In 1785 Thomas Jefferson wrote to his fifteen-year-old nephew, Peter Carr, regarding what he considered the best form of exercise: "...I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks."
According to family history, Jefferson's father, probably intending to test his young son's mettle rather than his skill for game, sent the ten year old boy, armed with a rifle, into the woods. Jefferson was unsuccessful; however, on finding a wild turkey caught in a pen, he took the bird out, tied it to a tree with his garter, shot it and carried his prize home in triumph.
Isaac Jefferson, in his inimitable Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, gives a clear picture of Jefferson the hunter. He recalls that Jefferson hunted "squirrels and partridges; kept five or six guns...Old Master wouldn't shoot partridges settin'. Said 'he wouldn't take advantage of 'em' - would give 'em a chance for thar life. Wouldn't shoot a hare settin', nuther; skeer him up fust." Isaac goes on to say that when Jefferson heard hunters down in his deer park at Monticello he "used to go down thar wid his gun and order 'em out."
Primary Source References
1792 March 17. "Indeed I have kept [ Elkhill ] hitherto on account of it's beauty, and go to it sometimes on hunting parties."
1808 November 24. "From the circumstances of my position, I was often thrown into the society of horse racers, card players, fox hunters, scientific & professional men, and of dignified men; and many a time have I asked myself, in the enthusiastic moment of the death of a fox, the victory of a favorite horse, the issue of a question eloquently argued at the bar, or in the great council of the nation, well, which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer? That of a horse jockey? a fox hunter? an orator? or the honest advocate of my country’s rights?"
1811 September 6. "[Thomas Jefferson Randolph] & myself intend you a visit in November, and it will then be a question for the consideration of your papa and yourself whether you shall not return with us & visit your cousins. This will be acceptable to us all, and only deprecated by the partridges & snowbirds against which you may commence hostilities."
1812 April 25. (Jefferson to James Maury). "All of my old friends are nearly gone...We would beguile our lingering hours with talking over our youthful exploits, our hunts on Peter's mountain..."
1822 July 20. "I presume he is a gun-man, as I am sure he ought to be, and every American who wishes to protect his farm from the ravages of quadrupeds & his country from those of biped invaders. I am a great friend to the manly and healthy exercises of the gun."
↑ Jefferson to Peter Carr, 19 August 1785, Papers 8:406-408.
↑ This article is based on James A. Bear, "Some Jefferson Ideas on Exercise, Guns and Game," Monticello Research Report, n.d.
↑ Reference needed; likely from Randall or Domestic Life.