Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXXI

Writer of Letters

You and I ought not to die before We have explained ourselves to each other.

John Adams to Jefferson, September 10, 1816 1

There were times during his retirement when Jefferson thought wistfully of Paris. "Were it not for my family and possessions," he wrote to William Short on March 25, 1815, "I should prefer that residence to any other. Paris is the only place where a man who is not obliged to do anything will always find something amusing to do. Here the man who has nothing to do is the prey of ennui.... a family for leisure moments, and a farm for profession for those of employment are indispensable for happiness. These mixed with books, a little letter writing, and neighborly and friendly society constitute a plenum of occupation and of happiness which leaves no wish for the noisy & barren amusements and distractions of a city." 2 To fight the ennui Jefferson responded not with a little letter writing, and relaxation in a friendly society, but with a fantastic outpouring of letters and with years of intense involvement in a new creation, the University of Virginia.

The several thousand letters he wrote from 1809 to 1826, constituted his continuing legacy to the American people; they also appeased his insatiable appetite for communication, and for proof that he was still revered and loved. He counted all the letters coming to him in the single year of 1821—they numbered 1,267—and complained bitterly about the necessity of answering them. His life, he said, was that of a mill horse who sees no end to his circle but in

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