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Foreword to Volume Twelve, Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series

The 580 documents in this volume cover the period from 1 September 1817 to 21 April 1818. Incoming mail included Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s staunch defense of his record as surveyor of public buildings. James W. Wallace sent impressions of a mammoth’s tooth. Francis Adrian Van der Kemp forwarded his views on God’s creation, which prompted Jefferson to remark in a postscript not sent to Van der Kemp that the divine gift of cognition existed “in animal bodies certainly, in Vegetables probably, in Minerals not impossibly.” Alden Partridge mailed altitude readings, while Amos Hamlin transmitted meteorological observations. James Smith argued for wider access to smallpox vaccine, and Lyman Spalding called for a national pharmacopoeia. The directors of the Rivanna Company completed their rebuttal of Jefferson’s 1817 bill of complaint. Hugh Steel reflected on the forces that caused the emergence of North America out of the great primeval ocean. In a satirical, pseudonymous poem, “Laban Stringfellow” wrote of a footrace that had supposedly taken place in Louisiana. Friends and family remained a central focus. Jefferson leased his Tufton and Lego plantations to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, had terra-cotta busts of himself and various family members made by the English artist William J. Coffee, and unknowingly ensured his eventual financial ruin by endorsing notes totaling $20,000 for Wilson Cary Nicholas on the strength of the latter’s optimistic assurance that Jefferson would “never suffer the slightest inconvenience.” Charges that his longtime friend Stephen Cathalan had indulged in an immoderate “passion for women” while consul at Marseille inspired Jefferson to wonder whether the American government really wanted to “add to it’s other cares that of making themselves guardians of the chastity of all their officers, at home and abroad.” The deaths of Caspar Wistar and Tadeusz Kosciuszko brought Jefferson sadness, calls for biographical information, and doubts whether he should act as the Polish patriot’s executor.

Jefferson retained a keen interest in American history and culture. He donated the remnants of his Indian vocabularies to the American Philosophical Society, persisted in his efforts to fill the textual gaps in William Byrd’s “History of the Dividing Line,” and continued to push for the publication of the manuscripts associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He exchanged letters with Benjamin Waterhouse and Thomas Ritchie about the contention, attributed to Jefferson in William Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry, that Henry had given “the first impulse to the ball of the revolution.” While encouraging both John Trumbull’s painting and Benjamin O. Tyler’s engraving of the Declaration of Independence, he modestly described himself as “but a fellow-laborer” at the Continental Congress and commented that the Declaration “would have been better expressed by many of it’s members.” Jefferson wrote for posthumous publication an extended introduction to the “Anas,” a corpus of political anecdotes he had scribbled down and official documents he had drawn up while serving as George Washington’s secretary of state. Here he highlighted the ideological fault lines of the early 1790s, castigated Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton for his monarchical leanings and reliance on corruption, discussed the creation of the Society of the Cincinnati and the First Bank of the United States, and elucidated the machinations that led to the federal government’s assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War debts and relocation of the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia.

Education took up much of the ex-president’s time. Jefferson provided Nathaniel Burwell with his thoughts on female instruction and an extensive reading list. He drafted bills to establish elementary schools throughout Virginia and to set up a comprehensive system of public education, which was to include nine colleges and a state university. With regard to the nascent Central College, Jefferson requested advice and information from Thomas Cooper and strove to recruit him as its first professor. He attempted to gather subscriptions and donations to the school and speed the construction of its first pavilion, while keeping building costs low. Jefferson attended the structure’s Masonic cornerstone-laying ceremony early in October 1817, wrote the Board of Visitors’ exhaustive report to Governor James P. Preston on its plans and prospects, and endeavored to obtain a loan for the institution from a Richmond bank. Finally, Jefferson’s correspondence with Joseph C. Cabell provides a detailed account of the many education proposals working their way through the Virginia General Assembly at this time. He was greatly pleased by the passage on 21 February 1818, after many tribulations, of “An Act appropriating part of the revenue of the Literary Fund, and for other purposes.” This law mandated the appointment of a board of commissioners to meet at Rockfish Gap in August 1818 and pick the site of a new state university, draw up its curriculum, and determine the number of faculty needed. Jefferson’s selection to the board raised his hopes that he might help engineer the transformation of Central College into the new University of Virginia.

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