Jefferson was born at Shadwell Plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia. His father was a well-to-do Virginian tobacco farmer who died when Thomas was 14, leaving him heir to the family's 14,000 acre plantation. Jefferson attended William and Mary College then went on to study law. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767.
From 1769 to 1774, Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was a leading spokesman for those who opposed continued British rule. In 1775-1776 Jefferson was a delegate to the Continental Congress. There he headed the committee charged with writing the Declaration of Independence.
In 1779, Jefferson became governor of Virginia. From 1783-1784, he served as a member of the Continental Congress. He then became Foreign Minister to France. Jefferson developed a strong attachment to all things French. From 1790-93, Jefferson served as Secretary of State in Washington's cabinet, during which time, he advocated stronger ties with France.
In addition, he favored a strict interpretation of the Constitution. In his view, the power of the federal government should be limited. When it became clear that George Washington supported Hamilton on the question of federal jurisdiction as well as regarding relations with France, Jefferson resigned. Jefferson returned to governmental office from 1797-1801 to serve as Vice President to John Adams.
From the moment that Jefferson was inaugurated, he began what he described as the Revolution of 1800. This was his attempt to repeal major actions that he felt the Federalists had taken to needlessly strengthen the hand of the Federal government. This included allowing the Alien and Sedition Act to lapse and the repeal of the federal whiskey tax. For all Jefferson's changes, his presidency was more one of stability than of change.
Jefferson was a leading advocate of strict interpretation of the Constitution. Despite this fact, he took two major actions in his first term that, under a strict interpretation of the Constitution, he lacked the power to do. The first was to send forces against the Barbary Pirates. His orders to the force commander instructed him to take military action to end forced payment of ransom. The policy was successful, but Jefferson did not consult Congress before instructing this use of force.
Second, in secret negotiations, Jefferson agreed to purchase the LouisianaTerritory from France. This purchase, for $15 million, doubled the size of the United States. There was, however, no provision in the constitution that provided for the purchase of land.
During his second term, Jefferson insisted on maintaining American neutrality in the expanding European War. He felt compelled to pass an extremely unpopular embargo act banning all trade with the European belligerents. The high point of this second term was the return of Lewis and Clark from the American West. Their visit was the first organized exploration of much of what was to become part of the United States.