The 547 documents printed in this volume span the period from 4 March 1809 through 15 November 1809, the opening date marking Thomas Jefferson’s final retirement from public life at the age of sixty-five. During the week following James Madison’s inauguration, Jefferson stayed on at the President’s House, consulted with the new president on foreign and internal affairs, inventoried his belongings and arranged for their shipment home to Monticello, and made his final farewells to friends and acquaintances in Washington. Even before his departure from Washington, Jefferson began to receive a steady stream of congratulatory letters from supporters of his administration. He continued to receive accolades from a variety of political organizations, large and small, north and south, long after he arrived home. Jefferson’s supporters in Virginia were eager to escort him on his journey southward, and he met with enthusiastic followers long before he reached the border of his native Albemarle County, whose residents welcomed him en masse. Thankful for their attentions, he was nevertheless intent on returning swiftly to Monticello to join his family, put his affairs in order, and regain a measure of solitude and time for quieter pursuits.
Jefferson began his retirement from public life determined to fill his time with useful activities and glad that his health was as “firm” as could be expected at his age. He joyfully entered into his new life as an industrious farmer in “constant emploiment in the garden & farm.” From Washington he brought as many nursery plants as he could transport, and he exchanged seeds and plant cuttings with his numerous American and European acquaintances. Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson procured and bred merino sheep for their profitable wool. He looked to his mill complex at Shadwell as another source of revenue and was disappointed to find that it had suffered from mismanagement in his absence, requiring him to devote much of his energy in the first months of his retirement to finding a reliable tenant and overseer for its operation.
Jefferson devoted equal attention to the activity that he claimed to enjoy most, that of spending time with his extended family. In Margaret Bayard Smith’s account of her visit to Monticello, Jefferson appeared to be at his most relaxed while in the company of his guests and his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph’s large family. He also monitored the education of his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph throughout this period, arranging for his lodgings and advising on his studies, and at Jefferson’s invitation his grandson-in-law Charles L. Bankhead came to Monticello to study law. Jefferson served as mentor to local youths of limited means in search of a “useful pursuit,” offering to teach them surveying and letting them use his extensive library.
During the period of his retirement, Jefferson’s greatest challenge was to balance his substantial debts with an unpredictable income. His entanglement in the legal issues arising out of the estates of his father-in-law and his deceased wife Martha Wayles Skelton’s first husband seemed to be unending. Furthermore, a good deal of the correspondence in this volume relates to Jefferson’s efforts to pay off his own “unfortunate deficit at Washington” through the assistance of his agents, John Barnes and George Jefferson, and friends such as James Madison and Tadeusz Kosciuszko , from whom he obtained short-term loans.
Although Jefferson had much more time than heretofore to engage in such domestic pursuits, he continued to get an “extremely burthensome” amount of mail. He worried enough about applications for help from office seekers that he prepared a printed form letter to decline such requests, but he still received a never ending flow of letters from strangers, anonymous individuals, cranks, and blackmailers. Because of his well-known interest in science and technology and his continuing role as president of the American Philosophical Society, Jefferson also regularly received news of scientific discoveries and inventions. Most notable in this regard are two reports of Nicolas Louis Vauquelin representing what may be the first chemical analysis of nicotine in tobacco.
Despite his claims to the contrary, Jefferson maintained a strong interest in public affairs and events in Europe. In the thirty-six letters exchanged between Jefferson and Madison during this period, they shared ideas about America’s relations with Great Britain and France, information on Napoleon’s military campaigns, and the illusory hope that the Erskine agreement would restore good commercial relations with Britain. Moreover, even as he pursued his personal interests, Jefferson remained a vigilant advocate of the Republican party and insistent that its members support their new president. The delicate balance of public and private concerns exhibited in Jefferson’s correspondence from the early months of his retirement is a compelling theme that will recur throughout this series.
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