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Thomas Jefferson



History: Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States of America


Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Descendants reflect on landmark exhibition .

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

Origins of the phrase "House Divided"

Virginia state legislator and governor
After the colonies declared their Independence, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for Albemarle County in September 1776, where the finalization of a state constitution was a priority. For nearly three years, he assisted with the constitution and was especially proud of his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which forbade state support of religious institutions or enforcement of religious doctrine. The bill failed to pass at the time, as did Jefferson's legislation to disestablish the Anglican church, but both would later be revived by James Madison and passed during Jefferson's stay in France. The political alliance Jefferson began with Madison in the Virginia legislature would prove the most important of either man's life; Madison eventually served as his chief lieutenant in the Republican party, his Secretary of State, and his successor.

In 1778, Jefferson was given the task of studying and revising the state's laws. He drafted 126 bills in three years, including laws to establish fee simple tenure in land and to streamline the judicial system. Jefferson's proposed statutes abolished primogeniture and provided for general education, which he considered the basis of "republican government". Like his religious legislation, Jefferson's bill abolishing primogeniture would not be passed until Madison reintroduced it in the 1780s.

Governor's Palace

Governor's Palace - Governor Jefferson's residence in Williamsburg
Jefferson was elected governor for one-year terms in 1779 and 1780. He transferred the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, and introduced measures for public education, religious freedom and revision of inheritance laws.

During General Benedict Arnold's 1781 invasion of Virginia, Jefferson was slow to understand the situation and summon the Virginia militia to defend Richmond. He escaped the poorly defended city just ahead of the British forces, and the city was burned to the ground. General Charles Cornwallis that spring dispatched a 250-man cavalry force led by Banastre Tarleton to capture Jefferson and members of the Assembly at Monticello, but Jack Jouett of the Virginia militia thwarted the British plan. Jefferson escaped to Poplar Forest, his plantation to the west. His tenure as governor in general, and his decision to flee the capital in particular, was criticized by both contemporary rivals and some later historians. The members of the General Assembly reconvened in June 1781 and considered an official inquiry into Jefferson's actions, as they believed he had failed his responsibilities as governor. The inquiry eventually concluded Jefferson had acted with honor, but he was not re-elected.

In April of the same year, his daughter Lucy died at age one. A second daughter of that name was born the following year but died at age three.

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