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

Detail from spine of Volume 4, Retirement SeriesThe 581 documents printed in this volume cover the period from 18 June 1811 through 30 April 1812. Between these two dates, Thomas Jefferson found himself as busy as ever. Although he had to fight off several bouts of rheumatism and had difficulty walking long distances, he continued to be in relatively good health and to enjoy his life at Monticello and Poplar Forest. As Jefferson wrote to Charles Willson Peale on 20 August, "no occupation is so delightful as the culture of the earth, & no culture comparable to that of the garden." In the same letter he remarked that although he was "an old man, I am but a young gardener." In a letter to Peter Minor, Jefferson expressed eternal "hostility to dogs" and a willingness to "join in any plan for exterminating the whole race," and shortly thereafter he joined a group of Albemarle County residents who petitioned the Virginia legislature to put a tax on dogs in order to reduce their numbers and, thereby, protect sheep and improve domestic manufactures. Jefferson also calculated lines for a horizontal sundial for Poplar Forest; surveyed his Bear Creek lands in Bedford County; and drew up detailed slave lists, a catalogue of his landed possessions, and a schedule of the work he wanted done at Poplar Forest in 1812.

The arts and sciences continued to attract Jefferson. During this period he was reelected president of the American Philosophical Society and chosen president of the Philadelphia-based Society of Artists of the United States. Jefferson took readings of a solar eclipse in September 1811; attempted to determine Monticello's longitude with the assistance of William Lambert and Bishop James Madison; ordered an astronomical case clock from Philadelphia; and measured Willis Mountain with his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. On 10 November he wrote an impassioned letter to Robert Patterson concerning the need for a fixed international standard for measures, weights, and coins. Foreign correspondents such as Madame de Tessé, Valentín de Foronda, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, and Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy continued their long-distance discussions with Jefferson about everything from chestnuts and the Spanish constitution to taxation and political economy.

Legal issues also took up a great deal of Jefferson's time. A developing controversy with Samuel Scott over the ownership of a piece of land in Campbell County threatened to disrupt Jefferson's plan to sell this tract. Of greater significance, the litigation that grew out of Jefferson's eviction of Edward Livingston from the New Orleans batture in 1807 finally came to a head early in December 1811. United States circuit court judges John Marshall and John Tyler, sitting in Richmond, dismissed Livingston's suit on jurisdictional grounds. Because the dispute had not been decided on its merits, Jefferson moved immediately to lay his case before the American people. He accordingly engaged a New York publisher, Ezra Sargeant, to print 250 copies of the lengthy statement he had prepared for his legal counsel. Jefferson arranged to have a copy given to each member of Congress, and he began distributing the remainder to various friends and acquaintances during the spring of 1812.

Nor was this the full extent of Jefferson's involvement in the publication of his own work and that of others. With his permission, Joseph Milligan published a revised second edition of Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice in March 1812. Jefferson received a second manuscript volume from Destutt de Tracy in February 1812 and began the laborious process of seeing it into print. In a belated response to William Wirt's request for information to assist him in writing a biography of Patrick Henry, Jefferson forwarded a lengthy, colorful, and largely negative portrait of his former colleague. James S. Gaines sent Jefferson a detailed plan for a revised constitution and legal code for the state of Virginia, and Jefferson and Virginia governor James Barbour had an important exchange on the proper limits of executive power.

Perhaps the most important development for posterity documented in this volume is the resumption of correspondence in January 1812 between Jefferson and his former rival for the presidency, John Adams. Although the two men had had little contact since Jefferson's inauguration in March 1801, their mutual friend Benjamin Rush's persistent efforts to heal the rift finally succeeded. Aided by reports that Jefferson's neighbors John and Edward Coles had found Adams open to reconciliation during a visit to Quincy, Rush urged Jefferson and Adams to "Bury in silence all the causes of your separation. Recollect that explanations may be proper between lovers but are never so between divided friends." Adams and Jefferson each came to relish the renewed opportunity to engage with a fellow founder whose mind was as wide-ranging, imaginative, and thought-provoking as his own. These first tentative letters initiated a body of correspondence that not only enriches the papers of Adams and Jefferson, but also provides a useful lesson to their political successors, that ideological differences can be overcome through a mixture of compassion, understanding, and patriotism.

 


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