Thomas Jefferson, Father of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Charles Willson PealeThomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia on April 13, 1743 to Peter and Jane (neé Conway) Jefferson, a successful planter and the daughter of an esteemed Virginia family. At the age of 17, Jefferson began his education at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, where he studied and excelled in a variety of subjects. He then studied law under George Wythe and passed the Virginia bar in 1767.

After practicing law for two years, Jefferson served as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769-1774 and actively spoke out against Britain’s treatment of the 13 colonies in his “Summary of the Rights of British America.” In 1776, as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson was nominated to a committee (along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston) to write the Declaration of Independence. Of the committee, Jefferson was selected by the members to draft the Declaration because of his eloquent and skillful writing. His authorship of the document cemented his place as one of our most important founding fathers.

From 1776-1779 he served in Virginia’s House of Delegates, where he worked to abolish primogeniture and, along with James Madison, to establish religious liberty. During this time, Jefferson formed a strong and enduring tie with Madison. He also served as Virginia’s governor from 1779-1781, and then as trade commissioner and U.S. Minister to France.

After the Constitution was ratified, Jefferson became the first secretary of state under the Washington administration. During this period, he butt heads with Alexander Hamilton over questions of foreign policy and states’ rights. Running for president in 1796, Jefferson lost to John Adams, subsequently becoming vice president instead. Four years later, he defeated Adams in the 1800 election, becoming our third president. During his two terms in office, one of Jefferson’s most notable achievements was the expansion of U.S. territory through the Louisiana Purchase, as well as his organization of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In his retirement years, Jefferson remained active, founding the University of Virginia and becoming involved with the fledgling Library of Congress. Exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and on the same day as John Adams, he died on July 4, 1826.

Below is a collection of resources recognizing Thomas Jefferson’s influence in American political thought and as writer of the Declaration of Independence. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:

Selected online resources on Thomas Jefferson:

Thomas Jefferson PortraitThe Jefferson Papers at the National Archives

The National Archives has made the Jefferson Papers available in an online format. The papers, which span from 1760 to 1826, include teenage musings, multiple drafts of the Declaration of Independence, a letter from the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Jefferson’s design and inscription for his tombstone, on which he wishes to be remembered as the “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia.”

Browse the Jefferson Papers at the National Archives >>



What Did Lincoln Really Think of Jefferson?

In 2015, JMC faculty partner Allen Guelzo wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on Lincoln’s conflicted feelings for Jefferson in regards to both personality and policy.

Read the piece at the New York Times website >>




Online Exhibits on Jefferson at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has two online exhibits on Thomas Jefferson. The first, an exhibit on Jefferson’s life in general, focuses on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson–founding father, farmer, architect, inventor, slaveholder, book collector, scholar, diplomat, and the third president of the United States. The other exhibit, on Jefferson’s personal library, focuses on his private book collection, the largest in North America in his time.

Explore the “Thomas Jefferson” exhibit here and the ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Library” exhibit here >>



Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters from Monticello

The Monticello website features a collection of Jefferson quotes and a collection of Jefferson family letters that includes a family tree, land grants, and letters to and from Jefferson’s wife, Martha.

Visit the Monticello website >>





The Rivalry and Friendship of Jefferson and Adams: A Conversation with Gordon Wood

In 2018, the Liberty Fund interviewed JMC faculty partner Gordon Wood about his book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as part of its Liberty Law Talk Series.

Listen to the interview at Law & Liberty >>



“Jefferson, Adams, and Their Legacy”

The program “The Legacy of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams” took place on June 27, 2009, at Monticello as part of a two-week conference on the two founders. C-SPAN captured the panelists, including JMC fellow John Kaminski, speaking on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s friendship, legacies, and libraries. They also spoke about the social climate of the Founding Fathers and answered questions from members of the audience.


