Foreword to Volume Thirteen, Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series
The 598 documents in this volume cover the period from 22 April 1818 to 31 January 1819, during which time Jefferson worked tirelessly to transform Central College into the University of Virginia. The Virginia General Assembly had enacted legislation in February 1818 that authorized commissioners to meet on 1 August at the tavern at Rockfish Gap to select the site of the new university. Jefferson spent months preparing for the meeting and laboring behind the scenes to ensure that his ideas about the university would be adopted. In his most important contribution, he drafted a report in advance of the gathering in which he laid out the rationale for locating the university at Central College and his vision for the organization of the university. After approval of the report at the Rockfish Gap meeting, with few significant changes to Jefferson’s draft, the choice of Central College as the site of the state university still had to pass the General Assembly. Largely thanks to intense lobbying efforts in Richmond by state senator Joseph C. Cabell, the University Bill, also written by Jefferson and naming Central College as the university, became law on 25 January 1819. With Central College’s transformation into the University of Virginia now assured, Jefferson focused on its future. He continued trying to bring Thomas Cooper to the faculty, and he wrote a long letter of recruitment to Nathaniel Bowditch, whose work in the fields of astronomy and mathematics Jefferson admired. Neither ultimately taught in Charlottesville. Still others had heard of Jefferson’s plans and wrote to offer their services as builders and instructors.
After the conclusion of the three-day meeting at Rockfish Gap, Jefferson traveled sixty miles to Warm Springs in an effort to improve his health. Initially planning a two-week stay, he extended it, explaining to his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph that “having no symptom to judge by at what time I may presume the seeds of my rheumatism eradicated, and desirous to prevent the necessity of ever coming here a 2d time, I believe I shall yeild to the general advice of a three weeks course.” He would come to regret his visit, however, for by the time of his departure Jefferson was plagued with what was probably a staphylococcus infection on his buttocks that made travel painful and put his health in danger for some months to come. Due to this debility he was unable to make his usual autumn trip to Poplar Forest. This extended absence led Jefferson to exchange detailed letters with his manager Joel Yancey regarding work on the farms, labor assignments, provisioning, and the health of the slaves at his Bedford County properties.
Friends and visitors continued to shape and impact Jefferson’s world. After working since 1816 to have the work translated and published, at long last he was able to inform Destutt de Tracy that his Treatise on Political Economy was in print. Historians asked Jefferson to share his memories of various members of the Revolutionary generation. At the request of Robert Walsh, he recounted anecdotes of Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Waterhouse sought Jefferson’s recollections of Samuel Adams, and William Tudor solicited information about James Otis. As usual, visitors frequented Monticello. Among them Salma Hale, a New Hampshire native, spent a day there in May 1818 and recorded his general impressions of Virginia as well as his thoughts on Jefferson and their topics of conversation, which included food, wine, and religion.
Jefferson continued to rebuild his library, ordering numerous titles from Lewis D. Belair, Mathew Carey & Son, and Fernagus De Gelone. His collection was further enriched by gifts of books, pamphlets, and essays from a wide range of correspondents. Mordecai M. Noah sent an oration he had delivered at the consecration of a synagogue in New York City, which caused Jefferson to remark that “your sect by it’s sufferings has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance, inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practised by all when in power.” In thanking Charles J. Ingersoll for a pamphlet on Chinese culture and language, Jefferson wondered at the complexities of the language and speculated that the introduction of the “simpler alphabets of Europe” could enable the people of China to advance in science. Correspondents Robert Miller and Gabriel Crane attempted to interest Jefferson in their unique worldviews. Miller blended occult science and religion, while Crane sent his thoughts on the nature of light and claimed that “the Supreme” had directed him to request $5,000 from Jefferson to enable Crane to conduct further research. Multiple anonymous letters also arrived in these months, each trying to provoke Jefferson to action on some aspect of his personal religion or politics.
A notable loss occurred in Jefferson’s circle with the death of Abigail Adams. His words of condolence to John Adams in November 1818 included the “comfort” that “the term is not very distant at which we are to deposit, in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved & lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again.”