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April 9, 2012

August 30, 1791 – April 25, 1794

“I congratulate you on the charming Opening of the Spring, and heartily wish I was enjoying of it as you are up on a Plantation, out of the hearing of the Din of Politicks and the Rumours of War.” – JA to TJ, 4/4/1794

Monticello Mountain
Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation

TJ resigned as secretary of state on December 31, 1793 and returned to his farm in Virginia. Let’s skip the whys and just say there was a lot of political infighting and he decided to take a breather. Did we just skip ahead three years from the last post? Yes.

Historical digression alert! One of the things TJ was involved in during his SofS stint was establishing an official U.S. government policy toward Native American sovereignty. According to Joseph J. Ellis, who provides an excellent account of this early diplomatic initiative in his book, American Creation, one of TJ’s first acts as secretary of state was to officially oppose Georgian encroachment into Creek Indian land. In other words, he let Georgia know that it was the U.S. government—and not the states—that was the calling the shots when it came to westward expansion. Ellis writes:

“At a deeper and less legislative level, moreover, Jefferson brought the most fully articulate sense of the underlying moral issue at stake at this defining moment in the shaping of American policy toward the Native Americans. He had written the most compelling defense of Indian culture by any American of his time. In his Notes on the State of Virginia [1785] Jefferson . . . had mounted a full-scale defense of Indian intelligence, courage, and integrity against the derogatory claims to the contrary by the eminent French scientist Count Buffon, who had argued that American Indians were a biologically and mentally inferior collection of savages unworthy of comparison with white Europeans. Jefferson politely but firmly argued that Buffon, Europe’s most renowned natural scientist, did not know what he was talking about.”

President Washington & Co. established that independent Native American tribes were foreign nations and thus all diplomatic relations fell under the authority of the federal government, as opposed to state governments. This noble attempt to curtail American westward expansion in the name of Native American sovereignty was, of course, a failure, but I’ve already surpassed my word limit for this post.

Back to TJ’s farm.

TJ to JA (writing from Monticello, 4/25/1794): “The difference of my present and past situation is such as to leave me nothing to regret but that my retirement has been postponed four years too long. The principles on which I calculate the value of life are entirely in favor of my present course. I return to farming with an ardour which I scarcely knew in my youth, and which has got the better entirely of my love of study. Instead of writing 10. or 12. letters a day, which I have been in the habit of doing as a thing of course, I put off answering my letters now, farmerlike, till a rainy day, and then find it sometimes postponed by other necessary occupations.”

Mulberry Row, Vegetable Garden Terrace, and South Orchard at Monticello
Image credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Leonard Phillips.

In all sincerity, that is a profound statement. “The principles on which I calculate the value of life are entirely in favor of my present course.” If I could a) define the principles on which I calculate the value of life, and b) know that my present course was following those principles, I’d call it a day. Isn’t that pretty much the thing?

Now, TJ goes on to run for president, so there’s the grain of salt. But let’s not spoil the moment.

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