Watch the program at C-SPAN >>



John Adams, Asher B. DurandThe Adams-Jefferson Correspondence at the National Archives

Drawing from the Adams Papers and Jefferson Papers, the National Archives has made both Adams’s letters to Jefferson and Jefferson’s letters to Adams available in an online format. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams worked closely together during the Revolution, but became political enemies after divisive arguments over the role of the new federal government. Following years of bitter silence, the two men reestablished their friendship from the years when they both served in the Continental Congress and together as ambassadors to France. Their correspondence then continued until they both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Read the correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson >>



*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Thomas Jefferson or his political thought, and would like your work included here, send it to us at

JMC Resources:

Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was an early state law drafted by Thomas Jefferson that disestablished the Church of England and instituted religious freedom in Virginia. Much of the Statute reflects on the reasons for the measures it proposes and therefore offers a defense of religious freedom and toleration. The Statute’s reasoning in many places follows that of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration and Milton’s Areopagitica, and, like Locke’s Letter, it traces freedom of religion ultimately to the freedom of the mind. The statute thus points generally in the direction of freedom of speech, insofar “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion.”

Read more about the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty in our First Amendment Library >>


John Hancock signatureThe Declaration of Independence

When the tension between the colonists and the British crown came to a head with a violent confrontation between British soldiers and the Massachusetts militia in April of 1775, American leaders from the thirteen colonies convened a Continental Congress to organize an army to fight for their independence. In July of the following year, this Congress issued a declaration of the colonies’ independence from Great Britain. This declaration, drafted mainly in part by Thomas Jefferson, justified the colonies’ rebellion by stating “self-evident” “truths” about the purpose and foundation of government and by explaining how the British government had consistently failed to meet the standards of those truths. This articulation of a classical liberal conception of government, based on equality and natural rights, would serve as the moral foundation of the United States’ Constitution. The Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence was not, however, the only public defense of the states’ break with the crown; nor was it the only public statement of their political principles. Individual states issued their own declarations of rights and of independence, both as stand-alone resolutions and as parts of new state constitutions. The most famous of these is the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which preceded the Continental Declaration by nearly a month. The Virginia Declaration departs from earlier documents in its articulation of the purpose of government as a protector of natural rights. Its language is recognizable both in the national Declaration of Independence in subsequent declarations and constitutions of other states.

Read more about the Declaration of Independence in our First Amendment Library >>



The Declaration of Independence and the Birth of the United States

The JMC’s July 4th resource page has several pieces on the Declaration of Independence, including articles, a JMC video series, and an interactive Declaration of Independence.

Visit the page >>


*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Thomas Jefferson or his political thought, and would like your work included here, send it to us at

Commentary and articles from JMC fellows:

The Thought of Thomas Jefferson


The Revolution of 1800Seth Cotlar, Joseph Gales and the Making of the Jeffersonian Middle Class.” (The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic, University of Virginia Press, 2002)

Matthew Crow, History, Politics, and the Self: Jefferson’s ‘Anas’ and Autobiography.” (Blackwell Companion to Thomas Jefferson, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

Andrew Fagal (editor), The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Volume 42, 16 November 1803 to 10 March 1804. (Princeton University Press, 2016)

Andrew Fagal (editor), The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Volume 43, 11 March 1804 to 30 June 1804. (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Andrew Fagal (editor), The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Volume 44, 1 July 1804 to 10 November 1804. (Princeton University Press, 2019)

Andrew Fagal, Thomas Jefferson.” (America in the World, 1776 to the Present: A Supplement to the Dictionary of American History 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2016)

Reason and RepublicanismRobert Faulkner, Jefferson and the Enlightened Science of Liberty.” (Reason and Republicanism: Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy of Liberty, Rowman & Littlefield, 1997)

Robert Faulkner, Spreading Progress: Jefferson’s Mix of Science and Liberty.” (The Good Society 17.1, 2008)

Jeffrey Morrison, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson: ‘A Friendship Which Was for Life.’” (A Companion to James Madison and James Monroe, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)

Peter Onuf (editor), The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University. (University of Virginia Press, 2019)

Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson. (University of Virginia Press, 2007)

Peter Onuf (co-author), “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. (Liveright, 2016)

"Most Blessed of the Patriarchs", Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the ImaginationPeter Onuf (editor), Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture. (University of Virginia Press, 1999)

Peter Onuf (editor), Thomas Jefferson: An Anthology. (Brandywine Press, 1999)

Andrew Trees, Private Correspondence for the Public Good: Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 26 January 1799.” (Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 108.3, Fall 2000)

Jean Yarbrough, All Honor to Jefferson.” (Imprimis, May/June 2009)

Jean Yarbrough, American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People. (University Press of Kansas, 1998)

Jean Yarbrough (editor), The Essential Jefferson. (Hackett Press, 2006)

