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

The 523 documents in this volume cover the period from 1 September 1815 to 30 April 1816. During these eight months Jefferson made three trips to Poplar Forest. On a visit early in autumn 1815, he had two important items on his agenda. The first was a stop in Buckingham County, where he presented evidence to the Superior Court in the lawsuit between the children and widow of Jefferson’s late brother, Randolph. On 15 September Jefferson wrote out his own deposition in the case, which concerned the validity of competing versions of Randolph’s will. The second project engaged Jefferson and two of his scientific colleagues, José Corrêa da Serra and Francis W. Gilmer, on an expedition to measure the elevation of the Peaks of Otter and study the botany of the region nearby. On this journey Jefferson made preliminary observations that he researched further on a trip later in the year, of which he wrote to his friend Charles Clay that “I was five days absent in my trip to the peaks of Otter, and have been five days engaged in calculating the observations made.” During this second autumn visit Jefferson welcomed the returning war hero Andrew Jackson in a brief visit to Poplar Forest, accompanied him on a procession into Lynchburg, and offered a toast at a public dinner held in the general’s honor.

With the War of 1812 over, Americans could once again freely order and receive shipments from Europe. Jefferson wrote the Norfolk wine importer John F. Oliveira Fernandes that “Disappointments in procuring supplies have at length left me without a drop of wine.” In addition to restocking his wine cellar, Jefferson also sought books to begin replacing those he had sold to Congress. The young scholar George Ticknor, who had visited Jefferson at Monticello the previous spring, was now in Europe to undertake literary studies. He served as Jefferson’s purchasing agent there and gave him his opinions on the merits of various editions of classical works.

Although Jefferson had not practiced law for several decades, he expended significant effort assisting his friend Joseph Miller, sometime brewmaster at Monticello, as Miller sought to gain possession of his own deceased brother’s Virginia property. Jefferson’s legal advice was also requested by Mary Blair Andrews, daughter of John Blair, a former associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Jefferson found himself further embroiled in the settlement of the estates of his old friend Lucy Ludwell Paradise and of Charles Bellini, late professor of languages at the College of William and Mary. With the death of Philip Mazzei in March 1816, Jefferson was soon to be drawn into yet another series of legal concerns that would carry on for the rest of his lifetime and only be settled by his heirs.

Jefferson composed several pieces that were published in newspapers in this period. By early December his comments summarizing the conclusion of his calculations on the Peaks of Otter were reprinted in several newspapers. In drafting a letter to Horatio G. Spafford, Jefferson penned what he himself described as a “tirade” against a religious pamphlet written by the New England clergyman Lyman Beecher. Thinking better of expressing such strong views to a mere acquaintance, Jefferson revised the letter, but he retained the excised text and soon sent it to the Richmond Enquirer publisher Thomas Ritchie with permission to publish, so long as Ritchie kept Jefferson’s authorship secret. An anonymous letter to the publishers of the Washington Daily National Intelligencer elicited a similarly anonymous response from Jefferson, who attempted to prevent an opinion he had written as George Washington’s secretary of state from establishing a broad precedent.

Jefferson’s incoming mail continued to span a wide array of correspondents and subjects. He received several updates on the debates in the Virginia General Assembly from Joseph C. Cabell, Thomas W. Maury, and Charles Yancey. In a letter to Yancey, Jefferson articulated his views of the importance of state funding for education, famously remarking that “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” The passage of a resolution calling for a report on education and of a law calling for a resurvey and mapping of the state led Governor Wilson Cary Nicholas to seek Jefferson’s advice on these issues, resulting in two detailed explanations from the retired statesman. Alden Partridge, a Vermont soldier and educator, sent Jefferson a series of geographical surveys and meteorological observations. An anonymous correspondent from Baltimore wrote a revealing description of the organization and personnel policies of a Baltimore cotton factory where young girls constituted the majority of the employees.

Jefferson’s family circle continued to grow with the birth of a great-granddaughter, Margaret Smith Randolph, the first child of Thomas Jefferson Randolph and Jane H. Nicholas Randolph. Granddaughter Ellen spent time in Washington with the President and Mrs. Madison and provided Jefferson with some news from the nation’s capital. A false report of his death having surfaced from an unidentified source, Jefferson reassured his old friend Elizabeth Trist that “I am here, my dear Madam alive and well, and notwithstanding the murderous histories of the winter, I have not had an hour’s sickness for a twelvemonth past.”

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