Foreword to Volume Seven, Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series
The 526 documents printed in this volume cover the period from 28 November 1813 to 30 September 1814. The War of 1812 continued its negative impact on the American economy, which was further strained in Jefferson’s neighborhood by a poor growing season. In a 23 February 1814 letter to William Short, Jefferson commented that the embargo, the blockade, and drought had caused him to suffer "more than any other individual." He kept abreast of current events through correspondents at home and abroad as well as newspapers that provided regular updates from American battlefronts and from Europe, including accounts of Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814. Jefferson initially discounted reports of the destruction late in August 1814 of the public buildings in Washington D.C. When the reality could no longer be denied, he was quick to write his old friend, Samuel H. Smith, now federal commissioner of the revenue, enclosing a catalogue of his library and offering his massive book collection as a replacement for the Library of Congress. Ultimately, in January 1815 Congress bought Jefferson’s 6,707 books for $23,950, an acquisition that has served as the nucleus for one of the world’s great libraries.
During the months covered in this volume, Jefferson showed an interest in the documentation of history. In reviewing the extant sources on the 1765 Stamp Act crisis to aid William Wirt in preparing his biography of Patrick Henry, Jefferson observed that "It is truly unfortunate that those engaged in public affairs so rarely make notes of transactions passing within their knolege. hence history becomes fable instead of fact. the great outlines may be true, but the incidents and colouring are according to the faith or fancy of the writer." At the behest of Walter Jones, Jefferson recorded his largely positive impressions of George Washington’s character. He also advised Joseph Delaplaine in his preparation of a series of biographies of famous Americans. Delaplaine was particularly anxious to locate suitable portraits of his subjects, and Jefferson went so far as to trace an image of Christopher Columbus for Delaplaine from the preface to a book in his possession, Theodor de Bry’s Americae Pars Quinta. In response to his friend John Minor’s request for a legal reading list, Jefferson transcribed and updated a document he had initially drawn up about 1773 for the namesake son of Bernard Moore. Jefferson’s recommendations included Eugene Aram’s 1759 defense at his murder trial, a speech printed elsewhere in this volume, which he considered to be a model of logic and style and one of the finest orations in the English language.
Jefferson sometimes claimed during this period that his advancing age was impairing his physical abilities. His activities demonstrate no evidence of weakness. Early in the spring of 1814 Jefferson became a trustee of the Albemarle Academy. He was soon actively involved in planning for the establishment of the school. Jefferson served on a committee to draft rules and regulations for the board of trustees and propose funding options for the institution. His 7 September 1814 letter to Peter Carr laid out an expansive vision for the school’s future as an institution of higher learning. Although the Albemarle Academy never opened its doors under that name, it was the earliest direct ancestor of the University of Virginia. Jefferson further displayed his enthusiasm for the cause of education in correspondence and conversations exchanging ideas with such respected scholars as Thomas Cooper and José Corrêa da Serra. He also furnished Richmond educator Louis H. Girardin with his formula and explanation of John Napier’s mathematical theorem and continued to help educate his grandson, Francis Eppes.
Jefferson’s correspondents engaged him on a wide range of topics, from the arts and sciences to religion and politics. Oliver Evans defended himself against Jefferson’s doubts about the validity of his patent. Miles King urged the retired president at great length to reflect on his personal religion, eliciting an eloquent and tolerant rejoinder. Edward Coles, an Albemarle County friend and neighbor, called on Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence to use his prestige to promote the abolition of slavery. In his diplomatic response, Jefferson reiterated his view that slavery was evil, but he discouraged any measures beyond gradual emancipation and expatriation. Ultimately he declined further involvement and left the problem to the next generation: "this enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to it’s consummation. it shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man."