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Thomas Jefferson

Final Years 1809-1826


Study & Essay

At the time of the embargo's repeal, America's financial ruin was extensive, and fewer individuals were hit harder by the damage than Jefferson himself. Due to liberal spending on executive entertainments while in office, Jefferson found himself $30,000 in debt upon his retirement. While he would live on for almost two decades more, his sphere dwindled from the world stage to a handful of counties in rural Virginia. He was seen in public only on horseback, and received exclusively at Monticello rather than be received by others.

As ever, Jefferson poured himself into the continued expansion and renovation of his estate. While this mainly concerned Monticello, Jefferson also poured considerable time, money, and energy into the development of his second home. Built to an octagonal floor plan, Poplar Forest was Jefferson's retreat in Bedford County, Virginia, roughly ninety miles from Monticello.

In both of these domains, Jefferson extended his experiments with farming and gardening, working with new crops, flowers, and herbs. Additionally, he developed innovations with the plough and threshing-machine. This increased the productivity on the modest amount of farmland that he maintained among his 10,000 acres. Yields were rarely impressive due to erratic weather, and profits were minimal at best. To supplement his income, Jefferson continued to oversee the operation of the nailery, and also worked to train the best among his 150 slaves as carpenters, cobblers and tailors.

Beyond mere activity, Jefferson spent his closing years engaged in a variety of intellectual pursuits. Henry Adams, piercing as ever, drolly described Jefferson as "a martyr to the disease of omniscience," and it was a "disease" which Jefferson pursued in earnest during retirement as at no other time. Whether it was dabbling in a variety of classical and modern languages, reading up on the ancient philosophers and playwrights, collecting and classifying fossils or keeping extensive meteorological records, he seemingly had a hand in every pot.

With his love of knowledge, it was fitting that Jefferson serve an extended tenure as president of the American Philosophical Society. And to add to his list of practical distinctions, Jefferson invented or improved useful items such as the dumbwaiter and the swivel chair. Most valuable to his own uses was the redesign of Charles Wilson Peale's polygraph, employed in the production of multiple text copies. Jefferson himself valued this particular machine because it allowed him to make and save copies of his voluminous correspondence.

Never one to make enemies unduly, Jefferson had suffered from a bitter break with John Adams after the Election of 1800. Adams scornfully remarked upon toward the end of Jefferson's administration that "Mr. Jefferson has reason to reflect upon himself.... How he will get rid of his remorse in his retirement, I know not. He must know that he leaves the government infinitely worse than he found it, and that from his own error or ignorance." But before long, the old allies turned enemies were reconciled to friendship again, and enjoyed a fruitful correspondence in their old age.

As Jefferson's retirement deepened, he became more and more conscious of his legacy to society. His correspondence with Adams is peppered with self- conscious batter about the role of the founding fathers. Jefferson's sense of himself as an elder statesman was also deepened by his role as an adviser to his two presidential successors, James Madison and James Monroe. In an attempt to justify himself in the eyes of posterity, Jefferson collected certain political papers in a volume he titled The Anas. Shortly thereafter, he spent six months composing a terse autobiography of his youth and early political career.

In assessing his own legacy, Jefferson was most troubled by the stain of slavery upon his record. At a loss to reconcile his principles with his practices, Jefferson threw up his hands at the contradictions inherent in a society simultaneously devoted to liberty and slavery. He considered it a question for the next generation, and yet expressed disdain at the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which attempted to set parameters on slavery for the expanding Union. Though Jefferson himself had attempted to limit slavery's expansion in a similar way as a young man, an aged Jefferson took offense at the Missouri Compromise. He viewed it as the breach of a gentleman's agreement that formerly allowed for the South to settle the slave dilemma on its own terms.

