I have been more fortunate than my friend in the article of health. So free from catarrhs [serious colds] that I have not had one, (in the breast, I mean) on an average of eight or ten years through life. I ascribe this exemption partly to the habit of bathing my feet in cold water every morning, for sixty years past. A fever of more than twenty-four hours I have not had above two or three times in my life.
Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Vine Utley
March 21, 1819
Thomas Jefferson was a dignified man of enormous self-control and self-restraint. He was essentially a character in a Jane Austen novel. His personal space was never invaded by others. He was only angry two or three times in the whole course of his life. It is doubtful that he ever really raised his voice.
The period in which Jefferson lived (1743-1826) was almost infinitely more formal and civil than our time. The social revolutions since 1826--in music, art, conversation, clothing, entertainment, and all other forms of social intercourse--would probably shock even Andrew Jackson, whom Jefferson believed too vulgar for higher office in the United States.
Surely nobody ever dumped a tub of ice water on the Third President's head.
On the other hand, Jefferson was a lifelong advocate of cold foot water baths. He owned a copy of Floyer and Baynard's The History of Cold Bathing: Both Ancient and Modern in Two Parts (1706). Jefferson was so much a creature of habit, so addicted to orderliness in his personal life, that the impression of his bath pail can be seen on the wooden floor next to his alcove bed at Monticello.
Here are the facts. On Monday August 25, 2014, the Lieutenant Governor of North Dakota, one Drew Wrigley, unceremoniously dumped a trashcan of ice water on the Third President's head, on the capitol steps of the North Dakota State Capital in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Mr. Jefferson received the water assault with his usual stoic imperturbability.
The incident was part of a national phenomenon in which citizens doused themselves and each other to help raise money to study and eradicate a disease known as ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Although Jefferson would surely have resisted such antics, he was a lifelong advocate of public health, an early and steadfast supporter of the new smallpox vaccine (invented by Dr. Edward Jenner of Britain), and a lover of science and technology. He wrote a fan letter to Dr. Jenner that is one of the great encomiums in the English language.
Here is Mr. Jefferson's initial response:
1. Daily footpaths in cold water were efficacious. Perhaps a full body ice shower would serve as a blanket immunity to all disease and discomfort.
2. This "affair of honor" was certainly less lethal than most such events: notably the duel that ended the life of Alexander Hamilton and the career of Aaron Burr in July 1804.
3. Perhaps the Lt. Governor would like to remember that it was Mr. Jefferson who purchased most of North Dakota from Napoleon Bonaparte in July 1803. One would think that gratitude would be more appropriate than a sneak attack on an 18th century gentleman.
4. The ND state Capitol is one of just three that violate Mr. Jefferson's neoclassical preferences, first seen in his design for the Virginia Capitol at Richmond. That design, submitted by Jefferson from France, created a neoclassical, Palladian template that has been employed in virtually every state. North Dakota's 18-story capitol tower has its own beauty, but it would not be approved by Jefferson's aesthetics. It is just the sort of place where a water assault might be expected.
5. All's fair for a good cause. ALS was not diagnosed and certainly not named in Jefferson's time. It is at least possible that John Adams was suffering from a form of ALS in his later years.
6. Lt. Governor Wrigley and Mr. Jefferson were seen to shake hands after the incident.
- Founders Online: From Thomas Jefferson to Vine Utley, 21 March 1819
- Jefferson Treats Himself: Herbs, Physicke, and Nutrition in Early America by John M. Holmes
- Jefferson and Science by Silvio Bedini