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Jefferson's Last Words
Thomas Jefferson's last words cannot be determined with certainty. Three men left written accounts of Jefferson's last days: Robley Dunglison, the attending physician; Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson's grandson; and Nicholas Trist, the husband of Jefferson's granddaughter, Virginia Randolph. Although there are some minor discrepancies — the differences in emphasis and detail one would expect to find in three different witnesses — each is reliable. Taken together they provide a relatively full view of Jefferson's death.
Dunglison, Randolph, and Trist recall that Jefferson slept through the day on July 3 and woke in the evening, evidently thinking it was morning. According to Dunglison, Jefferson asked on waking, "Is it the Fourth?" Dunglison replied, "It soon will be." Dunglison then says these were the last words he heard Jefferson utter.1
Trist records Jefferson's question in a slightly different form: "This is the Fourth?" Trist pretended not to hear the question so he wouldn't have to inform Jefferson that it was still July 3. But Jefferson was insistent: "This is the Fourth?" he asked again. This time Trist nodded in assent, though he says he found the deception "repugnant."2
In Randolph's version there is no questioning. Jefferson remarks on waking, "This is the Fourth of July." Randolph goes on to say that Jefferson was roused a few hours later, at 9 p.m., to be given a dose of laudanum. But Jefferson refused the opiate, saying, "No, doctor, nothing more."3 Dunglison's omission of this exchange should not cast any doubt on the veracity of his account. In fact, it seems likely that a doctor, busy attending to the care of his patient, would not remember such mundane conversation while an anxious bystander (such as Randolph) probably would.
All three record Jefferson's remark on the Fourth, because at the time and in composing their accounts afterwards all were no doubt struck by the appropriateness of this coincidence: that the man who was most responsible for the significance of that day should die exactly 50 years after the events of 1776. The differences in the wording of each are not great. Actually, it would not be unreasonable to take each observer literally. One reconstruction of the event might take this shape: Jefferson wakes and utters his declaration, "This is the Fourth of July." Dunglison says, "It soon will be." Confused, Jefferson puts the question to Trist, "This is the Fourth?" He queries again and receives Trist's nodding assent. Then he sleeps until 9 p.m.
At 4 a.m. on the Fourth, Jefferson did speak again. Randolph writes that Jefferson called in the servants "with a strong and clear voice." But what he actually said to them, Randolph unfortunately does not reveal. Jefferson lingered until 12:50 in the afternoon, but Randolph is clear that his last words were spoken that morning to the servants.
In summary, Jefferson's last words are lost; one supposes they were farewells to the household staff. His last recorded words are "No, doctor, nothing more." But these are perhaps too prosaic to be memorable. "Is it the Fourth?" or "This is the Fourth of July" have come to be accepted as Jefferson's last words because they contain what everyone wants to find in such death-bed scenes: deeper meaning.
- Russell L. Martin, 6/7/88
- Bear, James A. Jr. "The Last Few Days in the Life of Thomas Jefferson." Magazine of Albemarle County History 32 (1974): 63-79.
- 1. Samuel X. Radbill, ed., The Autobiographical Ana of Robley Dunglison, M.D. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1963), 32-33; see also Randall, Life, 3:547-49.
- 2. Nicholas Trist's recollection of the death watch is printed in Randall, Life, 3:546.
- 3. Randolph's description to Randall is recounted in Randall, Life, 3:544.