Jefferson advanced a view that in the expanse of new territory open to settlement, slavery would die a natural death at the hands of simple diffusion. This was perhaps the wishful thinking of a man who could never address the slavery question squarely. Further, the aged Jefferson feared the increasing consolidation of federal power: power he himself had done so much to foster. Madison would later attempt to disassociate Jefferson's reputation from the burgeoning Southern secession movement, but to little effect. Apart from his tenure as President, during which his values flip-flopped out of necessity, Jefferson was an indubitable champion of states rights.

In the interest of advancing his own state, Jefferson devoted the final years of his life to the establishment of the University of Virginia. He took command of every aspect in the University's foundations, from supervising construction to planning curriculum to selecting an international faulty. Jefferson's ideal was to close the gap between the student and the teacher. Out of opposition to executive privilege, he conceived of an acephalous "academical village." According to tradition, by Jefferson's design, the University of Virginia remained without a president until 1904.

In March of 1825, mere months before Jefferson's death, the University opened its doors with a total of forty students. He was disappointed from the beginning, however, as several disciplinary incidents marred the school's inaugural year. Another troubling incident occurred around this time, when Jefferson agreed to sit for the casting of a life mask. After several coats of a plaster-like substance had been poured over his face, they unexpectedly hardened into a cast. Horrifically, a mallet and chisel were needed to break the stiff material that had set. Jefferson suffered several fierce blows to the head in the process, and the project was discarded.

The absurdity of the life mask incident does much to characterize the tragedy that characterized Jefferson's last years. His personal fortunes, already flagging severely, took an even harder hit during his years of retirement. To recover a measure of income, Jefferson sold his personal collection of books to the Library of Congress. In so doing, he helped to restore holdings lost when the Capitol was burned by the British during the War of 1812. His 6,400 volumes gathered a sum of $23,000. Remember: in 1800, the total holdings of all United States libraries was 6,000 volumes! Always the bibliophile, Jefferson began to re-amass a collection of books at once.

Ultimately, a series of economic catastrophes and Jefferson's proclivity for fine living even in the face of hardship sealed his fate. The Panic of 1819 was the final nail in Jefferson's coffin. By the very end, Jefferson found himself over $100,000 in debt, the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars.

As a last-ditch effort, Jefferson decided to apply for permission to hold a lottery in his support. Such operations were not generally permitted, but Jefferson hoped for an exception on the grounds of his extended public service to the state and nation. The Virginia Assembly was reluctant to field Jefferson's application, and initially rejected it. Eventually an agreement was reached by which a lottery would be held in aid of his debts, but only on condition that a corresponding auction occur to distribute Jefferson's effects and holdings to the highest bidders. On pain of leaving a legacy to his nation, Jefferson had lost the privilege of leaving a legacy to his heirs.

Exactly fifty years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was approved, on July 4, 1826, Jefferson breathed his last, expiring shortly before 1 p.m. at Monticello. John Adams, so closely linked with Jefferson's own legacy, died later the same day. His famous last words were "Thomas Jefferson survives." In literal terms, he was wrong. But in a broader sense, he could not have been more right.

On January 15, 1827, relatives including his favorite grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph watched in dismay at the commencement of a five-day auction that dispersed Jefferson's property to various claimants. Monticello was lost to the family, as were most of Jefferson's most cherished possessions. Many of the slaves were sold off, and only five were granted their freedom. Among these were Eston and Madison Hemings, both of whom later claimed to be Jefferson's sons by Sally Hemings. She, though not freed directly by Jefferson's will, was retained by the family and emancipated soon afterward.

When he had first returned to Monticello, a battle-worn Jefferson had questioned his neighbors about his legacy as follows: "Whose ox have I taken, or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed, or of whose hand have received a bribe to blind mine eyes therewith? On your verdict I rest with conscious security." While Jefferson claimed security in the verdict, historians since have provided various answers to his rhetorical questions, not all of them pleasant.

Jefferson's tombstone is graced with this inscription: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia." For these accomplishments, Jefferson will continue to be celebrated down through the ages. Beneath these milestones rest an omnibus of lesser achievements, a host of failings, and an inscrutable store of secrets. And beneath these rests the soul of Thomas Jefferson.

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