At his demand, Thomas Jefferson's tombstone reads, "author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." School students know Jefferson for the above and far more.
Elected to the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson was named to head a committee of five charged with preparing the Declaration of Independence. He was the primary author. The initial draft was amended in consultation with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Returning to Virginia, Jefferson served in the House of Delegates until 1779.
While the Revolutionary War was underway, Jefferson sought to liberalize Virginia's laws. His bill to create a free system of tax-supported elementary education for all except slaves was defeated, as well as bills to modernize the curriculum at the College of William and Mary and to create a public library. In 1779, he introduced a bill on religious liberty that touched off turmoil in Virginia that lasted for eight years. The bill provided "that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions on matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." Those opposing the bill thought it an attack on Christianity. The bill passed 1786, mainly through the efforts of James Madison.
Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia in 1779 and retired from the position two years later. Later a member of Congress, his proposals on units of currency and a coinage led to the adoption of the dollar rather than the pound as the basic monetary unit in the United States. Although a slave holder, he proposed that slavery be excluded from all the American western territories. The provision was defeated narrowly in 1784.
From 1784 to 1789 he lived in France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin as minister to France in 1785. Congress confirmed him as secretary of state in the first Washington administration without Jefferson's knowledge. He accepted reluctantly. Jefferson was at odds with Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, whom he suspected (with other Federalists) of a secret plan to return a form of monarchy to America. Jefferson retired from the cabinet in 1793.
With growing opposition to policies of George Washington, Jefferson welcomed Washington's decision not to accept a third term as president and became the candidate of the Democratic-Republican Party. John Adams, Federalist, narrowly won the electoral college victory and, as runner up, Jefferson became vice president. The election of 1800 ended in a tie, with the House of Representatives choosing Jefferson. His presidency was marked by simplicity and frugality. The Louisiana Purchase was made during his first term. Among successes of his second term were the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Tripolitan War.
Retiring from the presidency in 1809, he set about developing the University of Virginia. He conceived it, planned it, designed it, and supervised both its construction and the hiring of its faculty.