Review by Andrew Burstein
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. Volume 1: 4 March to 15 November 1809. Edited by J. Jefferson Looney. (Princeton, N.J., and Oxford, Eng.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. [xlx], 729. $99.50, ISBN 0-691-12121-4.)
The inaugural volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series is a landmark event. After he left the presidency, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed seventeen years that are filled with interest. Not only did he erect the University of Virginia and carry on a long correspondence with John Adams, but he also engaged in detailed exchanges on subjects ranging from national defense to the brewing of beer. Favorite correspondents with whom he shared confidences and whose lives are generally underrepresented in Jefferson studies include Benjamin Waterhouse of Harvard, the vaccination pioneer; the entrepreneurial Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia; and William Short, a diplomat-protégé.
Jefferson's expansive world is endlessly fascinating. There are missives from mathematicians, botanists, judges, wine merchants, and former intimates dating to his years in France (the considerable correspondence in French is printed in its original as well as in translation). He received reports from seafaring men he would never meet. We get glimpses of his culinary tastes in requests sent to Etienne Lemaire in Philadelphia, his much-valued maitre-d'hÃ´tel at the President's House, who reported on the training of Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern, Monticello slaves, in the French cooking style and who secured for Monticello such commodities as "good sallad oil" and vanilla (p. 161). Jefferson, for his part, gloats: "I am constantly in my garden or farm, as exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors when at Washington, and I find myself infinitely happier in my new mode of life" (p. 162).
From Philip Freneau, the poet, comes an offering on the occasion of Jefferson's retirement, published in various newspapers and a copy of which was received at Monticello in June. While dripping with praise in celebration of the president's return to "the shades of Monticello," the poem also acknowledges lingering problems: "And what but toil has your long service seen? / Dark tempests gathering o'er a sky serene" (pp. 226, 227). Also represented in the volume are two pieces of poignant correspondence from Nashville, announcing the suicide of Meriwether Lewis.
Jefferson's exchanges with James Madison, his successor, though available elsewhere, are contextualized better here, amid the ex-president's other epistolary burdens. Whether it is to view recommendations for appointive office or such unambiguous statements as "I never doubted the chicanery of the Angloman," the Jefferson-Madison transition evidences the uncertainty underlying Anglo-American negotiations (p. 441). Concurring with Jefferson's post-presidential distaste for recent history and current politics, Benjamin Rush writes that rather than waste a moment on "such little Subjects," they should converse about "Alchemy and perpetual motion" and the means of increasing "domestic & moral happiness"&—with which politics cannot compete (p. 185).
Led by J. Jefferson Looney, the Retirement Papers project at Monticello is sustained by a talented staff. Annotation and biographical identifications are thorough and extremely helpful, continuing, in that way, the fine work carried out in the first thirty-one volumes of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, headquartered at Princeton. The 1809 volume marks a rich and promising beginning for the new series.
Andrew Burstein, University of Tulsa
(Review reprinted with the permission of the Journal of Southern History.)