The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jefferson’s powerful last public letter reminds us what Independence Day is all about

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, is shown in a painting by artist Rembrandt Peale. (New-York Historical Society/AP)

As the nation’s 50th Fourth of July approached in 1826, Thomas Jefferson was at one of the lowest points of his life.

The author of the Declaration of Independence turned 83 on April 13. Just two months before, his beloved eldest granddaughter, Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead, had died after childbirth as Jefferson wept inconsolably in the next room.

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She had suffered abuse from her alcoholic husband, and Jefferson tried his best to support her. But now everything was crumbling. He was in so much debt from mismanaging Monticello that he and his grandson petitioned the Virginia General Assembly for permission to raise cash through a lottery.

Richmond subjected the proposal to a humiliating debate. People around the country felt embarrassed for the country’s third president and sent a few donations. Jefferson’s family tried to shield him from the truth, but he was going to lose Monticello.

Jefferson fled Monticello to avoid being captured by the British. And he was mocked for it.

Worst of all, Jefferson suffered terrible health problems. He had chronic diarrhea and difficulty urinating, possibly from prostate cancer. His doctor prescribed the opiate laudanum.

Amid all these burdens, Jefferson was aware of the approaching anniversary. Nostalgia was in the air. The era of the Founders was almost over, and the United States had been mired in a period of partisan disunity. Reverence for the Revolution was one thing everyone could agree on.

Roger Chew Weightman, the mayor of Washington, had big plans for a Fourth of July celebration. He sent invitations to the three surviving signers of the Declaration — Jefferson; John Adams, who was 90; and Charles Carroll of Maryland, 88 — along with former presidents James Madison and James Monroe.

Monroe and Carroll both declined for health reasons. Adams sent a short note of thanks, also pleading poor health. Madison wrote a lengthy and polite letter citing his age (he was 75), but saluted the occasion with a nice line: “Ever honored will be the day which gave birth to a nation, and to a System of self-government, making it a new Epoch in the History of Man.”

And then there was Jefferson. He was, apparently, the last to respond. He had been riding horses and getting around just the year before, but his bouts of illness —  not to mention all the other problems — were finally overwhelming him.

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Two years prior, when the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette made his triumphal tour of America, organizers had invited Jefferson to attend a reunion and celebration in Yorktown at the site of the British surrender. He had written in reply that “age and infirmities … disable me from repairing to distant occasions.” Jefferson spent a few lines praising Lafayette — that “ancient and virtuous friend and benefactor” — but noted that the hero would soon be visiting him at Monticello, and left it at that.

Now, with this latest invitation, Jefferson paused. There was no way he could attend, of course. But this was a moment. And as old, sick, distraught and broke as he was, Jefferson couldn’t let it pass.

The letter he wrote back to Weightman on June 24, 1826, shows in the handwriting how carefully Jefferson composed it, lingering over lines and adding words in the margin. This was the man whose words gave shape to the cause of independence — words that Abraham Lincoln would use decades later in re-forging the Union — and somehow, in the depths of his personal misery, Jefferson found them again.

He was flattered, he wrote, by “the kind invitation I recieve [sic] from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington” and referred to himself as “one of the surviving signers of an instrument, pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world.”

Having to decline the invitation makes being sick even harder to bear, he continued. He longed to meet once more “with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword.” It’s good to know that “our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made.”

The phrases that follow — odd punctuation and all — ring with passion as Jefferson defined the impact of that long-ago choice.

“may it be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which Monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self government. the form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.

“all eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves let the annual return of this day, for ever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.”

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Independence Day is all about.

It went down in history as the last letter Jefferson ever wrote. As most Americans know, Jefferson died shortly after noon that July 4. A few hours later, his lifelong friend and sometime rival John Adams also died, with Jefferson’s name on his lips.

The almost unbelievable timing of their deaths resounded as an exclamation mark on the Revolutionary period, hailed by Daniel Webster and others as evidence of divine providence at the root of the nation.

Jefferson’s words in the letter to the mayor of Washington were reprinted far and wide, even emblazoned on silk scarves, as a reminder of what unites us beyond the divisions of the moment.

Today, of course, it’s hard to look at Jefferson’s lines — moving as they are — and not think of the fundamental contradiction of his life. How could he trumpet “all eyes are opened…to the rights of man” when his own eyes seemed blind to the plight of enslaved workers?

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Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for illuminating Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings in the book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” said the answer is complicated.

“I do not believe the words were hollow,” she said, via email. “Jefferson believed in progress. That is hard for us to accept. But he did believe that one day Enlightenment values would spread across the world. He thought that he had contributed to the process by helping to found the United States.”

It may seem naive today, Gordon-Reed said, but Jefferson had faith that every generation would be a little better than the one before. He and his peers had put their lives on the line to make the big break with the past, and what they started would not be stopped.

“He was born into a world that accepted monarchy and all that went along with it — social hierarchy, wars brought on by disputes between royals, established churches that ran everyday people’s lives. He thought he and the American Revolutionaries had created something ‘new under the sun’,” she said.

Gordon-Reed’s most recent book — “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” co-written with Peter S. Onuf — plumbs the contradictions of Jefferson’s intellect. She said that while Jefferson was “liberal” for his time, he thought that a multiracial society was impossible without constant conflict. Instead, blacks would one day have their own nation that would “meet Americans as an equal among nations. That is anathema to us, but that was the position of the founders who spoke about this matter.”

Yes, he built his world on slave labor and most likely fathered children with a woman he owned. And yes, he gave timeless voice to man’s desire for liberty. Jefferson was a flawed human being. “It is not unusual,” Gordon-Reed said, “for people to have a set of intellectual beliefs that they do not have the emotional strength to live by.”

As a coda to the story, it’s worth noting that Jefferson’s letter to Mayor Weightman was not, in fact, the last he ever wrote.

In 2004, J. Jefferson Looney, who is compiling and editing Jefferson’s retirement papers, discovered that the former president wrote two more letters the day after the famous one. The very last — of which only a copy in someone else’s hand survives — was coordinating delivery of a shipment of wine from France.

While the more famous letter speaks to Jefferson’s faith in “the enduring value of the American experiment with democracy,” Looney wrote in announcing the discovery, the later note speaks to something else: “the private Jefferson who to the last could not deny himself imported luxury goods for which he could not pay.”

On President’s Day, the University of Virginia will launch a free online course on the nation’s third president and the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. "Age of Jefferson" includes an introduction to the Rotunda, a central element of the Charlottesville campus. (Video: University of Virginia)

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