EFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed ("Th:Jefferson") to Col. John Taylor in Port Royal, Virginia; Monticello, 14 March 1821. 1½ pages, 4to. [With:] JEFFERSON. Autograph FREE FRANK ("free Th:Jefferson") on address panel in Jefferson's hand, circular postmark. Small tear at seal, address page with remnant of early paper mount. Enclosed in a half red morocco gilt slipcase.
"WE OWE TO OUR COUNTRY MUCH OF THE ACTIVE SEASONS OF LIFE, BUT NOT THE WHOLE LIFE, THE WHOLE COMFORTS OF EXISTENCE...THE UNIVERSITY MUST THEREFORE BE MY LAST PUBLIC LABOR"
An excellent letter from Jefferson's last years, which, one biographer notes, "were etched with sadness and even a little bitterness" (M.D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, p.988). Here, though, writing to a Virginia neighbor, Jefferson's tone is tranquil and positive, befitting that of a life-long public servant who has willingly withdrawn to retirement, avoiding public controvery and the "mordacity of professional Reviewers." He explains that he will not write his memoirs, and anticipates the approaching opening of the new University of Virginia (three years in the future) which, he writes, will constitute "my last public labor." Jefferson had been retired for five years before he became involved in the project which became the University of Virginia. Legislative acts for its construction were passed in 1819. Jefferson was named a member of the Board of Visitors, then, at the Board's first meeting, Rector. Deeply committed to education as the path to "the prosperity, the power and happiness of a nation," he supervised the survey of the site, designed the buildings and pavilions of the "academical village," recruited faculty members and planned the curriculum.
Jefferson informs Taylor that "Your favour of Feb. 25 was received last night only, having been 16 days on its passage. I mention this as an apology for the date of this letter...On the subject, dear Sir, of recommending books to the public, I have been obliged steadfastly to decline it. Applications of that kind from printer and authors are so numerous that I should be forever in scene before the public, exposed to the mordacity of professional Reviewers, and volunteering critics, for the judgments I should give. I should either have to bear their lacerations in silence or be involved in controversies with every one who should wish, from motives old or new, to have the pleasure of a cut at me. I am old, averse to contention, and see in tranquility my summum bonum. I acknoledge [sic] we owe to our country much of the active seasons of life, but not the whole life, the whole comforts of existence. There is a time when the weakened powers of nature may claim repose from strife, toil and trouble.
With respect to Memoirs, it is too late for me to think of such an undertaking, in any useful form. While in public life, me occupations never allowed me the time, & when I retired I was too old, & no longer within reach of the public offices from where alone authentic documents of history can be obtained. A copying maching which I first obtained in Europe, in 1785, has enabled me to keep copies of my letters from that period, but they contain little grain buried in much chaff. The University must therefore be my last public labor, and the welfare of my country, the happiness of my friends, and your's sincerely, will be my last wishes.
The principal reason for his letter, though, is to respond to Taylor's request that he serve as intermediary in relaying a charitable contribution to an unnamed needy family. Jefferson willingly agrees: "I have no hesitation in becoming the channel of your kindness to our deceased friend, nor to engage for the secret of the source from which it will flow. Thomas J[efferson]. Randolph [the President's grandson, later executor] married a daughter [Jane Hollins] of Mr. [Wilson Cary] Nicholas, holds the warmest place in the affection and confidence of every member of the family. And his judgment, discretion & zeal for them, would be the surest guide in the application of the money; and nothing need be imparted to him but that it comes (not from my self), but thru' me only) from a friend of the family, who will not permit his name ever to be known. Yet I shall not say this much to him without your leave. But his intimacy with the wants of the family, and his judgment in advising can alone ensure the best application of the donation. I could no otherwise acquire the necessary and specific knoledge [sic] of their wants. I could wish the money not to be remitted until I have your permission to advise with him so far & time to inform you of the result."
Since he devoted considerable time and attention to his extensive correspondence, mechanical means to generate copies of outgoing letters were always of interest to Jefferson. In March 1804 Jefferson acquired a device recently perfected by inventor Isaac Hawkins (1772-1855), the "polygraph," by which legible file copies of letters were made by a second pen attached to one held by the writer. It replaced the letterpress, a transfer process (also employed by George Washington) which produced rather crude and at times illegible copies.