U.S. President Thomas Jefferson Early Life and Physical Description

About the U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, early life and career before the presidency, history and biography, physical description.


3rd President


On the Way to the White House: As secretary of state, Jefferson found himself in increasingly bitter competition with the other strong personality in Washington's cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. With the President leaning in Hamilton's direction on most key issues, Jefferson resigned, despite Washington's desire that he stay on to preserve the appearance of harmony in the new government. So began yet another much-heralded retirement, as Jefferson returned to Monticello and quietly organized a new political party to advance both his ideas and his ambitions. In 1796, after Washington's retirement, he ran for president and was defeated by John Adams by only three electoral votes. Under the original terms of the Constitution, Jefferson's second-place finish automatically made him vice-president. While he was careful to preserve an apolitical public image, the new vice-president was busy behind the scenes, encouraging publicists and politicians to undermine the administration and preparing himself for a rematch in 1800 with his old friend John Adams.

His Person: Jefferson was 6 ft. 2 1/2 in. tall--as a young man he had been nicknamed Long Tom--with slender build, long limbs, large hands and feet, square jaw, and prominent cheekbones. His complexion was pinkish and freckled, setting off hazel eyes and carrot-red hair, which turned gray later in life. In posture, he was generally a sloucher and a lounger. As president, he startled visitors by wearing the same comfortable old clothes in the White House that he wore at Monticello. His normal outfit included a worn brown coat, red waistcoat, corduroy breeches, wool hose, and a favorite pair of carpet slippers without heels. When he appeared this way to receive the British ambassador, it was considered a deliberate insult and nearly provoked an international incident. Nevertheless, Jefferson's informal dress contributed to his popularity, as did his initiation of the democratic presidential custom of shaking hands with visitors, rather than bowing. With his astonishing variety of interests, ranging from architecture to zoology, Jefferson had a reputation as a brilliant conversationalist; all observers agreed that he was one of the best-educated men of his age. Despite the painful migraine headaches that often plagued him (one of which lasted six weeks without a letup), Jefferson was characteristically optimistic, good-natured, and easygoing. His daughter Martha reported that only twice did he lose his temper in her presence; once when a trusted slave defied an order concerning a horse, and once when a quarreling ferryman let a boat in which they were riding drift dangerously close to some rapids. Jefferson usually rose at dawn. He bathed his feet in cold water every morning in the belief that this kept away colds. He wrote and read until breakfast and spent some hours in the afternoon playing violin, riding horseback (6 to 8 mi. a day), or gardening. He preferred French cooking "because the meats were more tender," but even so continued to eat far more vegetables than meat. He drank water only once a day, a single glass, when he returned from his horseback ride. His table was always generously provided with the finest wines; during his eight years in the White House he ran up a personal wine bill of $10,835.90--a lordly sum for those days.

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