Role of Thomas Jefferson in American Architecture & Politics

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  • 0:00 Thomas Jefferson
  • 0:53 Jefferson the Politician
  • 3:04 Jefferson the Architect
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Thomas Jefferson is well known as an American politician, but he was also very influential as an architect. Explore the link between politics and architecture in the early United States and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Thomas Jefferson

This is Thomas Jefferson. Go ahead, say hello. If you've got any loose change in your pocket, you may recognize him as that guy on the nickel. Actually, he's also on the $2 bill, which is kind of cool, but I'm guessing you don't have one of those in your wallet. So why is this guy on our currency?

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was an American politician, intellectual, and amateur architect, most remembered as one of the nation's founding fathers and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. He was also the third president of the United States. So he was an important guy in American history. But at the same time that he helped establish our political system, he also helped established an artistic sense for the newly-formed United States, and these two things were closely connected. Want to see what I mean? Let's take a look.

Jefferson the Politician

Like I said, Thomas Jefferson was a major figure in early American politics. He represented Virginia in the Continental Congress as the colonies first declared their independence. He was the governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, and after the war, he was first the US Minister to France, then the first US Secretary of State, then Vice President, and finally President of the United States. So he was a busy guy.

As a politician, Jefferson was a leading proponent of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which stressed individual rights and individual logic as the basis of moral society. To Jefferson, this meant that a good government needed to protect the rights of the people, and along with similarly-minded revolutionaries, he helped establish that the American government would be a Democratic Republic in which people voted on representatives to run the government. That's the system we still use today. He put these ideas into the Declaration of Independence, most famously summed up in the phrase, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

This doesn't mean that Jefferson and the other American politicians always got along. They didn't. In fact, sometimes their arguments got pretty heated and involved words like 'scoundrel.' You see, everyone agreed that the government should respect the rights of the people, but people disagreed on the best way to do this.

Some supported a very strong central government, but Jefferson believed in a weaker central government that allowed for the states to have their own power. To promote this view, he helped form the Democratic-Republican Party, the second political party in the USA. Thomas Jefferson was the first member of the party to be elected president and he used this position to increase the rights of individual states, as well as to introduce an aggressive policy of westward expansion by purchasing the 800,000 square-mile territory that France called Louisiana. The Louisiana Purchase more than doubled the size of the United States, so Jefferson's presidency can be characterized by an interesting mixture of both limiting and expanding the power of the government.

Jefferson the Architect

So Thomas Jefferson was clearly pretty influential in deciding what the United States was. But he was also a major figure in deciding what the United States would look like. On top of being a politician and philosopher, Jefferson was an amateur architect and a pretty good one at that.

This is his Virginia home, which he designed himself, called Monticello. Monticello is a prime example of what is now called Jeffersonian architecture, which is an American version of the European movement called Neoclassicism, the revival of ancient Greek and Roman styles. Jefferson was very influenced by the Neoclassical movement, largely because it was so strongly based on the Roman Republic, which was the model for the American democratic republic.


So Jefferson studied the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. He also studied the works of Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century Italian architect who formally developed rules about using Classical temples as the basis for modern architecture. See how Monticello looks a bit like a Roman temple, with the dome and the columns?


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