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Jefferson in Conversation

1782 April. (Marquis de Chastellux). "Nevertheless I at first found his manner grave and even cold; but I had no sooner spent two hours with him than I felt as if we had spent our wholes lives together. Walking, the library -- and above all, conversation which was always varied, always interesting, always sustained by that sweet satisfaction experienced by two persons who in communicating their feelings and opinions invariably find themselves in agreement and who understand each other at the first hint -- all these made my four days spent at Monticello seem like four minutes."[1]

1790. (William Maclay) "He had a rambling, vacant look, and nothing of that firm, collected deportment which I expected would dignify the presence of a secretary or minister. I looked for gravity, but a laxity of manner seemed shed about him. He spoke almost without ceasing. But even his discourse partook of his personal demeanor. It was loose and rambling, and yet he scattered information wherever he went, and some even brilliant sentiments sparkled from him. . . . on our three secretaries. . . Jefferson transgresses on the extreme of stiff gentility or lofty gravity."[2]

1791 May 13. (Benjamin Rush). "Was charmed with Mr. Jefferson's conversation. It was full of instruction upon all subjects." [3]

1796. (Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt) "In private life Mr. Jefferson displays a mild, easy and obliging temper, though he is somewhat cold and reserved. His conversation is of the most agreeable kind, and he possesses a stock of information not inferior to that of any other man."[4]

1800. (Margaret Bayard Smith). "And is this," said I, after my first interview with Mr. Jefferson, "the violent democrat, the vulgar demagogue, the bold atheist and profligate man I have so often heard denounced by the federalists? Can this man so meek and mild, yet dignified in his manners, with a voice so soft and low, with a countenance so benignant and intelligent,can he be that daring leader of a faction, that disturber of the peace, that enemy of all rank and order?. . . I happened to be seated next to him and had the pleasure of his conversation on several subjects."[5]

1801. (John Bernard). "His information was equally polite and profound, and his conversational powers capable of discussing moral questions of deepest seriousness, or the lighter themes of humor and fancy. Nothing could be more simpler than his reasonings, nothing more picturesque and pointed than his descriptions. On all abstract subjects he was plainness--a veritable Quaker; but when conveying his views of human nature through most attractive medium -- anecdote -- he displayed the grace and brilliance of a courtier."[6]

1802. (William Plumer) "He is easy of access, and conversed with great ease and freedom." [7]

1804. (Sir Augustus John Foster) "He was a tall man with a very red freckled face and grey neglected hair, his manners good natured, frank and rather friendly though he had somewhat of a cynical countenance. . . . I thought him intemperate in breaking out into abuse of Judge Chase who was just then under impeachment and whom he called an insolent overbearing man."[8]

1804. (William Plumer). "His conversation was vapid -- mere common place observations on the weather -- crops and sickness of particular districts. From these he went into an elaborate defence of horseracing -- he said it was an effectual means to improve the breed of horses. . . . He performed the honors of the table with great facility -- He was today reserved -- appeared rather low spirited -- conversed little -- he is naturally very social and communicative."[9]

1807. (John Quincy Adams) "The President was less cheerful in his manners than usual, but told some customary staring stories. Among the rest before he went from Virginia to France he had some ripe pears sewed up in tow bags, and that when he returned six years afterwards he found them in a perfect state of preservation -- self-candied. . . . Dined at the President's. . . .There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines; not very edifying. . . . Mr. Jefferson said that he had always been extremely fond of agriculture, and knew nothing about it, but the person who united with other sciences the greatest agricultural knowledge of any man he knew was Mr. Madison."[10]

1808. (Frances Few) "We were invited to dine with him at half past three. We arrived and were shewn. . . into a room and received by Mr. Jefferson's private secretary Mr. Coles. . . after a little while the President made his appearance -- he bowed and the strangers present were named to him. . . he joined in the conversation but did not monopolize it. . . the President was only to be distinguished by the shabbiness of his dress."[11]

