In late autumn of 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was in Germantown, Pennsylvania, then the nation’s temporary capital. A devastating outbreak of yellow fever had driven the government, including President George Washington, out of the capital, Philadelphia, to escape the horrific epidemic, whose origin was a mystery to all. Jefferson had not, in fact, been a part of the exodus. He had decided to leave Philadelphia in the winter of 1792, well before the outbreak. Perhaps he had grown weary of city living or, more likely, wished to find respite from the scene of his metaphorical death match with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, his chief rival in Washington’s cabinet. The two men had very different visions about the way the new country should progress, and Washington sided with Hamilton.
Jefferson had taken residence in a house along the Schuylkill River in April. After a brief sojourn at his home, Monticello, he moved to Germantown knowing that he was in his final days in the administration. When he lost the battle with Hamilton, he gave notice of his decision to resign his post. After some difficulties obtaining lodging in the town newly crowded with refugees, he was able to find a home. It was from this place, and against this backdrop of troubled and disorienting times, that Jefferson wrote to his friend Angelica Schuyler Church in the waning days of November.
Jefferson and Church had first met in Paris on the eve of revolution, while he was serving as minister to France. When he wrote to her from Germantown, she was still in London, but she had written to him of her impending return to America and with news of mutual friends they had known there. The marquis de Lafayette had been jailed (which Jefferson knew). Madame de Corny, who ran a salon that Jefferson often frequented, had lost her fortune. Maria Cosway, with whom Jefferson had had some sort of dalliance, had entered a convent. Jefferson reassured Church that efforts were being made on Lafayette’s behalf. He lamented Madame de Corny’s economic downfall and expressed surprise at the sharply religious turn in Cosway’s life. And then Jefferson’s love of language took flight:
“And Madame Cosway in a convent! I knew that, to much goodness of heart, she joined enthusiasm and religion: but I thought that very enthusiasm would have prevented her from shutting up her adoration of the god of the Universe within the walls of a cloyster; that she would rather have sought the mountain-top. How happy should I be that it were mine that you, she and Mde. de Corny would seek.”
Church knew Jefferson well enough to recognize what he was doing writing to her in this manner. Even as he flirted with Cosway, he had flirted with her over the years, fully aware that no connection to either woman (both married, Church with two children) could ever be serious or long-term. His suggestion that Cosway, Church, and Corny might repair to Monticello to live with him was on par with other fanciful things he had said to her before.
At this moment, however, matters were more complicated because in addressing Church, Jefferson was talking to the sister-in-law of the man responsible for his current discomfort: Hamilton was married to Church’s younger sister, Elizabeth. Open discussion of the implications of this fact in the letters they exchanged was not possible, given Jefferson’s sense of propriety and strong dislike of conflict. He could not let on that he even considered that Church knew of the titanic struggle that he and her brother-in-law had waged. Instead, he went back to basics, to a presentation of self that emphasized his attachment to his home, his values, and his faith that, with concerted effort, he could bend the future to his will.
“In the mean time I am going to Virginia. I have at length been able to fix that to the beginning of the new year. I am then to be liberated from the hated occupations of politics, and to sink into the bosom of my family, my farm and my books. I have my house to build, my feilds to form, and to watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine. I have one daughter married to a man of science, sense, virtue, and competence; in whom indeed I have nothing more to wish. They live with me. If the other shall be as fortunate in due process of time, I shall imagine myself as blessed as the most blessed of the patriarchs.”
The most blessed of the patriarchs. The strong proponent of republican values, adherent of the Enlightenment, who wrote that “all men are created equal” and was excoriated as a “Jacobin” by enemies, likened himself to a figure from ancient times when republicanism was not even thought of, much less the Enlightenment or revolutionary action to upend the social order on behalf of the downtrodden. Though the word “patriarch” can be used to describe any man who was the “father” of something — Jefferson did this on occasion, himself — his setting of the scene and description of what he would be doing at Monticello suggests that he meant something more particular than just being a father. Indeed, two years later in a letter to Edward Rutledge, Jefferson more explicitly linked himself to the primordial incarnation of such a figure when he said that at Monticello he was “living like an Antediluvian patriarch among [his] children and grand children, and tilling [his] soil.” “Antediluvian patriarch[s]” of the highest status — and Jefferson was of high status — ruled over families that included a wife (sometimes multiple ones), concubines, children, and slaves. Depending upon his social position, his authority could extend to a clan or to a surrounding community. A salient feature of his rule was that it was autocratic, a form of leadership at odds with the type that Jefferson championed when he participated in the American Revolution, supported the French Revolution, and worked to build the government in the earliest days of the United States.
In fact, Jefferson had no wife when he wrote to Church in 1793, or when he wrote to Rutledge in 1795, but he did have a concubine, children, slaves, and over five thousand acres of land. And if the members of his surrounding community were not in a truly dependent relationship to him, as those who lived under the aegis of a high-status patriarch of old would have been, they did, in the main, respect him and rely on his capacity to provide things they needed in their lives. Monticello’s blacksmith shops, its nail factories, the mills Jefferson built, the jobs he offered for skilled white workers — his property and prestige — helped shape the way of life in the community around Monticello. Indeed, ninety miles away from the mountain, people who lived in the vicinity of his Bedford County retreat, Poplar Forest, took to calling him “Squire.” Though lacking the more exotic connotations of the word “patriarch,” the title nevertheless acknowledged Jefferson’s special status, reaffirming his sense of himself as one who occupied a privileged place — with attendant responsibilities — in his home and community.
Excerpted from “ ‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. Copyright © 2016 by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.