Jean Yarbrough, Politics and Friendship in the Adams-Jefferson Correspondence.” (Friends and Citizens: Essays in Honor of Wilson Carey McWilliams, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000)


Jefferson’s Political Philosophy, the Founding, and U.S. Law


Jeffersonian Legacies, Peter Onuf (ed.)Matthew Crow, Jefferson, Pocock, and the Temporality of Law in a Republic.” (Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 2.1, Winter 2010)

Matthew Crow, Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection. (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Matthew Crow, Thomas Jefferson and the Uses of Equity.” (Law and History Review 33.1, 2015)

Ioannis Evrigenis, A Founder on Founding: Jefferson’s Advice to Koraes.” (The Historical Review I, 2004)

Peter McNamara, Hamilton and Jefferson: Two Visions of Democratic Capitalism.” (Rediscovering Political Economy, Lexington Books, 2011)

Peter McNamara, Jefferson’s Enlightenment Idea of Federalism.” (The Ashgate Research Companion to Federalism, Ashgate, 2009)

Paine and Jefferson in the Age of RevolutionsThomas Merrill, The Later Jefferson and the Problem of Natural Rights.” (Perspectives on Political Science 44.2, 2015)

Peter Onuf (editor), Declaring Independence: The Origin and Influence of America’s Founding Document. (University of Virginia Library, 2008)

Peter Onuf, Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire. (Louisiana University Press, 2018)

Peter Onuf (editor), Jeffersonian Legacies. (University Press of Virginia, 1993)

Peter Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood. (University Press of Virginia, 2000)

Peter Onuf (editor), Paine and Jefferson in the Age of Revolutions. (University of Virginia Press, 2014)

Peter Onuf (editor), Thomas Jefferson, The Classical World, and Early America. (University of Virginia Press, 2011)

Beyond the FoundersJeffrey Pasley, The Cheese and the Words: Popular Political Culture and Participatory Democracy in the Age of Jefferson.” (Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic, University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Stephen Presser, Samuel Chase: In Defense of the Rule of Law and Against the Jeffersonians.” (Vanderbilt Law Review 62.2, 2009)

James Stoner, Sound Whigs or Honeyed Tories? Jefferson and the Common Law Tradition.” (Reason and Republicanism: Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy of Liberty, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997)

Jean Yarbrough, Jefferson and Property Rights.” (Liberty, Property and the Foundations of the American Constitution, State University of New York Press, 1989)

Jean Yarbrough, The Role of Military Virtues in Preserving our Republican Institutions.” (Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy: Founding West Point, University of Virginia Press, 2004)

Thomas Jefferson's Military Academy (Jean Yarbrough, cont.)Jean Yarbrough, Thomas Jefferson and Republicanism.” (Thomas Jefferson and the Politics of Nature, University of Notre Dame Press, 2000)

Jean Yarbrough, Thomas Jefferson: The First American Progressive? (Natural Right and Political Philosophy: Essays in Honor of Catherine Zuckert and Michael Zuckert, University of Notre Dame Press, 2013)

Michael Zuckert, Thomas Jefferson and Natural Morality: Classical Moral Theory, Moral Sense, and Rights.” (Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America, University of Virginia Press, 2011)

Michael Zuckert, Thomas Jefferson on Nature and Natural Rights.” (The Framers and Fundamental Rights, AEI Press, 1991)

Michael Zuckert, Two paths from Revolution: Jefferson, Paine and the Radicalization of Enlightenment Thought.” (Paine and Jefferson in the Age of Revolutions, University of Virginia Press, 2013)


The 1800 Presidential Election and Jefferson on the Executive Power


Jeremy Bailey, Constitutionalism, Conflict, and Consent: Jefferson on the Impeachment Power.” (Review of Politics 70.4, Fall 2008)

A Companion to Thomas JeffersonJeremy Bailey, Executive Prerogative and the ‘good officer’ in Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to John B. Colvin.” (Presidential Studies Quarterly 34.4, 2004)

Jeremy Bailey, From ‘floating ardor’ to the ‘union of sentiment’: Jefferson on the Relationship between Public Opinion and the Executive.” (A Companion to Thomas Jefferson, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

Jeremy Bailey, Jefferson’s Executive: More Responsible, More Unitary, and Less Stable.” (Extra-Legal Power and Legitimacy: Perspectives on Prerogative, Oxford University Press, 2013)

