Podcast # 12: Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is one of those historical figures that has a very complicated legacy. He did great things, but he was also someone whose ideologies didn’t always match his actions. A man of great contradictions, great achievements and horrible atrocities. Like many White, Southern land owning men at the time, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. In this podcast, we will cover both sides to this man. The good and the bad.

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Virginia. Eldest son of a wealthy planter, he inherited 5,000 acres of land in his teens. He would eventually build Monticello at the site and designed both the house and gardens himself. He would consistently remodel and expand the home over the course of his life. He attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia and briefly practiced law. He was a member of The Virginia House of Burgesses and a member of the Continental Congress. He met and married Martha Wayles Skelton. Martha Jefferson was wealthy and as a result of their marriage, inherited her family’s wealth and slaves. One slave in particular, Sally Hemings who was Martha’s half-sister. Martha and Thomas Jefferson had 6 children but only 2 survived to adulthood. History and DNA evidence suggest that Thomas Jefferson fathered more children with Sally Hemming but we will get into that in more detail a little later on in the podcast.

He is most widely known for writing the Declaration of Independence and if you listened to our previous podcast, we mentioned how Both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin also aided in the writing of that document. Jefferson was heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinkers and many of their ideas are expressed in the Declaration and later on in the Constitution. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 17 days. The original document was picked apart and changed by other members of the Continental Congress but Jefferson’s main ideas remained. The Concept of All men are created equal was a revolutionary idea. Rest assure, he meant white men only but the idea that men without property and without wealth were equal was a revolutionary idea. The document was debated for 2 days and a number of revisions were made.

He served as Governor of Virginia and during the revolution, when the British invaded the area, Thomas Jefferson retreated and left Monticello. It was an accusation of cowardice that followed him for some time.

He served as Minister to France from 1785-1789. Martha Jefferson died in 1782 during childbirth so his time spent in France was a time of great help to him. He wasn’t as well liked as his predecessor, Benjamin Franklin, but he loved the Architecture, art and rich classical history that France provided. He loved French cuisine and had French chefs teach his slaves how to cook French cuisine. One of those slaves was James, the brother of Sally Hemings.

He was appointed the First Secretary of State by George Washington. He served in the cabinet alongside Alexander Hamilton, who, he was constantly at odds with politically. These tensions would ultimately lead to his resignation.

Thomas Jefferson was asked to run for President after George Washington stepped down after two terms. He narrowly lost the election in 1796 to John Adams and as a result, became Vice President. He was of a different political party than Adams. It was a recipe for disaster. Thomas Jefferson ran for President in 1800 and defeated John Adams. The election was rather dramatic and no candidate got the necessary votes in the electoral college, so it went to the House of Representatives where it took dozens of ballots to elect the third president. The Democratic Republicans used the lack of unity within the Federalist party to their advantage. Thomas Jefferson was President and Aaron Burr was Vice President. John Adams was so infuriated he refused to stay for Jefferson’s inauguration. Before Adams left office he attempted to appoint as many Federalist judges as possible. Not all appointments were delivered before Jefferson’s Inauguration and it ultimately led to the Supreme Court Case Marbury vs. Madison. This Court Case would give the Supreme Court its main source of power. The Power of Judicial Review. This event would lead these two former friends to not speak for many years. The Election of 1800 is also known as The Revolution of 1800. It was the first time power was peacefully transferred from one political party to another. The challenges created by this election led to the 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1803. It required that the Electoral College vote separately for the President and Vice President.

You will see a consistent theme when it comes to Jefferson. His Principles don’t often match up to his actions as President.

Jefferson envisioned a United States consisting of small farms. He feared a rigid class system similar to that of England’s would emerge. Yeoman Farmer.

Give example of Jefferson and Hamilton looking out the window.

Natural Aristocracy: through elections people will rise up to their rightful positions. The people will recognize the innate talents and virtues in those meant to rule.

Jefferson is a strict Constructionist, yet he uses the Elastic Clause to Purchase the Louisiana Territory.


Both yeoman and big planters united behind this philosophy. It created an opposition to northern merchants and bankers. Again, we see these Sectional feelings taking root so early on.


Served 2 terms March of 1801-March 1809

Domestic Issues:

Repeal of the Alien Act (Alien and Sedition Act) once again made it 5 years to become a citizen. The rest of the acts were simply allowed to expire and weren’t renewed. The exception is the Alien Enemies Act which was kept on and changed to include women.

Enabling Act of 1802: set procedures for Western Lands to be organized into territories and eventually states.

Louisiana Purchase 1803: The Port of Orleans was of great importance for frontier farmers to trade along the Mississippi River. Originally just looking to purchase the port from France> Napoleon who was busy fighting Wares in Europe needed money and agreed to sell not only the Port but the entire Louisiana Territory for 15 Million. This created a personal dilemma for Jefferson as he was a Strict Constructionist. He didn’t like the idea of a Strong Central Government to begin with. It was Jefferson that pushed for the addition for a Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution in his writings to James Madison. The Constitution didn’t give the President the right to add territory to The US. Jefferson wanted an Amendment passed that would allow for that to happen but there wasn’t enough time. Never the less, The Territory was purchased using the Elastic Clause in the Constitution which allows the Federal Government to do things that are necessary and proper. Politically, this caused division. Federalists for the most part opposed the purchase. Republicans tended to favor it because it would weaken the power of Northeastern states and provide more land for Yeoman farmers and planters.