1801-09. (Margaret Bayard Smith) "He [Sir Augustus John Foster] candidly says he [Jefferson] believed his careless toilette and unceremonious manners to be mere affectation, assumed to win popularity. The picture this gentleman has drawn of Mr. Jefferson is a mere characature. . . . His simplicity never degenerated into vulgarity, nor his affability into familiarity. On the contrary there was a natural and quiet dignity in his demeanour that often produced a degree of restraint in those who conversed with him, unfavorable to that free interchange of thoughts and feelings which constitute the greatest charm of social life. . . . At Mr. Jefferson's table the conversation was general; every guest was entertained and interested in whatever topic was discussed. To each an opportunity was offered for the exercise of his colloquial powers and the stream of conversation thus enriched by such various contributions flowed on full, free and animated: of course he took the lead and gave the tone, with a tact so true and discriminating that he seldom missed his air, which was to draw for the talents and information of each and all of his guests and to place every one in an advantageous light and by being pleased with themselves, be enabled to please others."[12]

1801-09. (Margaret Bayard Smith) "We sat at table, until near sun down, where we enjoyed agreeable and instructive conversation, in which every one seemed to expect and wish Mr. J should take the chief part. This is the part of the day, in which he gives most time to his guests and seems himself most to enjoy society; and I found during the few days we passed at Monticello, these were the most social hours. The dessert is not removed; the wine freely, but not rapidly circulated round the table, and the ladies do not withdraw, until the hospitable master leads the way. Every one who has known, has acknowledged the colloquial powers of this excellent man. He is frank and communicative in his manner, various and delightful in his conversation. With a mind stored by much reading, long experience, accurate observation, deep research, an intimate acquaintance with the great and good men of Europe and America; with the events, and scenes and customs of both countries; he possesses a store of intellectual wealth, which falls to the lot of few; and of those, how many possess the treasure, have not the faculty of imparting it to others. But, Mr. J, has not only the sterling gold, but has the baser coins, which afford an easy currency of thought, and are so important in social intercourse. No subject could be started, which he did not illustrate by luminous observations, or enliven by sprightly anecdotes. One quality he has, which I never knew equalled in any other man: a quick and intuitive perception of the character, taste and feelings of his guests, and with a benevolence, equalling in warmth, the greatness of his perception; he always turned the conversation, so as to draw forth the powers and talents of each guest, bestowing on all, the same gracious attention: he, above all men, has the art of pleasing, by making each pleased with himself. Why can I not recollect every word which fell from his lips, during these charming conversations, for every word deserved to be remembered!"[13]

1801-09. (Joseph Delaplaine) "In conversation he is free and communicative. All topics that fall under discussion are treated by him with equal unreservedness. He seems, indeed, to have no thought or opinion to conceal and his store of knowledge are unlocked and laid open with the same freedom in which nature unfolds her bounties. They lie before you, and you have only to select and enjoy. . . .The liberality of his disposition, is felt in blessings around the neighbourhood of Monticello."[14]

1801-09. (B.L. Rayner) "There was no effort, no ambition in the conversation of the philosopher. It was as simple and unpretending as nature itself. And while in this easy manner he was pouring out instruction, like light from an inexhaustible solar fountain, he seemed continually to be asking, instead of giving information. The visitor felt himself lifted by the contact, into a new and nobler region of thought, and became surprised at his own bouyancy and vigor. He could not, indeed, help being astounded, now and then, at those transcendant leaps of the mind, which this wonderful man played with subjects which he had been in the habit of considering among the argumenta crucis of the intellect. And then there seemed to be no end to his knowledge."[15]

Early nineteenth century. (Francis Brook) "I knew Mr. Jefferson very well. . . .He was a man of easy and ingratiating manners. . . Mr. Jefferson never would discuss any proposition if you differed with him, for he said he thought discussion rather rivetted opinions than changed them."[16]

1815 February. (George Ticknor) "The evening passed away pleasantly in general conversation, of which Mr. J was necessarily the leader. I shall probably surprise you by saying that, in conversation, he reminds me of Dr. [James] Freeman. He has the same discursive manner and love of paradox, with the same appearance of sobriety and cool reason. He seems equally fond of American antiquities, and especially the antiquities of his native State, and talks of them with freedom and, I suppose, accuracy."[17]

1816. (Francis Hall) "His deportment was exactly such as the Marquis de Chastellux describes it, above thirty years ago: "At first serious, nay even cold,' but in a very short time relaxing into a most agreeable amenity; with an unabated flow of conversation on the most interesting topicks, discussed in the most gentlemanly and philosophical manner."[18]

