This essay is a good reminder of why Thomas Jefferson has been so well respected and admired over the years. It speaks of Jefferson's lifelong generosity and compassion for others, despite his severe personal and financial losses. Enjoy!
Several years ago, after reading hundreds of Thomas Jefferson’s letters – some short, many to family, most to friends – a discovery emerged. Jefferson was an innate giver. The discovery was eye-opening and has implications – for history and for us.
Without much prodding, most know Jefferson was our third president, before which he was vice president to John Adams, governor of Virginia, and penned our Declaration of Independence.
What many do not appreciate is that, from a young age, Jefferson experienced profound losses, at 14 his father, age 22 his sister. Even these led to loneliness and early reclusiveness until he began to engage with the world, even then with reserve.
Interestingly, at college – William & Mary – he studied math, philosophy, religion, Latin, Greek, French, and violin, with early physicist Isaac Newton and philosopher John Locke, his favorites.
While Jefferson loved books, he also loved people. At age 30, seven years older than his young bride, he married Martha. They both loved music. Ten years later, she died, as did four of their six young children. Two daughters – Maria and Patsy – lived to adulthood, Maria gone at 25, but Patsy giving him 12 grandchildren, of whom 11 lived.
More to the point, Jefferson – the private man – was filled with giving. For all his loss, he engaged life and gave himself fully to all his grandchildren, which became the essence of giving.
Politics always seemed a distant second. In letters and return letters, one hears about someone who realized clearly that living and giving are as intimately intertwined. On realizing a friend’s eyesight is failing, Jefferson orders “spectacles” that change the man’s ability to read and write. On realizing a friend needs seeds to replenish what was lost, Jefferson sends them.
Among the “laboring poor” outside Paris, he finds ways, without costing them their dignity, to buy and give what he has to lift them, in turn producing a depth of gratitude and tears.
On learning, friends are interested in ideas tied to philosophy, art, sciences, geography, biology, and anthropology, he orders books for them. Or, on the lighter side, friends who appreciated French wine got cases from him – always a surprise.
Of enduring interest should be how the “personal Jefferson” lived. He was especially focused on the word “happiness,” this student of words, who had intellectual curiosity, sipped from life’s fullness, and gave what he had to others, in word and deed.
Broadly, he wrote: “Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but…good conscience…and freedom in all just pursuits.” Thinking of his children and grandchildren, he wrote: “The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.”
Somehow, despite loss and loneliness, he reached beyond his fears to live and give. He found peace – his highest peace – in it. “Friendship is precious – not only in shade but in the sunshine of life,” he said, and “thanks to a benevolent arrangement, the greater part of life is sunshine.”
Perhaps the most moving testament comes from his granddaughter, who adored him. “My grandfather’s manners to us, his grandchildren, were delightful…He talked with us freely, affectionately; he never lost an opportunity of giving pleasure or a good lesson. He reproved without wounding us and commended us without making us vain. He took pains to correct our errors and false ideas, checked the bold, encouraged the timid, and tried to teach us to reason soundly and feel rightly.”
She continued: “I remember when I was small enough to sit on his knee and play with his watch chain…I would join him in his walks on the terrace, sit with him over the fire during the winter twilight, or by the open windows in summer…I loved and honored him above all earthly beings, and well I might…To him I owed all the small blessings and joyful surprises of my childish and girlish years.”
She concludes: “His nature was so eminently sympathetic that, with those he loved, he could enter into their feelings, anticipate their wishes…surround them with an atmosphere of affection…My Bible came from him, my Shakespeare, and my first writing table…my first hat, my first silk dress. What in short of all my small treasures did not come from him? Our grandfather seemed to read our hearts, to see our invisible wishes, to be our good genius, to wave the fairy wand, to brighten our young lives by his goodness and his gifts.”
Final thought: Jefferson admired John Locke, but only to a point. Locke’s Second Treatise added justification for Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration, as Locke sought to enshrine a right to “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson changed that – to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Happiness was more the point, thought Jefferson. And that was another of his gifts.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.
Thomas Jefferson, Happiness, and Giving Several years ago, after reading hundreds of Thomas Jefferson’s letters – some short, many to family, most to friends – a discovery...