"Drudging at the Writing Table"

After his morning routine, Thomas Jefferson settled into a lengthy period of letter-writing: "From sun-rise to one or two o'clock," he noted, "I am drudging at the writing table." Jefferson wrote almost 20,000 letters in his lifetime, among them, scholarly musings to colleagues, affectionate notes to his family, and civil responses to admirers. He wrote John Adams that he suffered "under the persecution of letters," calculating that he received 1,267 letters in the year 1820, "many of them requiring answers of elaborate research, and all to be answered with due attention and consideration."

A Modern Office

Jefferson's Polygraph or Copying MachineJefferson researched and wrote these letters in what has been called the earliest modern office. Jefferson's Cabinet was, in contemporary language, "user-friendly," with a revolving bookstand, table, and chair. Here Jefferson used a copying machine to make duplicate sets of his letters, which he kept in filing presses, tying them into bundles organized alphabetically and chronologically. This arrangement allowed Jefferson to pinpoint the location of any given letter, and even send for a particular one when he was away from Monticello. A virtual reality panorama of the Cabinet is available in the "House" section.

A "Full and Genuine Journal"

In 1823 Jefferson wrote that "The letters of a person, especially one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life." His surviving letters give insight into Jefferson's vast interests and reveal much about his personality.

Interested in every branch of applied science and math, Jefferson corresponded with scientists around the world. He also wrote to the leading horticulturists, exchanging information about various climates, and requesting new seeds and plantings for Monticello and other American gardens. He corresponded frequently with his friend and presidential successor, James Madison, advising him on such diverse topics as the War of 1812 and appropriate wines to be served at the President's House. Although his close relationship with second President John Adams suffered a rift, in their later years the two resumed a correspondence and rekindled their warm friendship. And while he was pleased to have left behind the "splendid misery" of the presidency, he continued to write Virginia's political leaders, working to establish public education, both on the primary and secondary levels, with the most notable result being the creation of the University of Virginia.

Stepping away from the Table

The South Portico or As he aged, Jefferson's wrist, which he broke while in France, troubled him significantly; he wrote John Adams that "crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious," even with the use of dumbbells and a wrist cushion, designed to support and strengthen his wrists.

The Greenhouse adjacent to Jefferson's Cabinet provided him with a welcome diversion from writing. There he kept plants such as oranges and Mimosa Farnesiana, and the Greenhouse may also have housed the pet mockingbirds that Jefferson brought home to Monticello from the President's House. The Greenhouse also held a set of tools and a workbench, on which, one visitor noted, "Mr. Jefferson was fond of exercising himself in mechanical employments. . . . [He found] an agreeable relaxation for his mind, to repair any of his various instruments in physical science, and to execute any little scheme of the moment in the way of furniture or experiment." Jefferson's slave Isaac recalled in his memoirs, "My master was neat a hand as ever you see to make keys and locks and small chains, iron and brass."

But letters were always waiting, and Jefferson returned to what he called "pen and ink work" more than he would have preferred.

 

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Image Credits

  • Cabinet. Photographed by Robert Lautman.
  • Polygraph, 1806. Courtesy of the University of Virginia. Produced by John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1855) and Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) in mahogany, brass, green baize.
  • Greenhouse. Photograph by Skip Johns.

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