1820. (Adam Hodgson) "Mr. Jefferson's appearance is rather prepossessing. . . .His manners are dignified, but courteous and gentlemanly; and he enters into conversation with great ease and animation."[19]

c1822. (Judith Walker Rives) "It was the first time I had ever seen the sage of Monticello though I had heard of him often through friends and foes, through good and evil report. . . . His manners were pleasing, his voice and general conversation very attractive, his eye bright, and his tall figure had lost none of its uprightness." [20]

Jefferson portrait

1823 October. (Alexander Hugh Holmes) "I have a distinct recollection of Mr. Jefferson's appearance. . . . He conversed freely, and his countenance was full of expression, which varied with every subject which he touched. . . . I have never met any one who presided at his own table, with the same playful grace and urbanity, blended with perfect dignity."[21]

1824 May. (Samuel Whitcomb, Jr.) "He is more positive, decided and passionate than I had expected. I should think him less of a philosopher than a partizan. His manners are much the most agreeable part of him. They are artifical, he shrugs his shoulders when talking, has much of the Frenchman, is rapid, varying, volatile, eloquent, amusing. . . . Mr. Madison appears less studied, brilliant and frank but more natural, candid and profound than Mr. Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson has more imagination and passion, quicker and richer conceptions. . . . Mr. Jefferson excites interest immediately on entering his presence."[22]

1824 December. (Daniel Webster) "In conversation, Mr. Jefferson is easy and natural, and apparently not ambitious; it is not loud, as challenging general attention, but usually addressed to the person next to him. The topics, when not selected to suit the character and feelings of his auditor, are those subjects with which his mind seems particularly occupied; and these, at present, may be said to be science and letters, and especially the University of Virginia. . . . When we were with him, his favorite subjects were Greek and Anglo-Saxon, historical recollections of the times and events of the revolution, and of his residence in France from 1783-4 to 89. [23]

1824 December. (George Long) "A few days after my arrival at Charlottesville I walked to Monticello to see Mr. Jefferson. . . . We fell to talking, and I stayed to dine with him. He was grave and rather cold in his manner, but he was very polite; and I was pleased with his simple Virginian dress, and his conversation free from all affectation. . . . During my solitary residence before the University opened I visited Monticello several times, and occasionally passed the night there. . . and we talked on all subjects. . . . The last time that I saw Mr. Jefferson when he was suffering from a complaint which caused his death, he was reading Pliny's letters, and we had some talk about a passage." [24]

1825. (Robley Dunglison) "Mr. Jefferson was not a man who could be regarded as an eminent conversationalist. He was rather reserved; and did not often enter into great questions -- political or moral -- in my presence. . . . At all times dignified, and by no means easy of approach to all, he was generally communicative to those on whom he could rely. In his own house he was occasionally free in his speech, even to imprudence, to those of whom he did not know enough to be satisfied that an improper use might not be made of his candor."[25]

1826. (George Tucker) "His conversation was always cheerful, sometimes light and facetious, but seldom either impassioned or witty. From the profound respect with which he was usually listened to, he was occasionally abrupt and positive; but in thus speaking, as it were, ex cathedra, he was never betrayed into haughtiness or ill-humour."[26]

1847. (Isaac Jefferson) "Mr. Jefferson bowed to everybody he meet; talked with his arms folded."[27]