Jeremy Bailey, “The Revolution of 1800.” (A History of the U.S. Political System: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions, ABC-Clio, 2009)

Jeremy Bailey, Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power. (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Re-Imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions (Seth Cotlar cont.)Seth Cotlar, Languages of Democracy in America from the Revolution to the Election of 1800.” (Re-Imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850, Oxford University Press, 2013)

Clement Fatovic, Constitutionalism and Presidential Prerogative: Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian Perspectives.” (American Journal of Political Science 48.3, July 2004)

David Houpt, John Adams and the Elections of 1796 and 1800.” (A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)

Shira Lurie, Would Trump concede in 2020? A lesson from 1800.” (The Conversation, August 22, 2019)

Peter Onuf (editor), The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic. (University of Virginia Press, 2002)

Jeffrey Pasley, 1800 as a Revolution in Political Culture: Newspapers, Celebrations, Voting, and Democratization in the Early Republic.” (The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic, University Press of Virginia, 2002)

Jeffrey Pasley, The Devolution of 1800: Jefferson’s Election and the Birth of American Government.” (America at the Ballot Box: Elections and American Political History, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015)


Expanding American Reach: Foreign Policy and the Louisiana Purchase


The Louisiana Purchase and American Expansion 1803-1898Andrew Fagal, Thomas Jefferson and the Arabian Stallion: A Research Note on the Third President and the Foreign Emoluments Clause.” (Law & History Review: The Docket 1, December 2018)

Peter Onuf (editor), Across the Continent: Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and the Marking of America. (University of Virginia Press, 2005)

Bartholomew Sparrow, Congress and Western Expansion.” (The American Congress: The Building of Democracy, Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Bartholomew Sparrow (editor), The Louisiana Purchase and American Expansion, 1803-1898. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)


Jefferson on Religion and Religious Liberty


God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Vincent Phillip MuñozJeremy Bailey, Nature and Nature’s God in the Notes on the State of Virginia.” (Enlightenment and Secularism: Essays on the Mobilization of Reason, Lexington Books, 2013)

Justin Dyer (co-author), Thomas Jefferson, Nature’s God, and the Theological Foundations of Natural-Rights Republicanism.” (Politics & Religion 10.3, September 2017)

Mark David Hall, Jeffersonian Walls and Madisonian Lines: The Supreme Court’s Use of History in Religion Clause Cases.” (High Court Quarterly Review 5.3, 2009)

Mark David Hall, Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Liberty, and the Creation of the First Amendment.” (American Political Thought 3.1, Spring 2014)

Vincent Phillip Muñoz, God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson. (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed, John RagostaVincent Phillip Muñoz, Thomas Jefferson’s Philosophy of Religious Freedom: The Political Philosophy of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.” (The Crisis of Religious Liberty: Reflections from Law, History, and Catholic Social Thought, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

J. Judd Owen, The Struggle between ‘Religion and Nonreligion’: Jefferson, Backus, and the Dissonance of America’s Founding Principles.” (American Political Science Review 101.3, August 2007)

John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed. (University of Virginia Press, 2013)

John Ragosta, Thomas Jefferson and Religion.” (Encyclopedia Virginia, 2012)

John Ragosta,Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786).” (Encyclopedia Virginia, 2012)

John Ragosta, The Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom.” (A Companion to Thomas Jefferson, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011)


Modern Issues: What Would Jefferson Think?


Light on skyscraper windows, Samuel ZellerMark Boonshoft, De Blasio’s specialized high school admissions fix is Jeffersonian, in the best sense.” (New York Daily News, June 14, 2018)

Timothy Brennan, Thomas Jefferson and the Living Constitution.” (The Journal of Politics 79.3, July, 2017)

James Ceaser, What would Thomas Jefferson think of the University of Virginia turmoil? (Washington Post, June 22, 2012)

Nora Hanagan, From Agrarian Dreams to Democratic Realities: A Deweyan Alternative to Jeffersonian Food Politics.” (Political Research Quarterly 68.1, 2015)

Jeffrey Pasley, Politics and the Misadventures of Thomas Jefferson’s Modern Reputation: A Review Essay.” (Journal of Southern History 72.4, November 2006)


*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Thomas Jefferson or his political thought, and would like your work included here, send it to us at



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