Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 39 Antediluvian Patriarch

JEFFERSON'S retirement from public life caused his enemies to rejoice and his friends to view the future with foreboding. General Gates, who liked to think of himself as a Roman warrior retired to his Sabine farm, shook his head gloomily over the prospect. "His prophetic soul," he lamented, "augurs no benefit to the States by such a Sacrifice! If the best Seamen Abandon the Ship in a Storm, she must Founder."1

Ezra Stiles of Yale noted in his diary the "inconcealable disgust" with which Jefferson had retired; and his vow never to touch a newspaper again or meddle further with politics. Stiles narrated how Jefferson had unburdened himself to a mutual friend--the patriots of 1775 were neglected; the coterie surrounding Washington was disposing of patronage with a view to gaining a majority in Congress; and a "system of omnia venalia" was rapidly approaching.2

But the laments of his friends and followers could not shake Jefferson's resolve. He reached Monticello on January 16, 1794; and the first glimpse of his beloved home, of his family and familiar servants, filled him with delight. He breathed the pure air and noted eagerly the recurring drama of the seasons: the advent of the bluebirds, the later arrival of the strident blackbirds, the first bloom of his almond trees, and the reiterated clamor of the whippoorwill.3 These were the sights and sounds that expanded his soul.

Gates had invited him to share his solitude at Rose Hill. Jefferson declined with thanks. "The length of my tether," he responded, "is now fixed from Monticello to Richmond. My private business can never call me elsewhere, and certainly politics will not, which I have ever hated both in theory & practice. I thought myself conscientiously called from those studies which were my delight by the political crisis of my country, & by those events quorum pars, magna fuisti. In storms like those all hands must be aloft. But calm is now restored, & I leave the bark with joy to those who love the sea. I am but a landsman, forced from my element by accident, regaining it with transport, and wishing to recollect nothing of what I have seen, but my friendships."4

He tried hard to dissociate himself from politics, refusing even to read the newspapers. He claimed to agree with Montaigne that ignorance was the softest pillow on which a man could rest his head; and every letter he wrote during this period proclaimed his determination to pay no further heed to the state of the nation.5 Perhaps he protested too much. Madison,

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