William Short, by Louis LeMet. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. Photograph by Edward Owen.

Unlike his more illustrious contemporaries James Madison and James MonroeWilliam Short (1759-1849), whom Thomas Jefferson referred to as his "adoptive son," never skyrocketed to political fame. Instead, after serving as Jefferson's secretary and working as a career diplomat, he became a successful financier. He admitted that "nothing could be less Virginian" than spending less than his income and investing the rest, but from what he called a "small patrimony," he eventually made himself a millionaire.[1]

Short first sought Jefferson's advice while still a student at the College of William and Mary, where he studied law under George Wythe and became a founder and president of Phi Beta Kappa (1778-81). He became a freemason in 1781. Connected to Jefferson by marriage (Short was the nephew of Henry and Robert Skipwith, each of whom had married half-sisters of Martha Jefferson), Short may have attended Jefferson's wedding in 1772. He visited Monticello several times before Martha Jefferson died in 1782, and he accompanied the Jefferson family to Poplar Forest in 1781 when the family escaped Tarleton's troops. Jefferson even became his client when he helped to settle Martha Jefferson's estate after her father died. After Short graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1779, Jefferson served as one of his examiners for the bar. In recommending him for work, Jefferson wrote to Madison that "a peculiar talent for prying into facts" marked his character.[2] Short decided to settle in Richmond to begin his practice. He was appointed to the Executive Council of Virginia shortly thereafter, a prestigious appointment that often segued to the Governor's chair (both Madison and Monroe held the same office early in their careers).

Apart from family relationship and informal adoption, Jefferson promoted Short's career by giving him experience in the field of diplomacy. Short arrived in Paris in November 1784 as Jefferson's private secretary and lived with Jefferson at the Hôtels de Landron and Langeac. His appointment was approved by Congress the following year. To prepare for his tasks, and because he was surprised at Jefferson's lack of fluency in French, Short lived with a family in the village of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the winter of 1784-85 to become more fluent in the language. In 1788 Short followed Jefferson's advice to travel to Italy where he gathered details for making Parmesan cheeses, data on grapes and wine culture, a treatise on silk culture, and a macaroni (spaghetti) mold.[3] According to Jefferson, he came back from the trip "charged, like a bee, with the honey of wisdom, a blessing to his country and honour and comfort to his friends."[4]

Jefferson's attachment to Short is apparent in his efforts to get Short to move to Albemarle County. In asking Monroe about his future plans, Jefferson includes Short in his vision of the ideal neighborhood: "What measures have you taken for establishing yourself near Monticello? Nothing in this world will keep me long from that spot of ultimate repose for me. I keep my eye on yourself and Short for society and do not despair of Madison."[5] In further anticipating his return to Monticello, Jefferson again writes to Monroe, saying he would return much sooner if he could see "a society forming there as yourself, Madison, and Short."[6] Later in a letter to Short himself, Jefferson states that "affection and the long habit of your society have rendered it necessary to me."[7]

Short remained unpersuaded. Reluctant to return to the bar, Short accepted a promotion to the rank of chargé d'affaires just before Jefferson's departure in the autumn of 1789. Believing that Short should act in his best interest, Jefferson wrote to John Trumbull to see if Trumbull might be available as a replacement for Short because he hoped that his "adoptive son" would not remain in Paris.[8] Short nevertheless remained to represent America to the court of Louis XVI and perform his duties during the tempestuous phase of the French revolution between 1789 and 1792. Short had begun to establish his reputation. The Marquis de Lafayette wrote to George Washington that he depended on the "very able, Engaging and Honest" Short to secure commercial concessions for Americans in France.[9] Under the watchful eye of Alexander Hamilton, Short managed duties as a fiscal agent, borrowing money and refinancing America's foreign debt at a rate lower than that of any other country, a service that helped launch the federal government in the 1790s.

