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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States
[1196] Pendleton's Lithography, Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States (c. 1828), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-117117].

Thomas Jefferson Activities
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President John F. Kennedy paid tribute to Thomas Jefferson's many accomplishments when he told a group of Nobel Prize winners that they were "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Indeed, Jefferson's intellectual talents extended to a wide range of subjects and pursuits. He made important contributions to American culture as a writer, politician, farmer, horticulturist, inventor, book collector, art curator, architect, and scientist. His commitment to and eloquent articulation of ideals of liberty and justice (most famously in the Declaration of Independence) have made him a hero to many, while his ownership of slaves and sometimes disingenuous political rhetoric have disappointed others. As historian Joseph J. Ellis puts it, "The best and worst of American history are inextricably tangled together in Jefferson."

Jefferson was born into a prominent family in Albermarle County, Virginia. After his father's death in 1757 he was sent to the College of William and Mary, where he received an education in the classics as well as in eighteenth-century philosophy. Jefferson chose to pursue law as a career and studied with the influential legal scholar George Wythe. After setting up a successful law practice, he was elected to the Virginia legislature in 1769, thus embarking on his lengthy career in American politics. Jefferson soon became embroiled in the Revolutionary cause and published a fiery pamphlet on American rights. He also attended the Second Continental Congress as a strong advocate of independence. Jefferson was well known for his literary abilities, so he was a natural choice to serve on the committee selected to draft the Declaration of Independence. He accepted suggestions and editorial changes made by the committee and by the Congress (nervous congressional delegates removed his strong condemnation of slavery), but in essence the document is the product of Jefferson's pen.

After 1776, Jefferson returned to Virginia, where he was elected governor. While serving his term, he received a request for information about the land and culture of Virginia from Francois Barbe-Marbois, a French diplomat. Jefferson composed the only full-length book of his career, Notes on the State of Virginia, in response. A comprehensive study of natural history, politics, and social customs, Jefferson's work attempts to make a scientific argument for America's potential as a land of freedom and prosperity. Notes on the State of Virginia contains insightful analysis of the natural world, intriguing political and social commentary, and some problematic racial stereotypes. In 1784 Jefferson was appointed minister to France, and the years he spent abroad proved foundational to both his politics and his sense of aesthetics (he became enamored of French art and architecture). When he returned to the United States in 1789, he served as the first secretary of state under George Washington and later as vice president under John Adams. Jefferson's disagreements with Adams over the role of government in the new nation led to the formation of the first American political parties: Adams's Federalists and Jefferson's Republicans. In what is sometimes termed the "Revolution of 1800," Jefferson defeated Adams and the Federalist Party to become the third president of the United States. He was the first president inaugurated in the new city of Washington, D.C., and during his term in office he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark's expedition to the Pacific.

After the conclusion of his second term as president, Jefferson returned to Monticello, the elegant plantation he had built on his family lands in Virginia. In his final years, he helped found the University of Virginia and maintained an extensive correspondence with friends, acquaintances, and admirers in Europe and America. His productive retirement was troubled, however, by his enormous financial debts and his consciousness of the discrepancy between his professed political commitments and his position as a slaveowner. He died a few hours before John Adams on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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