Now France didn’t have many permanent settlements in this territory. The French settlers came as mostly fur trappers and traders. When the area was given to Spain, they didn’t develop the territory either. So in 1801, when France regained control over the territory, this made the US Government concerned. We needed that port to trade along the Mississippi river. The difference now for that region was that Americans planned to and did settle west. This would lead to increased tensions with Native Americans and the continued decrease of their population and eventual end to their way of life as they knew it.

In 1804, Jefferson requested an expedition into this new territory. This became known as Lewis and Clark Expedition. From 1804-1806, Lewis and Clark along with 45 others traveled westward taking copious notes and making extensive drawings, maps and brought back samples of what this great wilderness had to offer. The goals were simple: see what is out there, can we trade with Western Native American Groups and is there a water route to trade with the Pacific.

The US continued to have issued in the waters along the Barbary Coast. For those who are not historically inclined we are talking about areas such as Algiers, Tunis, Morocco and Tripoli. These areas demanded tribute from foreign countries in order to allow that countries merchant ships to trade without issue. The Pasha of Tripoli demanded a higher tribute and felt he was being paid less that other leaders in the region were. Pasha declared War on the US and the US enacted an embargo of the area and peace was eventually settled. Tribute would continue to be paid to Barbary pirates for a few years more.

End of the International Slave Trade 1807: Slaves would no longer legally be brought over to the United States. Thousands of enslaved individuals would continue to be smuggled into the country and it resulted in increasing the importance of the domestic slave trade and the increased the amounts that current slaves were worth in the country.

After his Presidency, Thomas Jefferson returned to Monticello. He also owned two other neighboring Plantations. It is believed that over the course of his lifetime, Jefferson owned around 600 slaves.

He first became a slave owner at the age of 21. Again, Jefferson is a man of contradictions. He refers to slavery as a moral depravity and yet felt that Blacks were inferior and if and when slavery was abolished (he felt it needed to abolished gradually and had a possible plan for it) he felt that Blacks and whites couldn’t coexist peacefully together and that it would lead to a race war without end.

We know so much about Jefferson’s position on certain topics because Jefferson was an avid letter writer. He kept impeccable records about the plantation and copies of his letters through his invention of the Polygraph (many writing)

Wrote 19,000 letters in his lifetime

Much of what we know about the lives of those who were enslaved at Monticello come from those record books and various letters including first-hand accounts of the son of Sally Hemings. If you go to Monticello.org they have a wealth of information about slavery at Monticello and the surrounding farms owned by Jefferson. In 1923, when the property was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the home and Mulberry Row (The slave quarters) were fixed and remain today a testimony to both Jefferson and the hundreds of people who were kept there against their will. There is a list of names of individuals who were enslaved at Monticello. Some have descriptions, a biography of their life, the type of work they did etc. It’s also important to note that many of the names of those enslaved there are unknown. They are equally as important. Without the individuals enslaved at Monticello, Monticello, the lifestyle of Jefferson, his family, even his great accomplishments would not have been possible. In a letter written by Jefferson he wrote how he had realized that he earned a 4% increase on the birth of each child on the plantation. Recent studies show Jefferson was correct. In the 1970s, economists found that enslaved black people were the second most valuable capital by the 1860s. Land was the first. There was a hierarchy of slaves at Monticello and plantations like it. Growing wheat as the staple crop instead of tobacco required a variety of skilled laborers. Some were trained as millers, smiths, carpenters, young male children would make nails for example. The nails produced in two months Jefferson noted paid the entire years’ worth of food. Young female children, worked weaving and making cloth. Some slaves were trained as managers and oversaw the daily operation. On the top of the hierarchy were the household staff. They tended to be treated better – more food, finer clothing, better living conditions. This shouldn’t mislead you though. These were still human beings kept in bondage, forced to remain a slave, with physical punishments and the threat of being sold off far away. Many letters mention a number of white overseers who were known for their cruel and brutal punishments of those who didn’t produce what was expected of them. Some letters to Jefferson discuss children being whipped because they were late for work. Once a lack in profit was noted, changes were made. Those changes often involved violence. The white southern gentlemen could only dedicate his life to other pursuits because of the labor force of slaves. The life of a white southern gentlemen was expensive and Thomas Jefferson had expensive taste and often lived beyond his means.

Thomas Jefferson lived well beyond his means and as a result amassed a great amount of debt. His personal debt was why he agreed to sell a majority of his personal library to Congress to help rebuild the contents of The Library of Congress after the Capital was burned down by the British in the War of 1812. He owed 107,000 dollars at the time of his death. The majority of his possessions in Monticello were sold off as were the majority of the slaves to pay his debts. The only slaves freed by Jefferson were the children of sally Hemings. She had only agreed to accompany Jefferson back to Monticello when he left France if he agreed to free her children and that she and her descendants have better treatment. It was rumored from as early on as 1802, that Jefferson had a relationship with sally. Sally’s son refers to his mother as Jefferson’s concubine. This was something Jefferson and his white descendants denied. In 1998, a DNA test showed that Jefferson most likely was the father of Sally Heming’s children.

Death of Thomas Jefferson:

Like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. The 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He was ill and in and out of consciousness for a few days prior to his death. Consistently asking it was the 4th. On the morning of the 4th his grandson tapped him on the shoulder to alert him that it was the 4th. He would die a few hours later.

Jefferson designed his tombstone and had written his epitaph.

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia

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