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, enterprize, and independance 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."1
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 Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, gives a clear picture of Jefferson the hunter. He recalls that Jefferson hunted "squirrels & partridges; kept five or six guns ... old master would'nt shoot partridges settin': said 'he wouldn't take advantage of em' – would give 'em a chance for thar life: would'nt shoot a hare settin', nuther; skeer him up fust."2 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 & order 'em out."3
Primary Source References
1792 March 17. (Jefferson to John Joseph de Barth). "Indeed I have kept [Elkhill] hitherto on account of it's beauty, and ... go to it sometimes on hunting parties."4
1808 November 24. (Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "[F]rom the circumstances of my position I was often thrown into the society of horse racers, cardplayers, foxhunters, 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 foxhunter? an Orator? or the honest advocate of my country’s rights?"5
1811 September 6. (Jefferson to Francis Wayles Eppes). "[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."6
1812 April 25. (Jefferson to James Maury). "[A]ll my old friends are nearly gone ... we would beguile our lingering hours with talking over our youthful exploits, our hunts on Peter's mountain ...."7
1822 July 20. (Jefferson to Peter Minor). "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."8
- James A. Bear, "Some Jefferson Ideas on Exercise, Guns and Game," n.d.
1. Jefferson to Carr, August 19, 1785, in PTJ, 8:407. Transcription available at Founders Online.