Born on 13 April 1743 in Goochland (now Albemarle) County, Virginia, and educated at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson rose to fame as the draftsman of revolutionary state papers, first in Virginia and then in the Continental Congress, where, of course, he became the author of the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration's celebrated preamble, Jefferson reduced the "natural rights" philosophy of the age to a set of first principles that had a profound influence on the course of the American Revolution. Proceeding from these principles, Jefferson himself sought far-reaching reforms in his native state. He was only partially successful. The Virginia assembly in 1786 enacted his Statute for Religious Freedom; it rejected much more, including his comprehensive plan of public education, although in Jefferson's opinion it was essential to the citizen-republicanism of the new nation. He was governor of Virginia (1779–1781)—his first executive office—during the trying circumstance of war and invasion, and left office under a cloud of criticism that was never completely dispelled.
In 1784, after a brief turn in Congress, Jefferson was sent to Europe on a diplomatic mission. The following year he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as American minister to France. From that vantage point, he observed the coming of the French Revolution. Closely associated with liberal, enlightened circles in Paris, he sympathized with the revolutionary impulse but sought to direct it into moderate and pacific channels of reform. Although he never confused France with America, Jefferson became an ardent friend of the French Revolution and in time assimilated some of its radical doctrine into his political philosophy.
In 1790, Jefferson was named secretary of state in the new national government. He had approved of the Constitution, especially with the promised addition of a bill of rights, and accepted high office under President George Washington out of a sense of loyalty to him and responsibility to the new experiment. In the conduct of the nation's foreign affairs, Jefferson sought to lessen American dependence on British commerce and to open freer channels of trade in a commercial system centered on France. He sought to redeem the trans-Appalachian West from the colonialism of the Spanish to the south and the British to the north, which would contribute as well to the pacification of the Indian tribes. He also sought to take advantage of any war that might occur between European powers by the manipulation of American trade and neutrality.
Pursuing these goals, Jefferson was frustrated by events and also by the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, whose fiscal system turned on British trade, credit, and power and who was as hostile to the French Revolution as Jefferson was friendly. The conflict with Hamilton extended to domestic policy and came to involve fundamentally different conceptions of republican government under the Constitution. Along this division, opposing political parties formed. Washington tried to keep peace in his official family, but the task proved to be impossible. At the end of 1793, Jefferson, who had little taste for political combat, resigned and retired to his Virginia home, Monticello.
Elected vice president in 1796, Jefferson at first hoped for a restoration of political concord in the administration of his old friend John Adams. Instead, partisanship reigned as the nation was again plunged into a foreign crisis growing out of the protracted war between the French republic and the monarchical coalition headed by Great Britain. The administration was Federalist; and Jefferson, who had expected that the vice presidency would be "honorable and easy," while the presidency was but "splendid misery," found himself thrust into the leadership of the opposition party. Passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the war hysteria of 1798 brought the conflict between these infant parties to a head.
Considering the laws oppressive, unconstitutional, and designed to cripple the Republican party, Jefferson went outside the general government, fully controlled by the Federalists, to start "a revolution of opinion" against them. The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (1798–1799), authored respectively by Madison and Jefferson, invoked the authority of these two state legislatures to declare the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional. The resolutions were assertions of states' rights doctrine, and as such they posed the issue on which the Civil War would later be fought. More important, however, they originated in a desperate struggle for political survival and addressed the fundamental issue of freedom and self-government descending from the American Revolution. By going outside the government, opening peaceful channels of change through the agitation of public opinion, and building a party in the broad electorate, the Jeffersonian Republicans rose to power in 1800.