The 571 documents in this volume cover the period from 1 June 1820 to 28 February 1821. During this time Jefferson continued to show concern over the question of Missouri statehood but observed that “the boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.” He argued that geographically limiting slavery would not relieve the country of that great evil but would instead lead to increased national division, while spreading the enslaved “over a larger surface adds to their happiness and renders their future emancipation more practicable.” Seeking to persuade the Virginia General Assembly to allocate further funds to the University of Virginia and thus enable it to open sooner, Jefferson invoked fears that young southern men who went north for their university education would be indoctrinated with northern values. The school’s delayed opening due to inadequate funding caused the Board of Visitors to cancel the contract that would have made Thomas Cooper its first professor, and Jefferson arranged for his own grandson Francis Eppes to study under Cooper at South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) in Columbia. Still hopeful that the University of Virginia would open during his lifetime, Jefferson called his work on the school “the Hobby of my old age” and envisioned an institution dedicated to seeking truth through “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.” When his fellow university visitor Joseph C. Cabell, whose lobbying for the institution as a state senator had been invaluable, announced his intention to retire from the legislature, Jefferson changed his mind by reminding the much-younger man that he would “die in the last ditch” for the university and that his colleagues ought to be similarly committed.
Jefferson also kept abreast of revolutionary movements in Europe and South America and approvingly observed to Lafayette that “the disease of liberty is catching.” At the same time, however, he believed that the United States should preserve its neutrality. Facing what he and other republicans believed to be dangerous encroachment by the federal judiciary on the constitutional rights of individual states, Jefferson recommended John Taylor of Caroline’s new work, Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated, as required reading for all congressmen, particularly those from Virginia. Jefferson rejoiced to learn that Carlo Botta’s history of the American Revolution had been translated into English while agreeing with criticisms of the original work expressed by John Adams and John Jay to George Alexander Otis, its translator and himself a Jefferson correspondent. Jefferson also sent the American Philosophical Society a Nottoway-language vocabulary recently procured from a woman of that nation of Virginia Indians. Peter S. Du Ponceau then used the word list to compare Nottoway to Onondaga and Mohawk numerals and to Iroquois dialects, research he shared with Jefferson. Constantine S. Rafinesque presented his archaeological research on the Alligewi Indians in Kentucky in a series of published letters addressed to Jefferson.
Amidst continued economic depression and low prices obtained for his flour and tobacco, Jefferson struggled to pay his debts and satisfy increasing calls for payment by his creditors. Particularly painful was the debt he had incurred by acting as security for Wilson Cary Nicholas, who died in October 1820. To help aid his immediate financial situation, Jefferson accepted a $4,000 loan from his son-in-law John Wayles Eppes to be repaid two years later through a transfer of slaves. Early in 1821 Jefferson also turned over the management of his Monticello and Poplar Forest plantations to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, explaining that he found himself to be greatly “declining by age and ill health in the attention and energy necessary for business.”
Jefferson discussed religion with trusted correspondents. He wrote to William Short of the historical Jesus, whose morality he admired but whose miracles he doubted. Jefferson expounded on materialism and the soul as physical matter in letters to Cooper and Adams, and he shared his thoughts on Unitarianism with Timothy Pickering in his first correspondence since his presidency with that Federalist. Jefferson wrote to Maria Cosway of the experience of aging and the dwindling number of their old friends, likening himself to “a solitary trunk in a desolate field, from which all it’s former companions have disappeared.” One particular friend lost to a move abroad was José Corrêa da Serra, who paid one last visit in the summer of 1820 to Jefferson and his household at Monticello, remarking that it was “the family i am the most attached to in all America.”