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Thomas Jefferson: The Man as Reflected in His Account Books

ISSUE:  Autumn 1988

Thomas Jefferson took all fields of knowledge as his province; he is perhaps the only American president who without quibbling or hedging can truly be labeled as an intellectual; and there is validity in Ezra Pound’s contention that he was “perhaps the last American official to have any general sense of civilization.” At the same time, he was a very practical man with an infinite capacity for taking pains, along with a statistician’s passion for accumulating facts; I suspect that were he living today one of his favorite books would be the Guinness Book of World Records.

During his long and active life, Mr. Jefferson spent a great deal of money (which, incidentally, seems to have infuriated one of his more recent biographers). He loved what used to be called the good things of life, and he spared neither time, talent, nor expense in satisfying his desires—indeed, his passion—for them. As the thousands of annual visitors to Monticello know, he created a plantation which was simultaneously beautiful, luxurious, and practical; he kept fine horses in his stables and fine wines in his cellars; when he was minister to France he lived sumptuously; he collected or supervised the collection of three libraries including the truly magnificent—and expensive—one which he sold to Congress in 1815 (which became the nucleus of the Library of Congress) at a fraction of its original cost.

But Mr. Jefferson’s appetite for these and similar good things never conflicted with his keen, unwinking practicality. For approximately 60 years he kept a series of minutely-detailed account books—as yet unpublished—in which he itemized his expenditures with a meticulousness and minuteness of detail which in a man of lesser achievements might seem like pettiness. The first of these books was for 1767 when Jefferson, then in his middle twenties, was a practicing lawyer and member-designate of the Virginia Assembly; the final entry in his last account book is dated June 20, just two weeks before his death on July 4, 1816.

Most of these prosaic-looking ledgers are just that: detailed listings of everyday expenditures for household and plantation needs, travel expenses, or the purchases of such “indispensables” as books and wine. But there are exceptions, and together they add, if only a little, to our understanding of this remarkable man and the times in which he lived.

The account book for 1771, for example, contains a four-line lament-—apparently written by Jefferson himself—for his favorite sister, Jane, who died in 1765:

Oh! Joanna puellarum optima!

Oh! aevi viventis flora praerepta!

Sit tibi terra laevis!

Long, longeque valete.

Accompanying the poem are Jefferson’s detailed plans for a family burying place at Monticello, plans reflecting a melancholy, sentimental aspect of his nature, along with a fondness for late 18th-century romanticism quite incompatible with the long-lived popular misconception of Jefferson the austere statesman-philosopher. Similarly his plans for a “burying place” at Monticello, begun in May 1773 after the death of his favorite nephew, Dabney Carr.

“Chuse out,” he wrote, “for a burying place some unfrequented vale in the park . . . . let it be among antient and venerable oaks; intersperse some gloomy evergreens . . . encircled with a [sic] untrimmed hedge of cedar or of stone wall with a holly hedge . . . in the center . . . erect a small Gothic temple of antique appearance . . . let the exit. . .look over a small and distant part of the blue mountains. In the middle of the temple an altar, the sides of turf, the top of plain stone. Very little light, perhaps none at all, save only the feeble ray of an half-extinguished lamp.”

It is of particular interest, in view of various recent controversies concerning the role of certain slaves at Monticello, that in this same passage Jefferson wrote that “one half of the burying grounds at Monticello might be “appropriate/d” . . . to the use of my own family” and the “other of strangers, servants., &c,” to which he added: “on the grave of a favorite and faithful servant might be a pyramid . . . of the rough rockstone, the pedestal made plain to receive an inscription”; he then appended an eight-line poem, the “Inscription for an African Slave.”

In the same vein, and on a later page, Mr. Jefferson discussed his plans for landscaping the grounds, envisioning a waterfall to form a cascade, and a temple before which “close to the spring a sleeping figure reclined on a plain marble slab . . . .” But on further reflection he wrote: “This would be better,” and proceeds to describe a “fine cave or grotto” to be “spangle” [d] with “translucent pebbles from Hanover town and beautiful shells from the shore at Harper’s Ferry.” Here, too, he envisioned a sleeping figure “like the one in the temple” and a marble slab on which the following “inscription will be then proper”:

“Nymph of the grot, these sacred springs I keep,!
And to the murmur of these waters sleep;!
Oh! spare my slumbers! gently tread the wave!!
And drink in silence or in silence lave.”

