Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 18 Domestic Tragedy

JEFFERSON'S retirement brought long expostulations from his friends They refused to accept his reasons for taking the step and urged him to come forth again on the public stage and lend his talents to the state and nation which he claimed he loved. In particular, their anger was aroused by his declination of the office of delegate to the Assembly which his neighbors in Albemarle had tendered to him.1

What precipitated the great debate was a letter which Jefferson wrote to James Monroe, in reply to his exhortations to return to the arena. Monroe, barely twenty-four at this time, had made Jefferson's acquaintance two years before while Jefferson was Governor and Monroe had returned to his native state after a term as aide to Washington to seek more active field service than the secretarial position he held. Not content with the openings at hand, he thought to turn his attention to the study of law; but Jefferson, who took to the lad, sent him southward as a commissioner to report on the situation in that troubled theater of war, and later directed his studies. The kindly attention touched Monroe's heart, and he became Jefferson's man for practically the rest of his life--with certain later reservations and intermissions.2 Next to Madison, he was Jefferson's closest friend and political co-worker; and the trio became fixed in the public mind as "the Virginia dynasty." But there never was that intellectual equality of partnership between Jefferson and Monroe which existed between Jefferson and Madison. It was more a case of teacher and disciple.

Jefferson now pleaded to Monroe's expostulations that he was thoroughly cured of all political ambition. He cited the ruined state of his private affairs and the needs of his family; but the true reason for his decision peeped out in the bitterness with which he spoke of the charges levied against him in the Assembly, even though they had been followed, as he said, by "an exculpatory declaration. But in the meantime I had been suspected & suspended in the eyes of the world without the least hint then or afterwards made public which might restrain them from supposing that I stood arraigned for treason of the heart and not merely weakness of the head."3 This, of course, was unfair; the Assembly had made handsome public amends. But Jefferson's pride had received such a wound that only time could salve the hurt; and he preferred now, like another Achilles, to sulk in his tents.

Edmund Randolph, to whom Monroe showed the letter, put his finger understandingly on the true cause. "The pathos of the composition is really

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