled it a few times to reflect the architectural styles he would see in his time in France. Because didn’t you know that everything in Europe is just, like, better?
Jefferson was in favor of independence from the crown from the beginning. He immediately called for a boycott of all British goods with the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 (a series of laws from the crown levying taxes on American goods, most notably tea and paper). Soon after, he represented Virginia as one of the youngest members of the Second Continental Congress. It was there that he met this friend and fellow revolutionary, John Adams. Adams was actually the first person that the Congress had chosen to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but he convinced everyone that Jefferson was the one for the job. When the first draft of the document was finished, the committee overseeing its creation was fine with everything–except for the section disparaging the King’s part in the slave trade. Jefferson was displeased when they nixed that part, but he let it slide so the declaration would be approved. His time would come to argue against slavery again.
Two years later, Jefferson was given the title of colonel over a local militia in Virginia, but he was more involved in the establishment of a new constitution for Virginia. The tireless opponent of aristocracy, most of the statutes he proposed were attempts to “de-fedualize” Virginia, where it seemed to him that planter society was becoming more and more like a stratified class system. He was elected governor twice, but when he fled during a British invasion, most people didn’t see his actions as befitting a fearless leader. He was not elected again.
After that little mishap, Jefferson took some time to focus on his personal writing. In 1780, a French diplomat hit Jefferson up for facts about Virginia so he could finish a book he was writing on America. Jefferson obliged, and ended up using the letters he wrote back in his own book, Notes on the State of Virginia. It covered everything from the ecology of Virginia to Jefferson’s own beliefs about the importance of the separation of church and state. It’s considered the most influential pre-19th-century American book.
The Congress of the Confederation commenced in 1781, with Jefferson as its delegate from Virginia. He was on several committees having to do with the economy and trade. When Virginia agreed to give over the land it owned in the Northwest, Jefferson convinced everyone that the territory should be annexed, rather than colonized. Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1784, although they nixed the parts banning slavery in the new states (they would, however, disallow it a few years later in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787).
A few months after passing his law, he was sent to Europe as an ambassador to multiple countries, specifically France. He brought his daughters, as well as several of his slaves, along with him. He had a short-lived fling with some Italian woman, but apparently he moved on quick–his relationship with the young Sally Hemings is said to have begun during his time abroad.
He became close with the Marquis de Lafayette, who had been an ardent supporter and participant of the American Revolution. He assisted Lafayette in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and let French rebels hold meetings in his Paris home. When Jefferson returned to America in 1789, he brought back with him many things, including books, seeds, illegitimate children, and an inflated sense of superiority that can only come from a white person who has recently visited Europe.
Jefferson hadn’t actually planned to stay in the US, but upon his arrival he received a letter telling him he was to be George Washington’s Secretary of State. Washington believed (like most men in the US government at the time) that if he stacked his cabinet full of enlightened men, they would come to the same conclusions on how to govern. According to the political philosophy of the era, they were all virtuous, so they should have the same beliefs, right?
Um, wrong. Many members of Washington’s cabinet clashed with each other, and none clashed more than Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury and protege. They highly disliked each other for both political and personal reasons. Polar opposites, they disagreed on nearly everything. Jefferson believed that each state should pick up its own debt; Hamilton wanted the federal government to pick up the tab. Jefferson was in favor of extending aid to France; Hamilton believed it would be way too risky. Jefferson was very wary of the new US constitution, which had been created and ratified during his absence; Hamilton was its biggest advocate. In addition, Jefferson felt that the deck was stacked against him due to Washington’s pretty blatant favoritism towards Hamilton.
Even though the two adversaries came to a compromise on one of their biggest political differences (Hamilton agreed to relocate the capital to the South in return for Jefferson’s support of national debt), Jefferson was frustrated by his time as Secretary of State. Hamilton’s influence on the government truly worried him. In 1791, he convinced his close friend/executive assistant/butler, James Monroe, to write a series of articles anonymous articles disparaging Hamilton’s Federalist policies. I say “anonymous,” but everyone knew who was behind them. Washington threatened to remove him from the cabinet, but Jefferson instead pulled the always classy “Well good luck firing me because I quit” in 1793 and resigned voluntarily. Washington never forgave him. Jefferson didn’t even attend Washington’s funeral, knowing that it was probably not a good idea.
Leaving the presidential cabinet gave Jefferson a chance to influence the government in a way he could not while on the inside. He was now free to fully oppose the policies he disliked without consequences from Washington. When Washington signed the Jay Treaty, a document that promoting peace between the US and Britain, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party really gained some traction. He used the treaty as a rallying point for his followers–creating a stronger base of voters for when he would decide to run for President of the United States.
Getting to Office
George Washington declined to run for a third term in 1796, leaving two main candidates to replace him: Vice President John Adams, a strong Federalist, and Jefferson, an unrelenting Democratic-Republican. The Election of 1796 was a totally new situation for voters, because it was the first race in which they ACTUALLY had to choose someone. Before, you voted for Washington. Signed, sealed, delivered to the ballot box.
It was also the first election to involve campaigning. None of the candidates actually campaigned for themselves, save Aaron Burr; but he was f*cking crazy. I mean, he KILLED a guy.
But in the case of Adams and Jefferson, it was their supporters who tried to secure votes. At the time, it was seen as desperate for a gentleman to advocate for himself. In addition, Jefferson didn’t really care too much about winning the presidency. He claimed multiple times that his time serving the public through the government had ended, but he was nominated anyway. Jefferson faced allegations from Adam’s camp that he was too pro-France (ugh) and that he was an atheist (gasp). Adams won, and according to the Constitution at the time, that meant that Jefferson became his second in command.
