Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 40 The "Mazzei" Letter and Return to Politics

THE role of an "Antediluvian patriarch" was not all one long idyl. The spring of 1796 brought in its train a sufficiency of domestic problems and troubles. There had been a continued and unexampled drought, and the seeds that should long before have sprouted, showed no evidences of life as late as the end of April.1 There was also the lengthy and unexplained illness of his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph. He had gone to Warm Springs and even as far as New York seeking medical opinions and relief, but without success. A seated melancholy set in; the first significant symptom of an ailment that was to burst forth at a later date and end in tragic denouement.2

Jefferson's nailery was also running into difficulties. He had hoped that the local merchants would give their neighbor's product the preference over the imported article; but he ran into a situation which, perhaps naïvely, he had not anticipated. The regular importers resented the domestic competition and compelled the merchants, if they wished to obtain other items for their stock, to purchase the imported nails as well. Jefferson countered by selling direct to the retail storekeeper. He was turning out a ton of nails a month, and expected shortly to step up his production to a ton and a half.3

He set for himself at the same time a more public and disinterested task. The laws of Virginia had never been arranged or codified and, in their scattered manuscript state, were subject to mildew, fire and irretrievable loss. Jefferson had a strong historical sense and an understanding of the value of archival material. Too many precious Virginia documents had already been lost to posterity, and he took upon himself the task of collecting what manuscripts remained, in order, he said, "that when the day should come in which the public should advert to the magnitude of their loss in these precious monuments of our property, and our history, a part of their regret might be spared by information that a portion has been saved from the wreck." Much of the material was in the hands of private individuals with a too careless sense of its importance, and Jefferson enlisted Wythe's services in ferreting it out. He had already made a collection of laws and other pertinent documents covering the period from 1624 to 1783, and he sought now to bring his collection up to date. Nor would

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