Foreword to Volume Eight, Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series

The 591 documents in this volume cover the period from 1 October 1814 to 31 August 1815. As usual, Thomas Jefferson both followed closely the events of the day and attended diligently to the needs of his farms, friends, and family. He was overjoyed by American victories on land and at sea during the last year of the War of 1812, optimistic about the nation’s prospects, and highly interested in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Ghent that closed the contest. Napoleon’s return to power in France early in 1815 and defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June were also a source of much reflection. Jefferson resigned the presidency of the American Philosophical Society in November 1814, continued to circulate his ideas about finance, supported David Bailie Warden’s consular pretensions, and occasionally provided recommendations for federal employment. Most of his time, however, was spent on issues a bit closer to home.

Following Congress’s decision to purchase Jefferson’s library in January 1815, he oversaw the counting, packing, and transportation of his books to Washington, D.C. He used most of the funds from the sale to pay old debts. Famously remarking to John Adams that “I cannot live without books,” Jefferson also spent some of the proceeds from his library acquiring replacement titles, both in the United States and Europe. In preparation for the payment of his wartime taxes, he drew up extensive lists of his possessions: real estate, manufactories, slaves, and household furnishings, among other items. Inventions and literary matters were still a source of diversion and, occasionally, exasperation. Jefferson engaged in the controversy over the originality of Walter Janes’s loom, complained about patent abuses, corresponded with Horatio G. Spafford about his improved wheel-carriage, and received information from William Thornton about lining cisterns and a new type of filter. He continued to be stymied in his attempt to secure the early publication of a manuscript by Destutt de Tracy, revised draft chapters of Louis H. Girardin’s continuation of John Daly Burk’s and Skelton Jones’s History of Virginia, and provided information to William Wirt on Virginia’s and Rhode Island’s Stamp Act resolutions. Of particular interest is Jefferson’s vindication in a letter to Girardin of the bill of attainder he drew up in 1778 against the renegade Josiah Philips.

The third president’s religious beliefs remained a topic of interest to many of his contemporaries. Several writers questioned him on the subject, his friend Charles Clay worried that he intended to publish his ideas, and Jefferson himself drafted but then drastically abridged a long letter to Peter H. Wendover criticizing the discussion of politics from the pulpit. Nor did the ex-president’s regard for education wane. Toward the end of 1814 Jefferson drew up a detailed estimate of the cost of constructing an education pavilion and twenty dormitory rooms. He also drafted a bill to transform Albemarle Academy into Central College and offered to help tutor his grandson Francis Eppes in French and Latin.

As had hitherto been the case, visitors flocked to Monticello. Francis W. Gilmer, Francis C. Gray, and George Ticknor all left long descriptions of the mountaintop and its inhabitants, and Gray’s visit led to an exchange about how many generations of white interbreeding it took to clear Negro blood. When the French philosophe Jean Baptiste Say expressed a desire to relocate to Albemarle County, Jefferson provided him with a comprehensive analysis of the local climate, agriculture, economy, society, and land values. Family also remained a primary focus. Although both his nephew Peter Carr and brother Randolph died in 1815 and ill-health beset other members of the family at various times, the marriage on 6 March 1815 of his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph to the daughter of his friend Wilson Cary Nicholas was a source of happiness. Jefferson also helped to oversee the conveyance of a tract of land to trustees as a way to protect his granddaughter Ann C. Bankhead and her children from the difficulties arising out of her husband’s descent into alcoholism.

Two last documents deserve special mention. This volume begins with an extended satirical piece addressed to Jefferson and published in a Federalist newspaper that lampooned the sale of his library to the nation. Second, John Strachan’s 30 January 1815 letter, which was published in the Montreal Herald and responds directly to Jefferson’s missive of the preceding September offering his books to Congress, argues that the burning of the American capital in August 1814 was a justifiable retaliation for similar depredations committed by United States forces in Canada. Although Jefferson probably saw neither document, their intrinsic interest is so great that they are both printed below in full.

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