Unlike these reflections on death and burying grounds, most of the Account Book entries are run-of-the-mill records of expenditures. But occasionally, almost lost in the welter of the commonplace and the trivial, one comes across an item that makes him blink, ponder, sit up and take notice: a revelatory or confusing expenditure, a personal epiphany, a reflection, a fragment of autobiography. Like the following, from the Account Book of 1777, the more poignant when one recalls that four of the six Jefferson children died in infancy or early childhood:

“May 28. our son born 10:o’clock, P. M.” “June 14. our son died. 10—20 P.M.”

Or the following, from the Account Book for 1776, less than six weeks before Mr. Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia to take his seat in a Congress whose delegates would soon be instructed to break from British rule and form a Confederation of the Colonies:

“my mother died about 8 o’clock this morning in the 57th year of her age.” [March 31.]

Or this terse reference to the most profound personal tragedy in his entire life:

“my dear wife died this day at 11—45 A. M.” [Sept. 6, 1782.]


“paid a man sent . . . from Staunton with the body of our dear little Eleanor.” [July 26, 1795; reference is to his granddaughter, the third child of Martha Jefferson and Thomas Mann Randolph].

One of such personal entries hints of a family tragedy which for years was passed unnoticed by most Jefferson biographers. It concerns Mr. Jefferson’s sister Elizabeth who, like her younger brother Randolph, appears to have been mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, or at best slow-witted:

“My sister Elizabeth was found last Thursday being Feb. 24.”

Was found?

A previous entry adds to the confusion. Three days earlier, Mr. Jefferson had recorded that “at 2. P.M. felt a shock of an earthquake at Monticello. It shook the houses so sensibly that everybody ran out of doors.”

Was it the earthquake that had caused Elizabeth to run away? I discussed the problem with my very good friend the late John Cook Wyllie, the greatest Jefferson buff in the world and at that time curator of manuscripts at the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library, He didn’t know the answer, but reminded me of what I already knew, of the tragic strain of madness in one branch of Jefferson’s mother’s family, the Randolphs.

“Could Elizabeth have been frightened by the earthquake?” I asked him. “Could that have been why she ran away? If she had run away? Did they ever find her?”

“I don’t know,” he said, finally. “But I don’t think the earthquake had anything to do with it.”

I finally found a kind of answer, at least to my last question. On March 7, 1774, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his small, fine, slightly-cramped script:

“sold my two old bookcases to Mr. Clay for £ of which . . . [I credited him] 40/ for performing funeral services this day on burying my sister Elizabeth.”

So it was not his sister who had been found that late winter day but her remains, and it was not until years later that Jonathan Daniels, in The Randolphs of Virginia, provided at least a partial and undocumented answer: the body of Jefferson’s “confused, if not deranged” sister had been found “where she had wandered off to die two years before.”


Most of the personal items in the Account Books, however, are far less tragic than the two pertaining to poor Elizabeth. The most revealing and the most interesting are from the late 1760’s, decades which saw the passing away of Colonial America and the emergence of the United States, and the parallel rise of Thomas Jefferson from frontier lawyer and gentleman farmer to revolutionary statesman, author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, and minister to France.

It was, of course, a period of enormous contrasts, of war and social and political upheaval, of revolutions of every sort, but in pre-1776 Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, it was still a time of gentlemen in powdered wigs and ladies in hoop skirts, of cotillions as well as diplomatic intrigues, of chamber music and gaming tables and horse races and inns or taverns where one could still toast the Crown and dine on claret and cold partridge.

Piece by piece, during these pre-1776 years, we catch glimpses of the Thomas Jefferson who was a skilled musician—he himself recorded that at this time he practiced the violin three hours a day—who performed in a string quartet at the Governor’s Palace and made frequent expenditures for “fiddle strings”; who “p[ai]d for a ball towards Lady Dunmore,” the wife of the Royal Governor of Virginia; who often attended the theater and carefully totted up his expeditures for “Play-tickets”; who subscribed to the seasonal cotillions and dancing assemblies, attended the races, “p[ai]d at Southalls for punch,” or “lost at back-gammon” (and once even recorded in his account book the payment of a small bill for what his wife “had lost at Cards”); a man apparently extremely conscious of what must have been his striking physical appearance (among other things he was half a foot taller than many of his contemporaries) and who made frequent payments for barber and valet service, for “grinding razors,” and “hair powder,” and even remembered to jot down carefully, on Dec. 30, 1771, an expenditure of 40d for his “marriage license.”

