Thomas Jefferson, second vice president and third president of the United States, began his political career in 1769 serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses. A member of the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson was elected to the committee charged with drafting a declaration of independence. Although assisted by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others, Jefferson is considered the principal author of the document. Jefferson served in the Virginia state legislature from 1776 to 1779, was governor of Virginia between 1779 and 1781, and following the Revolutionary War became minister to France. He was secretary of state in President Washington's first administration, and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1796. According to the election rules of the day, Jefferson finished second to John Adams, and as such, was designated vice president. He won the presidential election over Aaron Burr four years later.
The acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase is considered one of the outstanding accomplishments of Jefferson's presidency. Reelected triumphantly in 1804, Jefferson was committed to neutrality during Europe's Napoleonic wars. He retired to his rural Virginia home, Monticello, in 1809. There Jefferson championed popular education, founded the University of Virginia, and pursued wide-ranging interests in the arts and sciences.
The bust of Thomas Jefferson was one of the first executed for the vice presidential bust collection. The commission was awarded to Virginia-born artist Moses Ezekiel. Ezekiel based his portrait bust on a full-length bronze statue of Jefferson by David d'Angers, the head of which had been modeled after Thomas Sully's life study. The bust was acquired in 1889 and placed in the Senate chamber gallery the following year.
Ezekiel was one of America's most prolific late-19th century sculptors. He studied in Cincinnati and in Berlin before establishing a life-long studio in Rome, where he created his marble bust of Jefferson. Other works include the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, and 11 sculptures commissioned by William Corcoran to fill the niches in the facade of the original Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., now the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery. The Norfolk, Virginia, Botanical Gardens currently owns some of these statues.