Jefferson was a pretty good sport and accepted second place with grace. At least, more grace than Adams, who hated being vice president and had no problem letting everyone know. Being Vice President of the United States didn’t really mean much in the early republic (part of why Adams hated the post so much). He had power to preside over the Senate, but Jefferson didn’t even like to get as involved as his predecessor, preferring instead to let things play out on the floor with as little interference as possible. Congressmen were supposed to be the most direct representatives of the public, after all, and Jefferson hadn’t even supported the existence of an executive branch in the first place–much less its presence in the law-making process.
For the most part, he filled his time with personal writing and work on The National Gazette, a Democratic-Republican newspaper he’d founded with Madison. But this is Thomas Jefferson we’re talking about, so he didn’t leave the Vice Presidency without a legacy of a little drama.
Let’s back up a little first. So the French Revolution kicked off in 1789, and by 1792, the French had already gotten themselves into war with Europe. Like, all of Europe.
You know who was in Europe? Britain.
You know who was friends with Britain? The US.
You know who the US was also friends with? France.
You know what France and Britain both decided to do? Seize any ships that traded with the other.
Ironically, by trying to avoid being anyone’s enemy, the US became everyone’s enemy. Things were only made worse by the signing of the Jay Treaty. It further strained US-France relationship and fueled infighting in the American political system. Jefferson and his fellow Republicans still believed that we should support France and limit ties to Britain, while Federalists feared that France would spread its instability to the rest of Europe.
In 1797, Adams decided to send a group of envoys to France to negotiate peace–a gesture he hoped would both show balance in foreign relations and appease the Republicans (who didn’t like him). However, his opponents believed that Adams’s olive branch was rotten. They thought the whole thing very suspicious, because Adams was the head of the party who thought France could go suck an egg. In fact, they believed that the whole thing was a thinly-veiled attempt to half-ass negotiations and then blame France, all so that the Adams administration would have a reason to declare war.
Jefferson encouraged his counterpart in France, Joseph Létombe, to slow proceedings as much as possible in order to be as thorough as possible in making a compromise. He was just as wary as the rest of the Republican Party of Adams’s motives. He had actually been the first person Adams asked to join consul, but he rejected the offer. When peace talks fell through, Jefferson was less than surprised, and demanded that documents from the mission be publicly released.
This is where things REALLY get interesting. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s talks with Létombe had lead the French to believe that the US was going to be easily manipulated. When the Adams administration released the official papers of the proceedings, it turned out that agents of the French foreign minister (named X, Y, and Z for anonymity) had tried to demanded a bribe from the American commission before any talks commenced. Jefferson’s attempt to garner sympathy for France blew up in his face, and the whole event was known from then on as the XYZ Affair.
After that failure, Jefferson once again directed his attention to domestic issues. The top priority was taking down, or at least slowing down, the Federalists. He and Adams had gone from close friends to bitter rivals due to their irresolvable differences in interpreting the Constitution. During his time as president, Adams pushed law after law through Congress that Jefferson vehemently disagreed with. The most notable example was the Alien and Sedition Acts. The laws were a fairly transparent attack on French immigrants and critics of the executive, and the last straw for many Republicans.
In 1798, Jefferson and Madison joined forces once more and secretly published the Kentucky (Jefferson) and Virginia (Madison) Resolutions. They not only denied the constitutionality of acts, but set a precedent in the South by claiming a state’s rights to nullify national law if the state found it unconstitutional. Washington was incredibly upset, and prophetically warned that the resolutions would be the foundation of conflict and bloodshed in America (hint hint, Civil War). According to the Constitution, the arguments in the resolutions don’t actually make any sense. The Supremacy Clause says that federal law trumps state law. But the first part of Jefferson’s argument was correct–you can’t legally just throw people in jail because they call you a fat monarchist. Or just a monarchist. Or just fat.
After Leaving Office
Unless you are really, really unfamiliar with American history (well, you could be, since you’re here), Jefferson became our next POTUS. He won the Election of 1800 against Adams and did some things in his two terms as exec. Nothing too big, just buying the land that would become about 12 new states, handling the national debt, minimizing the navy, imposing an embargo on France and Britain, etc. You know, the usual.
After his stint as president, Jefferson retired, but did so much in the way that my father retired, meaning that he didn’t actually retire. He sold his enormous collection of books to Congress in 1814 after its library was burned down earlier that year by the British; He wrote an autobiography that centered around his experiences during the revolution;and at the spry age of 76, he founded America’s first secular university, the University of Virginia. Meanwhile, Monticello had become such a marvel that people would just drop by to stay with him or just take a tour. I’m sorry, does this look like a freaking Air BnB to you? Whatever. Just don’t touch my pillars or my slaves.
Jefferson also took this time to mend his relationship with John Adams. Abigail Adams initially contacted Jefferson to express her condolences over the death of his daughter, a sweet gesture to which he replied “Thanks, but your husband is still a dick.” Over time, though, the two men became friendly again and exchanged over 150 letters during the remainder of their lives.
Besides rheumatism and all the general ailments that come with being ancient, Jefferson also had what would be about $100,000 of debt today. He was saddened by the fact that he would not be able to leave anything of substance to his heirs. His assets were auctioned, and his children had to sell Monticello. Luckily, he died surrounded by friends and family, so at least there’s that. He died on the same day as John Adams–July 4, 1826.
He grave is still at Monticello to this day.