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drafted an autobiography, created political memorandum books, became increasingly concerned about the preservation of historical documents, and staunchly defended his role as author of the Declaration of Independence.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 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 (Philadelphia: 1804–1807).
“The Object of the Declaration of Independence”
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 to take.”
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.”
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.
Jefferson’s Granddaughter 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.
“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.