  1. Peterson Visitors, 1989, 12-13. Chastellux, a member of the French Academy and an officer in General Rochambeau's army, published Travels in North America in 1786.
  2. Journal of William Maclay, ed. by Edgar Maclay, (New York: 1880), 272, 310. William Maclay was a senator from Pennsylvania from 1789-91.
  3. Benjamin Rush, The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, ed. by George Corner, (Princeton: 1948), 194. Rush, one of the most well-known physicians of his day, became acquainted with Jefferson during the Second Continental Congress.
  4. Peterson, Merrill, ed. Visitors to Monticello, 28. Rochefoucauld-Liancourt was a leader of the French Revolution who published Travels through the United States of America in 1799.
  5. Smith, The First Forty Years, 5. Smith, the wife of the republican newspaper editor Samuel Harrison Smith, recorded the social and political life of the United States from Jefferson's presidency to Jackson's.
  6. John Bernard, Retrospections of America 1797- 1811, (New York: 1887), 232-33. Bernard was an Englishman who traveled widely in America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
  7. William Plumer, William Plumer of New Hampshire 1759-1850, ed. by Everett Brown, (New York: 1923), 95. Plumer was a senator from New Hampshire.
  8. Sir Augustus John Foster, "Notes on the United States, " William and Mary Quarterly 1959, v. 8, 72. Foster was secretary to the British Legation in Washington from 1(434): 12.
  9. William Plumer, William Plumer's Memorandum of Proceedings in the United States Senate 1803-1807, ed. by Everett Brown, (New York: 1923), 194-213.
  10. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, ed. by Charles Francis Adams, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippencott, 1874), 1:458, 472-73. John Quincy Adams was the son of John Adams.
  11. Frances Few, "The Diary of Frances Few," The Journal of Southern History, 29(1963): 350. A Georgia native, Few kept a diary during her visit to Washington in 1808-09.
  12. Smith,The First Forty Years, 386, 388-89.
  13. Margaret Bayard Smith, Richmond Enquirer, January 18, 1823.
  14. Joseph Delaplaine, Delaplaine's Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished American Characters, (Philadelphia: 1815), 152-53. Delaplaine, a close friend of Jefferson, established the first national portrait gallery.
  15. B.L. Rayner, Sketches of the Life, Writings, and Opinions of Thomas Jefferson, (New York: 1832), 526-27. B.L. Rayner, a Jefferson devotee, composed this life of Jefferson.
  16. Francis Brook, "Some Contemporary Accounts of Eminent Characters," William and Mary Quarterly 17(1908): 4. Brook was a member of the Supreme Court of Virginia.
  17. Peterson, Merrill, ed. Visitors to Monticello, 63. Ticknor was a professor of modern languages at Harvard.
  18. Peterson, Merrill, ed. Visitors to Monticello, 74-75. Hall, a lieutenant in the British Army, toured the U.S. and published his Travels in Canada and the United States in 1816 and 1817 in 1818.
  19. Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America Written during a Tour in the United States and Canada, (London: 1824), 318. Hodgson was a British merchant who visited the U.S. for sixteen months in 1819-20.
  20. Judith Walker Rives, "The Autobiography of Mrs. William Cabell Rives." Rives was the granddaughter of one of Jefferson's guardians, Dr. Thomas Walker.
  21. Alexander Hugh Holmes Stuart to W. J. Campbell, 3 August 1886. Stuart was the son of Archibald Stuart of Staunton, who was a close friend of Jefferson.
  22. Samuel Whitcomb, Jr., "A Book Peddler Invades Monticello," William and Mary Quarterly 6(1949): 634-35. Whitcomb was a book dealer from Massachusetts.
  23. Peterson, Merrill, ed. Visitors to Monticello, 99. Webster, a federalist from New England, visited Monticello for five days.
  24. Peterson, Merrill, ed. Visitors to Monticello, 101. Long, a Cambridge scholar, was the first professor of ancient languages at the University of Virginia.
  25. Robley Dunglison, The Autobiographical Ana of Robley Dunglison, M.D.,  ed. by Samuel Radbill, (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1963), 190, 27. Dunglison was the first professor of the school of medicine at the University of Virginia. He was the attending physician at Jefferson's death.
  27. George Tucker, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1837), 506. Tucker was a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Virginia from 1825-1845.
  28. James A. Bear, Jr. ed., [ Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, (Charlottesville: 1967), 23. Jefferson was born a slave at Monticello where he worked as a nailer and blacksmith.
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Personal Life


lfrancavilla's picture
All the portraits of Thomas Jefferson cannot present the man as he appeared in life as well as those who met and knew him.
Lisa at the PTJRS
lfrancavilla's picture
Jefferson's contemporaries - friends, enemies, family members, and visitors - left us invaluable descriptions of what it was like to talk with him. Even with all the documents Jefferson left behind, we sometimes miss his opinions on topics that come up during the course of casual conversation, and those often carefully crafted letters generally reveal only the Jefferson he wanted us to see. These snippets of accounts show us a Jefferson who was intelligent and articulate, of course, but they also reveal that Jefferson genuinely liked the engagement of conversation. He liked to exchange ideas and information, not simply pontificate.
Lisa at the PTJRS


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