When Jefferson retired from the Washington administration in December 1793, he thought he was leaving the political arena for the final time. He fully expected to live out the remainder of his life at Monticello, with perhaps an occasional visit to Richmond.
His enemies assumed that he was merely posturing, performing the Cincinnatus gambit, pretending to be above it all merely to regroup and figure out some new path to higher power.
Even his old friend John Adams was derisive:
Jefferson thinks he shall by this step get a reputation of a humble modest, meek man, wholly without ambition or vanity. He may even have deceived himself into this belief. But if the prospect opens, the world will see he is as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell.
“His soul”, wrote Adams, “is poisoned with ambition.”
I believe Jefferson. It is clear from scores of Jefferson’s 26,000 letters that his principal happiness in life was at Monticello—his daughter Martha (the love of his life), his books, his gardens, his horses, his grandchildren, those clean sheets of paper he spread out before him with pen in hand, and the long vista from the west portico towards the Mississippi River and the Missouri beyond that. Jefferson hated conflict. And he loved harmony.
Jefferson was willing to set that happiness aside—at great personal cost to his privacy, his purse, and his sense of what constitutes the good life—for the sole purpose of preserving the blessings of liberty for his countrymen and their descendants. But he meant it when he called the presidency “splendid misery.”
It’s not that he wasn’t good at wielding power. He was a master of public administration. He was what you would call a Zen leader. He knew how to manage men. He was a visionary, even a utopian, but he understood that half a loaf was better than none; and he exhibited remarkable flexibility and patience in pursuit of his agenda.
And what was that agenda, exactly? Jefferson sought to diffuse the blessings of liberty more widely than they had ever been spread in the course of human events. He worked quietly to provide a vast, almost infinite canvas, on which the American people could write their destiny—and in doing so doubled the size of the United States with a single stroke of his pen. He believed that humans are happiest when they are least encumbered by government, least oppressed by class systems, least constrained by religious dogma and intolerance. He believed in what he called “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”
In holding public office for a significant portion of his life, Jefferson did not line his pocket or his bed. He did not leave the presidency to accept an obscene advance to write his memoirs. He did not give speeches in the wealthiest quarters of America for hundreds of thousands of dollars per pop. He did not hang around Washington, D.C. as a lobbyist. He went quietly home to putter in his garden in the cool of the evening.
The two lowest moments of Jefferson’s career were the last months of his governorship of Virginia in 1781 and the last year of his tenure as Washington’s secretary of state. In each instance, he walked away from power, returned to his mountain retreat, and put his hands in the soil.
Jefferson was like the Greek giant Antaeus—who was invincible as long as he was in contact with the Earth. To defeat him you had to take away his rootedness in the soil. Monticello—and all it stood for—was Jefferson’s Muse, his sanctuary, his Fortress of Solitude. When he went home in 1794 he went home to stay. At Monticello he recovered his spirit and his confidence.
He did not expect to revisit the arena. He returned in 1797—refreshed and restored—not because he wanted power, but because he believed humankind’s most important experiment in liberty and happiness would not survive if the Hamiltonians remained in power any longer. We can disagree with his assessment of the political situation of the last years of the eighteenth century, but it would be a mistake, I believe, to question his motives.
What Jefferson said to James Madison is his last letter to his closest friend, protégé, and chief collaborator summed up his life’s work accurately. Even those who might disagree with Jefferson’s assessment cannot doubt the sincerity with which he viewed the significance of his life’s work.
On February 17, 1826, just five months before his death, Jefferson wrote, “If ever the earth has beheld a system of administration conducted with a single and steadfast eye to the general interest and happiness of those committed to it, one which, protected by truth, can never know reproach, it is that to which our lives have been devoted.”
"Late residence of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Va.", c. 1850, appears from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.