As Mr. Jefferson the private citizen became Thomas Jefferson the statesman and diplomat, he traveled a good deal, between Monticello and Williamsburg and Philadelphia, and his frequent entries in the Account Books—such as “mending wheel,” or “for shoeing a horse on the road”— furnish an interesting commentary of the trials and tribulations of traveling life in 18th-century America. And whenever and wherever he traveled, whether at home or for the five years in Europe and England when he was minister to France in the 1780’s, he carried his account books and journals with him. As his published travel journals and the manuscript account books attest, Jefferson was an indefatigable tourist, avidly interested in seeing the sights, observing and recording the manners and mores of the “natives.” Here are some samples of his recorded payments:

“for seeing a monkey”

“for Dutch dancing and singing”

“for going to see the mud-scoop work”

“for seeing the learned pig”

“for seeing house where Shakespeare was born”

“for seeing lions”

“for charity to a woman without hands”

“for seeing a Sapajour”[a bird]

“gave the successor to Sterne’s monk at Calais.”

Even more interesting are the occasional entries which suggest a good deal about the man who found time, less than two weeks before he was appointed to the committee to draft a declaration of independence, to go shopping “for toys” and “for a Doll” [May 27&28, 1776]; on the other hand, some entries constitute an unspoken, unintended commentary. Compare, for example: the following two excerpts from the Account Books of Aug. 21, 1805 and June 3, 1817:

“bought a horse . . . a light bay, with a star in the forehead and small snip on the nose, right hindfoot white . . . 120 D.”; “bought a negro woman Lucretia, her 2 sons John & Randall, and the child of which she is pregnant, when born, for 180.”

Or another unarticulated value judgment:

“I have subscribed to the building

an Episcopal Church 200 Da Presbyterian   “    60   “a Baptist   “     25   “[June 3, 1817]

Other entries, as was the case with those concerning the disappearance and burial of his sister Elizabeth, more frequently raise questions rather than answer them. To what, I wonder, did he allude by this undated entry in the 1771 Account Book:

“Th. Jefferson who becoming lunatic did not make out the word”?

Or why in the world did he, on May 1, 1778, purchase “a canoe”?

And who wrote the poem about which Mr. Jefferson noted: “pd. towards printing poem I never saw nor ever wish to see.” [April 17, 1769.]

What was he referring to in this entry, on December 17, 1805: “pd. George Swink for carrying Jane Hubbard home 20 D.”, (a rather substantial sum if by carry he implied the customary contemporary usage of “escort” or “accompany”).

And for whom, on June 10, 1771, did he purchase “breast pipes” from “Dr. Carters”? (And not that it’s very important, but what is, or was, a breast pipe?)

And was it not unwise for Jefferson, as president of the United States, to “give” fifty dollars “in charity to James Callender,” the scabrous scandal-mongering journalist who little more than a year later would print for the first time the slanderous and unsubstantiated accounts of the president’s alleged relations with “The African Venus,” Sally Hemings? [May 28, 1801].

And what about the subsequent career, if he had one, of one Ramsay, apparently a Williamsburg friend or acquaintance, referred to in the following note: “Ramsay got drunk with the sacrament wine going to Clairmont church” [1768].

Similarly the career of the client who was bringing action against an unnamed person because “pl[aintiff] said he fucked his mother and begot himself on her body” [1770].

And then there are the isolated details which underscore once again the paradoxical, complex, elusive quality of this extraordinary man. The man who, concerning his being officially presented to King George III at Buckingham Palace, laconically recorded only that he had “pd. porter at St. James on my being presented. 42.” [March 17, 1786.] Who, while president, “gave . . .ord[er] on b[an]k of U.S. for 20 D freight & provns of 2 grisley bears to Phila.” [February 13, 1809.] Who, a retired octogenarian on his next to last Christmas, paid two dollars for “the boys to see [a] ventriloquist.”

And then, too, we find a good many details of life at Monticello: the purchase of “a mocking bird” or “a fawn” or “live carp for the pond”: “bringing home a pea hen”; “I heard the first whip-poor will”; “we had cherries ripe”; an account of a near disaster “on the 9th inst. the N. Pavilion was burnt”; of paying “Bob & Ned for going up chimney”; or recording and paying for the births of slaves: “pd. midwife for attending Scilla, Cretia, Fanny & Virginia. 8 D.”

Jefferson continued his account books, albeit on an increasingly reduced scale, until a few days before his death. In January 1826 he commenced a new one, which was to be his last, carefully writing in considerably larger than ususal numbers 1726; the only example I can recall of Jefferson’s ever having been absent-minded. This last account book again bears witness to the fullness of the man, his curiosity, his humanness, and the range of his interests: among the entries in this final account book are payments for the following:

“shew of horsemanship,” “Dr. Emmet for a book,” “Lee for veal” and “Isaacs for cheese.”

Books and food and watching the horses he had loved since childhood: what more need be said?

* Oh! Jane, best of young women!
Oh, carried off in the bloom of youth!!
May the earth rest lightly upon you!!
A long, long farewell!


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