Jefferson's twilight years were spent,
in part, defining and defending his legacy. During his final decade,
Jefferson drafted an autobiography, created political memorandum
books, became increasingly concerned about the preservation of
historical documents, and staunchly defended his role as author
of the Declaration of Independence. At key points in his life
Jefferson had drawn up lists of his achievements, and on the verge
of death he designed his own gravestone and epitaph: "Author of
the Declaration of Independence [and] of the Statute of Virginia
for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia."
Though critics questioned his role in writing the Declaration
of Independence and objected to his emerging role as a symbol
of individual freedom, Jefferson insisted upon his authorship
of the Declaration and reasserted his moral opposition to slavery.
Nevertheless, Jefferson undoubtedly knew at his death on July
4, 1826, that the vagaries of life had left a vulnerable legacy.
His slaves, land, and library would have to be sold to satisfy
his creditors. Fear for his reputation and public legacy led him
to beg his closest friend, James Madison, to "take care of me
when dead." In his final letter to Roger Weightman, Jefferson
eloquently espoused the central role of the United States and
the Declaration of Independence as signals of the blessings of
self-government to the world.
Epitaph Of Thomas Jefferson
Near the end of his life, probably when he prepared and signed
his final will in March 1826, Thomas Jefferson designed his own
gravestone and prepared the text to be engraved on it. Here
was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American
Independence Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia.
Jefferson's seeks to set the story right
Thomas Jefferson began his memorandum notebook of political
events while secretary of state in August 1791, and sporadically
maintained it until the close of his presidency in 1809. Jefferson
collected these notes and at least four newspaper clipping files
as an "aid to my memory" in his political battles with the Federalists,
particularly Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and
Chief Justice John Marshall. These notes, and the introduction,
that Jefferson wrote for them, were to be his personal testimony
and answer to John Marshall's account of the origins of political
parties contained in The Life of George Washington
"The object of the Declaration
As his life advanced, Jefferson became more and more concerned
that people understand the principles in and the people responsible
for the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson wrote: "this was the object of the Declaration of Independence.
not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before
thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said
before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject,
in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to
justify ourselves in the independent stand we [were] compelled
Jefferson's vision of the Declaration
of Independence in the world
Written on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration
of Independence, Thomas Jefferson's letter to Roger C. Weightman
(1787-1876) is considered one of the sublime expressions of individual
and national liberty. In this letter to the mayor of Washington,
Jefferson continued to espouse his vision of the Declaration of
Independence and the American nation as signals of the blessings
of self-government to an ever evolving world. This was the last
letter written by Jefferson, who died ten days later, on July
4, 1826. Coincidentally, John Adams, another great defender of
liberty, died on the same day.
The Canker of slavery
Jefferson's public silence on slavery
In a dramatic letter to James Heaton (d. 1837), Whig state representative
from Butler County, Ohio, Thomas Jefferson explained his public
stance on slavery. Near the end of his life Jefferson justified
his inaction with the explanation to James Heaton that "A good
cause is often injured more by ill-timed efforts of its friends
than by the arguments of its enemies . . . my sentiments have
been 40 years before the public. Had I repeated them 40 times,
they would only have become the more stale and thread-bare."
Codicil to will
March 17, 1826.
Reproduction of manuscript
Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of
Virginia Library, on deposit from Albemarle County Circuit Court
Virginia is "where their families
and connections are."
In his will, Thomas Jefferson freed five slaves, all members
of the extended Hemings family: John Hemings, Joe Fossett, Burwell,
Madison, and Eston. The latter two, sons of Sally Hemings, were
to be given their freedom when they became twenty one. Because
Virginia law required a freed slave to leave the state within
one year, Jefferson asked the Virginia assembly to grant the freed
slaves permission to remain in the state "where their families
and connections are." The request was granted. Sally Hemings was
not freed but was allowed to live as a free person with her sons
Madison and Eston.
asserts "the canker of slavery eats
into our hearts"
After Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Randolph (1796-1876),
married Joseph Coolidge (1798-1879) in 1825, she traveled overland
to her new home in Boston, Massachusetts. When she arrived she
wrote this letter to her grandfather, remarking on the "prosperity
and improvement" of New England "such as I fear our Southern States
cannot hope for, whilst the canker of slavery eats into our hearts,
and diseases the whole body by this ulcer at the core."
Jefferson agrees with his granddaughter
After receiving his granddaughter Ellen's letter, Jefferson
replied that "One fatal stain deforms what nature had bestowed
on us of her fairest gifts." Jefferson told Ellen it had been
thirty-four years since he and James Madison had made a similar
trip through New York and New England. Such prosperity shows "how
soon the labor of man would make a paradise of the whole earth,
were it not for misgovernment, and a diversion of all his energies
from their proper object, the happiness of man . . ."
Sale of Jefferson's slaves
Jefferson owed more than $100,000 to creditors at the time of
his death. His heirs were forced to auction Jefferson's slaves
and the contents of Monticello and Poplar Forest. The sale, as
note in this advertisement, took place on January 15, 1827, and
even the family members were required to bid for most of the items
they wanted because of financial needs. Eventually, the family
was forced to sell Monticello itself, for which they received
a mere $4,500.
"Take Care of Me"
"Take care of me when dead"
In the midst of his final winter with personal and public financial
problems hovering over his head like a cloud of doom, Jefferson
as usual confided his problems and his hopes to James Madison,
whose friendship had "subsisted between us, now half a century,
and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have
been sources of constant happiness to me through that long period."
Jefferson concluded: "to myself you have been a pillar of support
thro' life. take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall
leave with you my last affections."
Thomas Jefferson in 1821
Thomas Sully's portrait of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in
1821 is considered a reliable view of Jefferson's looks and coloring
in his 78th year. Jefferson sat for the artist during a twelve-day
period, and this canvas was made in preparation for a full-length
portrait commissioned by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
This version, finally completed in 1830, was commissioned by Jefferson's
friend and financial supporter William Short and presented to
the American Philosophical Society, the institution over which
Jefferson had presided for many years.
Copyprint of oil on canvas.
Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia
"Time wastes too fast"
Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) was one of Thomas Jefferson's favorite
popular authors. As his wife lay dying in September 1782, Jefferson
and Martha copied these lines from Tristram Shandy.
[written by Martha] Time wastes too fast: every letter /
I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days
and hours / of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy
day never to return.../ [and written by Thomas] and
every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which /
follows it, are preludes to the eternal separation which we are
shortly to make!
For the remainder of his life, Jefferson kept this paper with
a lock of Martha's hair entwined around it.
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