Thomas Jefferson’s Top 10 Achievements and Contributions

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Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was born 271 years ago this month. Here are 10 ways he contributed to American life and politics.
1. Wrote The Declaration of Independence (1776)
Thomas Jefferson was appointed by Congress to a five-person committee in charge of writing The Declaration of Independence. The other four members were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Jefferson was responsible for writing the first draft—within 17 days, the draft document was written, reviewed and revised by the committee, and presented to Congress.


2. Wrote The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1777)
Jefferson considered The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to be one of his greatest accomplishments. This document, which was introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779, declared freedom of religion a “natural right” and became a model for the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
3. Advocated for free public education (1779)
Jefferson was an early advocate of having an informed populace. In 1779, he wrote A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which outlined a plan for establishing Virginia public schools where “all the free children, male and female” were to be given three years of instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and history. The bill was defeated in the state legislature, but it laid the groundwork for free public education.


4. Served as the first U.S. Secretary of State (1790–1793)
Jefferson served as the country’s first Secretary of State under President George Washington. In this office, he advocated for each state to pay its own portion of the Revolutionary War debt and supported France in its war with Britain, though he believed the United States should maintain neutrality in the conflict.
5. Made the Louisiana Purchase (1803)
In 1803 as President of the United States, Jefferson purchased more than 800,000 square miles of Louisiana Territory from France for about $15 million, effectively doubling the size of the United States.


6. Launched the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804)
Having just greatly increased the size of the United States, Jefferson wanted to explore both the new part of the country and the rest of the continent. He appointed as his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis, who then enlisted William Clark. They left on their journey in 1804 with the goals of learning more about the landscape and the Native American tribes, and of finding a water passage between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.
7. Participated in the founding of the Library of Congress (1815)
James H. Billington, the current Librarian of Congress, wrote: “If ever a library had a single founder, Thomas Jefferson is the founder of the Library of Congress.” In 1815, Jefferson sold his personal library, consisting of almost 6,700 volumes, to the federal government for just under $24,000. These books formed the core collection of the Library of Congress.


8. Founded the University of Virginia (1819)
Jefferson thought universities should educate leaders rather than just preachers and professors. He founded the University of Virginia as the United States’ first nonsectarian university as well as the first to use the elective course system.
9. Revolutionized gardening and advanced sustainable agriculture
Jefferson experimented with various gardening techniques and was a huge fan of eating his vegetables, which he grew at his home of Monticello. At that time, many people believed that certain vegetables, like tomatoes, were poisonous, but Jefferson loved them. He also pioneered many efforts in sustainable agriculture.


10. Popularized macaroni and cheese in the United States
In his early career, Jefferson traveled in Europe and became enamored with its cuisine, especially pasta. He served macaroni and cheese to guests at Monticello and even drew plans for a macaroni machine. He has been referred to as a “Founding Foodie” and “America’s First Foodie,” and there is even a mac ‘n’ cheese recipe in his own handwriting.

Photo Credits: “United States 1803-04” by Golbez [CC-BY-SA-3.0]; “Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Estate” by Christopher Hollis for Wdwic Pictures [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Caitlin Probst