An Infinite Capacity for Taking Pains

Thomas Jefferson is a biographer’s dream. He maintained five daily diaries including a letter log in which he kept a careful record of the letters he received and sent, and he kept copies of almost all of his letters at a time when that was a very difficult and tedious business.

If you have never examined his handwriting, you should do so by Googling “Jefferson handwriting,” and then just luxuriate among a few of them. His penmanship is essentially perfect, and the adjectives we would apply to it—fastidious, elegant, perfectionist, legible, precise, masterful, exquisite—tell us who Thomas Jefferson was.

Jefferson’s letters are essentially works of art. If genius is “an infinite capacity for taking pains,” Jefferson was a genius, because he approached letter writing with the same commitment to excellence and mastery of detail as he did architecture, library science, paleontology, brick-making, and everything else in his long and amazing life. It would be impossible to imagine Jefferson with messy handwriting. It would literally be out of character for him. His letters are a window on his soul, and his soul was orderly.

How did he do it? This question has multiple meanings. How did he learn to write so precisely and elegantly and then maintain that handwriting style for the next 75 or 80 years? How did he bring the same level of fastidiousness and neatness to every sentence that he ever wrote no matter what mood he was in or state of physical health? If he gave his handwriting such loving devotion to perfection, how did he have energy to plant his gardens with equal fastidiousness, and write some of America’s most important state papers, and run the country, etc.?

I don’t know about you, but I cannot actually control my handwriting over time. One day it’s precise and legible, though never even a tenth as clean as Jefferson’s, and the next day it’s a semi-illegible scrawl. Does this happen to you? It’s as if the messaging between my brain and my fingers actually breaks down sometimes for reasons that I can't analyze. Is it fatigue? Is it biorhythms? Is there a Freudian explanation? Am I just being lazy? I don’t know. All I know is one day I have it and the next day I don’t, no matter how much I concentrate and bend my head to within a few inches of the notebook.

I feel that I should print out a high-resolution copy of one of Jefferson’s letters and hang it at my work table, so that the first thing I see each morning is his exquisite commitment to perfection. Maybe that would inspire me or shame me or just put me in the mood to take a few more pains.

So far I have only talked about the surface of Jefferson’s letters, not what was in them. He studied his word choice, his tone, his metaphors and similes, and above all the contents of his letters as completely as he lavished attention on the handwriting. You can imagine him looking up from the letter into the middle distance, trying to formulate the right words to communicate the thing he wanted to communicate in a way that was most agreeable to the recipient of the letter, pausing to weigh phrases and consider the probable effect. Nothing in haste.

I’m old enough to prize the letter delivered by the postman or the postwoman. In the last 23 years most of my US Postal Service letters have been to my daughter. I’m saddened to say that she does not really appreciate them. For her a physical letter is just a dumb and inefficient way to communicate. She lives in the age of the text, the Tweet, Snapchat, Instagram. In fact, she, like many of her generation, even regards email as slightly Neanderthal.

After John Adams broke the long silence and sent Jefferson a letter on January 1, 1812, he could not be sure the Sage of Monticello would reply. The rift between them was that deep. Jefferson did reply, on January 21, 1812. Here is Adams’ report of receiving that first missive. “Sitting at My Fireside with my Daughter Smith on the first of February My Servant brought me a Bundle of Letters and Newspapers from the Post Office in this Town: one of the first Letters that struck my Eye… Reading the Superscription, I instantly handed the Letter to Mrs. Smith. Is  that not Mr. Jefferson's hand? Looking attentive at it, she answered it is very like it.”

How wonderful. How moving that moment must have been, the old toothless man sitting with his sole daughter Nabby and recognizing the unique handwriting of the great Jefferson. Adams must have hesitated to cut it open and read it. What if it was a fiery rebuke, a denunciation, or an indignant rebuff? Of course Adams should have known that Jefferson would be incapable of not being gracious, and indeed he was, and suddenly Adams and Jefferson were off and running in their retirement correspondence, widely regarded as the best exchange between former presidents in American history.

I’m old fashioned. More to the point, I have studied history enough to have an almost unlimited respect for the “man of letters,” the person who takes the time to write a long and careful and thoughtful and if possible delightful letter, and then folds it carefully in the way our teachers taught us in the fourth grade, and slips it into an envelope, and then sticks a stamp on it, and drops it into a federally protected box. Nothing pleases me more than to receive an actual letter, typewritten or handwritten, and I love to write such letters, too.

Recently I have begun a correspondence—suggested by my rascal daughter—with one of my oldest friends, Donald R. the philosopher. We were students at Oxford together long ago. We had one of those fierce and blessed friendships that probably can only flourish in youth. We were inseparable. We strode the streets of Oxford together every day, argued incessantly in the best possible manner, read the same books, took the train to London to see theater or to explore museums, and wrote long letters to each other even across town. And everyone around us just got out of the way and looked upon this friendship as a kind of atomic bond. And then we returned to America. Donald went in one direction, I in another, and after a few years of intermittent correspondence we began to lose track of each other. Now, thirty years later, I wrote to him, thanks to my daughter, and somewhat to my surprise he wrote back, and now we are three letters in each, and each one of us is scared to death, I think, that we will let the inevitable drift win once again. There is an exquisite delicacy and tentativeness to this early correspondence. I sent him a copy of the Jefferson-Adams correspondence, and I reminded him in my second letter of John Adams’ great line: “We ought not die until we have explained ourselves to each other.”

I almost wrote “stay tuned” just now, but I won’t be providing updates, because that feels like a breach of privacy. But this story should remind you that there is someone out there who would hold up your letter with the joy, the hope, and the sense of amazement that John Adams expressed when Jefferson broke his long silence.

Letter, 1776, from the New York Public Library Digital Collections. Edited by staff.