Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6 Public Forum and Private Mansion

THE practice of law was not excessively lucrative in the Virginia of the time. It could not hope to attain the generous rewards to be found in the trading and commercial colonies of Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts. Hard money was scarce, and the litigation that inevitably arose from mercantile establishments, shipping, financial transactions and trade by land and sea was still scarcer. Aside from the usual petty material of personal disputes--assaults and batteries, slander, trespasses, sales of chattels, etc.--the chief source of a lawyer's business was transactions in land and the clearing of titles. And, since Virginia gentry were notoriously short of cash and accustomed to paying their bills, if at all, from their estates, the pickings were slender enough. If the newly fledged lawyer had had to rely upon his legal earnings as the sole source of livelihood his situation would have been parlous indeed. Fortunately for Jefferson, and for most of his compeers, law was in effect an avocation. Their true vocation, and their mainstay, were their lands and the crops they raised thereon with their slaves and overseers.

In fact, even during his active practice, Jefferson spent much of his time at Shadwell personally superintending his own crops and those of his mother. His love for the land was deep and strong, and nothing--law, politics, or even the Presidency of the United States--could prove an adequate substitute for direct contact with the earth and the life of a working country gentleman. In 1766 he began a Garden Book, in which he jotted down the daily minutiae of plants and flowers, fruit-bearing trees and bushes. Later he was to add to this a series of account books in which, with daily accuracy, he noted expenses, journeys, the state of the weather, practical rules, formulae, and whatever came into his mind that seemed worth recording.

The first entry in his Garden Book is dated March 30, 1766, at Shadwell and characteristically notes that the "purple hyacinth begins to bloom." Within a week "narcissus and puckoon open" and, as he was preparing for his journey north, he entered the fact that the purple flag, violets and wild honeysuckle were still in full flower.1

The following year, when final preparation for the bar and the beginning of a legal career should properly have held him busy in Williamsburg, saw him devoting most of his time to Shadwell and the practical processes of farming. On February 20, 1767, he sowed peas and took time out to ascertain some quantitative scientific data. Five hundred peas, he

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