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–by Leah Shafer, USCHS intern

On May 5, 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote a lengthy letter to William Short, his former secretary. “No, my dear friend,” Jefferson wrote, “nothing could allure me again into the furnace of politics.” Short was one of Jefferson’s closest friends—his “adoptive son,” Jefferson once called him—and their correspondence gives us a rare look into Jefferson’s opinions in his later life.

This letter is one of thousands which anyone can find in The Thomas Jefferson Papers on the Library of Congress website. The Thomas Jefferson Papers is a collection of approximately 27,000 documents related to our third president. About three-fourths of these documents are correspondence: letters written to and by Jefferson over the course of his lifetime.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in the collections of the New York Historical Society (Library of Congress)

In 1816, when writing this letter to Short, Jefferson was seventy-three years old. He had been president, vice-president, governor of Virginia, and ambassador to France; now, officially done with public service, he spent most of his time at his home, Monticello. Jefferson’s retirement, however, was anything but reclusive. In the same letter, he explained, “While in public life, my whole time has been absorbed by the duties that laid me under; and now, when the world imagines I have nothing to do, I am in a state of as heavy drudgery as any office of my life ever subjected me to.”

This “heavy drudgery” which Jefferson described comprises the collections we value today: his letters. In his retirement, Jefferson wrote almost constantly. “From sunrise till noon,” he continued to Short, “I am chained to the writing table. At that hour I ride of necessity for health as well as creation. And even after dinner I must often return to the writing table.” And a good thing, too: Jefferson’s letters remain an invaluable look into early American history and political thought—and they are one of the key sources which the interns at USCHS scour for facts for the We, the People calendars.

Through his letters, Jefferson remained involved in almost every aspect of the United States’ public life. He wrote frequently to high officials such as James Madison, James Monroe, and William Crawford (the president, secretary of state, and secretary of war in 1816, respectively), presenting advice. He corresponded with Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol, offering suggestions for adornment on top of the Capitol dome. Hopeful candidates for government clerk positions contacted Jefferson for recommendations to one of his hundreds of contacts, and writers in every genre sent Jefferson copies of their manuscripts, requesting his well-respected opinion.

And yet, to Short, Jefferson dismissed his heavy load of correspondence as “equally foreign to my interests and inclinations, and yet forced on me by the courtesies of those to whom it is responsive. [These letters] preclude…me entirely from the course of studies and reading which would make my hours pass lightly and pleasantly away.” He wrote that he wished he could write just to those closest to him: “were this correspondence confined to my real friends only, it would be no more than an amusement, and would be a delicious repast.”

A strange opinion for a man who continued writing to various American officials and citizens for years, even though at seventy-three the tendonitis in his wrist made writing a “painful & slow” task. In this same letter, Jefferson acknowledged that historians had already begun examining some of his writings from the Revolutionary War, and he appears to have anticipated more studies in the future. He was so meticulous in preserving his letters that he helped to develop the polygraph, a machine that allowed a letter to be written with two pens, on two separate sheets of paper, at once. Jefferson made copies of nearly every letter which he wrote, to file in his own collections.

Mid-nineteenth century lithograph of Jefferson by Henry Robinson (Library of Congress)

Perhaps Jefferson did look forward to the day when his work in public offices would truly be over—but then he also knew that his authority in the U.S. would take much longer to fade. He closed to Short, “I shall pass willingly to that eternal sleep which, whether with, or without, dreams, awaits us hereafter. I leave with satisfaction and confidence to those who are to come after me the pursuit of what is right, & rectification of what is wrong; convinced they will be able to manage their own affairs, as we have been ours.” With a pen as far-reaching as Jefferson’s, it must have been easy to have faith in the future generations; his letters ensured that Jefferson’s influence would remain alive.

Works Cited
Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson to William Short, May 5, 1816. Letter. From Library of Congress, The Thomas Jefferson Papers. http://memory.loc.gov/master/mss/mtj/mtj1/049/0000/0053.jpg (accessed February 21, 2013).

“Series.” The Thomas Jefferson Papers. Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/mtjser.html (accessed March 8, 2013).