By 1792 Short had become horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution. Unlike Jefferson, he correctly predicted that the tyranny of the mob would be replaced by the tyranny of a despot. Regarding their disagreement over the course of the French Revolution, Short did not trust his mentor's faith in democratic reform, writing that Jefferson's "greatest illusions in politics have proceeded from a most amiable error on his part; having too favorable [an] opinion of the animal called Man."[10] Because Madison agreed with Jefferson on this issue, Short thought that Madison's enmity toward him stemmed from a time at Monticello when he ridiculed Madison's idea about the French Directory being full of "good honest souls—purely republican, & above all things desirous to be kind & affectionate to this sister Republic."[11]

Much to Short's disappointment, President Washington then promoted him to be minister to the Netherlands, not France. In 1785 Short had grown attached to Duchesse Rosalie de la Rochefoucauld, whose husband Duc Louis Alexandre de la Rochefoucauld (an uncle thirty years her senior), was assassinated during the Reign of Terror. Whereas Short hoped Jefferson's influence could help secure his post in France, Jefferson never managed to do so (Gouverneur Morris received the appointment instead). In 1793 Short was appointed as minister resident to Spain. Charged with the mission of negotiating the first treaty between the U.S. and Spain, Short had to wait until 1795 for the Spaniards to begin to cede anything because they were preoccupied with war with France. Rumors that Short was not welcome in Madrid forced Washington to supersede him by appointing Thomas Pinckney to finalize negotiations. Cheated of his triumph in Spain after years of negotiations, Short returned to Paris to live with Rosalie. Short decided to return to the U.S. to take care of business matters only when he realized Rosalie was reluctant to leave her native country.

Immediately upon landing in Norfolk in 1802, Short visited Jefferson for a month at Monticello. Later, he became a frequent guest of President Jefferson in Washington. Short seemed to think that their relations had cooled by this time, but Jefferson responded to the contrary that Short's loss of a post in France was largely a result of his seventeen year absence from the U.S.; he further assured Short that "public motives" were the reasons for Short's wishes being unfulfilled and that "a difference of view on a single subject" could not "efface the recollections and attachments of a whole life."[12] In 1808 during a recess of Congress, Jefferson nominated him to become the first minister to Russia, but just after Short arrived in France to engage in preliminary talks with the Russian ambassador to France, the Senate refused to send anybody to Russia. Short had to explain that although the U.S. valued Russia's friendship, certain senators did not want to become entangled in Russia's political affairs. He became bitter against Madison, who could have pushed his nomination, or at least renominated him (Madison reissued Jefferson's instructions to John Quincy Adams the following year). At the same time, Short learned that not only did Rosalie refuse to marry him, she opted for a marriage of convenience to an elderly cousin.

When Short promptly decided to leave France for good at the age of 51, he was not at all certain where to live. His interest in the stock market and his land in the Genesee Valley of New York drew him toward Philadelphia, but he also had investments in Virginia. Through Jefferson he had purchased 1,334 acres of land called Indian Camp (now Morven) in 1795, and he and Jefferson had exchanged many letters about agricultural possibilities on this farm. Yet he never built a home there. He rented the land to tenants and stayed at Monticello whenever he was in the area. In 1813 he decided to sell the property to David Higginbotham (this triangular deal cancelled Jefferson's debt to Higginbotham and Jefferson paid his debt to Short after he sold his library in 1815).[13] Financial dealings between Jefferson and Short may have influenced his decision. Short was always more interested in the expected financial return of the property than was Jefferson, and this did not prove beneficial. In addition, in 1794 Jefferson had borrowed about $9,000 from Short to build the nailery, and Jefferson found it difficult to repay the $15,200 principal and accumulated interest.

Whatever strains their relationship had been subjected to, between 1802 and 1826 Short managed to visit Jefferson about a dozen times during the months of August and September. Although they rarely saw each other after 1810, their correspondence demonstrates continued interest in topics such as the abolition of slavery, Christianity, the speculative mania that ended in the Panic of 1819, Epicurean philosophy, political parties, and the founding of the University of Virginia. Short's last visit to Monticello occurred at Jefferson's invitation to witness the construction of "our incipient University."[14] Purposefully avoiding contact with Madison and Monroe, he stayed at Monticello for several weeks in September 1824, just before the more famous visit by General Lafayette.[15] Short seems to have continuously resented Madison for ending his diplomatic career so abruptly. Regarding Monroe, who also hindered, or at least did not push, his confirmation as minister to Russia, Short was more forgiving. Although he was not interested in social visits, Short concluded that their careers resembled those of Aesop's hare and tortoise, and that "the long experience of public affairs which Monroe has had must have matured his judgement - his heart was always good."[16]

