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Thomas Jefferson: A Life In Letters

7 minute read
Rebecca Winters

Thomas Jefferson once called the letters of A person “the only full and genuine journal of his life.” By that standard, Princeton University Press’s exhaustive Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the 31st volume of which will be released this week, is one colossal diary. Begun in 1943 and scheduled to be completed by 2026–the bicentennial of Jefferson’s death–the project includes more than 20,000 letters the prolific Virginian wrote in his lifetime as well as an abundance of correspondence he received. From the newest volume, edited by Princeton historian Barbara B. Oberg, we offer a sampler that includes never before published writings by Jefferson on Napoleon Bonaparte, the controversial presidential election of 1800 and the death of a favorite slave. Covering 1799 through early 1801, when Jefferson served as Vice President under John Adams, the epistles reproduced here are faithful to the Founding Father’s spellings and grammar except for his habit of beginning sentences with a lowercase letter, which has been changed for clarity. The eloquence and the complexity of the man, however, are in full view.


June 18, 1799 To: William G. Munford

“I am among those who think well of the human character generally. I consider man as formed for society, and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society … his mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception. It is impossible for a man who takes a survey of what is already known, not to see what an immensity in every branch of science yet remains to be discovered, & that too of articles to which our faculties seem adequate.”

Jefferson answered virtually every letter he received, including screeds from lunatics and pleas from strangers for money. In particular he could not resist a request for advice. When a young student wrote him seeking some suggested reading, Jefferson picked up a regular correspondence with the youth and even personally hunted bookshops for texts for him. The student, William Munford, turned out to be a scoundrel who would spread political gossip about Jefferson. But historians consider this letter from the then Vice President to Munford to be essential Jefferson: a statement of his fundamental optimism, his faith in the possibility of progress through learning, and the clearest expression of his views on the role of learned young men in the Republic. Also in his note, Jefferson took time to remind Munford to study his trigonometry.


April 8, 1800 To: Everard Meade

“We have lately heard of strange occurrences in France. What is to be the issue of republicanism there may now be doubted. Some here consider this last revolution as an additional proof of the impracticability of republican government. But I will never believe that man is incapable of self-government; that he has no resources but in a master, who is but a man like himself, and generally a worse man, inasmuch as power tends to deprave him. On the other hand I view this last revolution as an additional lesson against a standing army without which, it is evident Buonaparte could not have acomplished it, nor could now maintain it. Our vessel however is moored at such a distance from theirs that should they blow up, we need not feel the shock. We have only to stand firm at our oars, & nothing can injure us. All I ask from France & the world is peace & a good price for our wheat and tobacco.”

Jefferson, a lifelong Francophile, desperately wanted to like Napoleon. Three years before he would double the size of the U.S. by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from the French ruler, Jefferson was struggling from afar to understand Napoleon’s increasingly power-hungry motives. At first, Jefferson held out hope that France was in the hands of an enlightened statesman. By April 1800, when he addressed Everard Meade, a Virginia state legislator, Jefferson was growing disillusioned. He was worried that the French example of a republic lost to a despot would shake faith in the U.S.’s fledgling government. But thanks to its physical remoteness, the U.S., Jefferson felt, was safe from Napoleon’s cannons and muskets–and his bad example.


Feb. 4, 1800 To: Thomas Mann Randolph

“By a letter recieved to-day also from mr Richardson I learn the death of Jupiter. He has fallen a victim to an imprudent perseverance in journeying. I was extremely against his coming to Fredsbg with me … but Jupiter was so much disturbed at this that I yielded. At the end of the second day’s journey I saw how much he was worsted, & pressed him to wait at Hyde’s a very excellent house till the horses should return & I got a promise of a servant from thence. But he would not hear of it. At Fredericksburg again I engaged the tavernkeeper to take care of him till he should be quite well enough to proceed. And it seems that immediately on his arrival at home, he took another journey to my brother’s where he died. I am sorry for him as well as sensible he leaves a void in my [domestic] administration which I cannot fill up. –I must get Martha or yourself to give orders for bottling the cyder in the proper season in March. There is nobody there but Ursula who unites trust & skill to do it. She may take any body she pleases to aid her. I am in hopes if any keys had been delivered to Jupiter that they have been taken care of.”

Championing liberty is all well and good–until you need someone to bottle the cider. As he writes to his son-in-law about the death of Jupiter, his slave and personal attendant for three decades, Jefferson seems as sorry for the loss of the labor as the loss of the man. For all his contradictions, it is Jefferson’s views on slavery that are the most difficult to reconcile with his role as the author of the words “all men are created equal.” At the time of his death, Jefferson owned about 200 slaves. Five from the Hemings family were freed, and the rest were sold.


March 26, 1800 To: William Short

“No mortal can foresee in favor of which party the election will go. There is one supreme consolation. That our people have so innate a spirit of order & obedience to the law, so religious an acquiescence in the will of the majority, and deep conviction of the fundamental importance of the principle that the will of the majority ought to be submitted to the minority, that a majority of a single vote, as at the last election, produces as absolute & quiet a submission as an unanimous vote.”

Feb. 12, 1801, 7 a.m. To: Thomas Mann Randolph

“The H. of R. has been in conclave ever since 2. aclock yesterday. 25. balots have been taken at intervals of from half an hour to an hour. They were invariably 8. 6. & 2. divided. I can venture nothing more by the post but my affectionate salutations, to yourself & my dear Martha.”

Much like the election of 2000, the contentious race of 1800 would be a gradually unfolding drama. As the campaign was just getting under way, Jefferson wrote to a Virginian in France, William Short, that Americans would acquiesce to the will of the majority. Jefferson probably exaggerated his confidence in that fact, in hopes that Short would show the letter around Europe and bolster the perception of the U.S. as a smoothly running republic. By February 1801, when he wrote to his son-in-law, the race had taken an unexpected twist. He had bested John Adams, but now Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, were tied with 73 electoral votes apiece for President. In the House of Representatives, which was to decide the winner, there were eight states for Jefferson, six for Burr and two undecided. The body ultimately chose Jefferson, and later passed the 12th Amendment to avoid a same-party tie in the future. But the real significance of Jefferson’s Inauguration three weeks later was that it was the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. Jefferson’s boast of faith in his public was in the end justified.

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