Short's involvement with the University of Virginia was limited to the recruitment of faculty (although his suggestion of Dr. Thomas Cooper was not approved), and fearing that it would fail once Jefferson was gone, he was skeptical of its success: "It was always demonstrable in my eyes that this institution was got up against the grain, and grew much more by the personal influence of one man than by the public feeling .... The idea of employing such a sum as $300,000 to erect a covering for 200 students and professors ... is one that the public cannot be prepared for. Nor will they, I presume, understand, as it was intended, that [idea] of exhibiting models of architecture for the instruction of the rising generation. I have frequently heard Mr. Jefferson say that his germ of a fondness for buildings, was developed in him by the accidental circumstance of his purchasing a book on Architecture, when [a student] at [the] College [of William and Mary], from an old drunken cabinetmaker .... Who could discover by any course of reasoning that a drunken cabinetmaker, residing near the College and having a book on architecture to dispose of, would have caused that immense pile of building on top of Monticello's height, and at its feet the ediface varied by all the beautiful orders of Greece."[17]

There is no record that he gave any money to the University, but with a reputation for being both wealthy and benevolent, Short spent the remainder of his life devoted to philanthropic activities, including keeping others current with American and European political developments, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Colonization Society. Before he left for France, Short had sold the slaves he inherited, and though he was skeptical of the justice of uprooting slaves, he concluded that colonization was the best way to help blacks, protect slave owners, and thwart the proponents of a hasty abolition. He gave $10,000 to the American Colonization Society in his will and served as one of its presidents for the last decade of his life. Short also contributed to the fund to prevent the financial debacle that overwhelmed Jefferson in 1825-26. He was mortified that the "unfeeling ingrates" of the Virginia General Assembly were reluctant to allow a lottery on Jefferson's behalf after his sixty-one years of public service.[18]

- Rebecca Bowman, 9/29/97

Further Sources


  1. ^ Short to John Hartwell Cocke, March 25, 1835, Cocke Family Papers, Accession #640, etc., Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, quoted in George Green Shackelford, Jefferson's Adoptive Son: The Life of William Short 1759-1848 (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 178. Most of the biographical information in this essay refers to Shackelford's work.
  2. ^ Jefferson to Madison, May 7, 1783, in PTJ, 6:266. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Shackelford, Jefferson's Adoptive Son, 41.
  4. ^ Jefferson to William Shippen, May 8, 1788, in PTJ, 13:146. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ Jefferson to Monroe, May 11, 1785, in PTJ, 8:150. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ Jefferson to Monroe, August 9, 1788, in PTJ, 13:490. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ Jefferson to Short, March 24, 1789, in PTJ, 14:695. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  8. ^ Jefferson to Trumbull, June 1, 1789, in PTJ, 15:164. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  9. ^ Layette to Washington, May 25, 1788, in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, eds. W.W. Abbott and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997), 6:294. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  10. ^ Short to John Hartwell Cocke, August 12, 1826, Cocke Family Papers, Accession #640, etc., Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, quoted in George Green Shackelford, "William Short and Albemarle," Magazine of Albemarle County History 15 (1955/56): 16-27.
  11. ^ Short to Jefferson, May 7, 1816, in PTJ:RS, 10:21-22. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  12. ^ Jefferson to Short, June 12, 1807, in Ford, 10:415. Polygraph copy available online at the Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  13. ^ For a detailed account of Jefferson's financial dealings with Short, see Malone, Jefferson, 6:508-09.
  14. ^ Jefferson to Short, October 31, 1819, in PTJ:RS, 15:162-65. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  15. ^ Short to Jefferson, June 29, 1820, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Recipient's copy available online. Transcription available at Founders Online. Short writes of his apprehension about returning to Virginia, a result of a change in his attitude toward "two persons" in Jefferson's part of the County whom he hoped never to see again.
  16. ^ Short to Jefferson, July 4, 1817, in PTJ:RS, 11:500-03. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Short to Jefferson, May 7, 1816, in PTJ:RS, 10:21-22 (transcription available at Founders Online); Shackelford, Jefferson's Adoptive Son, 169.
  17. ^ Short to John Hartwell Cocke, July 8, 1828, Cocke Family Papers, Accession #640, etc., Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, quoted in Shackelford, Jefferson's Adoptive Son, 175.
  18. ^ Short to Cocke, January 8, 1829, Cocke Family Papers, Accession #640, etc., Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, quoted in Shackelford, Jefferson's Adoptive Son, 176.