The Papers of Thomas Jefferson -- Retirement Series, J. Jefferson Looney, Ed., Vol. 2, Princeton UP, $99.50, 728 pages, ISBN #0-691-12490-6. Index, grouping of halftone b&w photographs.
In 1943, Princeton University Press began the compilation of the papers of President Thomas Jefferson, including the periods prior to and after that presidency. Its stated goal was "printing, noting or otherwise accounting for 'everything legitimately Jeffersonian by reason of authorship or of relationship.' Since 1950 the Press has published 31 volumes on Jefferson's life up to May, 1800, and five volumes in a series relating to ancillary matters such as his account books. This is the second in a "Retirement Series," documenting the years from 1809, when he stepped down as president, to his death, ironically, on July 4, 1826. To give one an idea of the scope of the project, this massive volume covers only 9 months, from November, 1809, to August, 1810.
Standard biographies select the high or low points of a subject's life, but everyone knows that that's not how life is really lived. A true rendering would reflect the quotidian rote-like tasks, the days one woke up with a sore throat or a hangover, and how the subject coped with life day by day tells the real story of existence. In so doing, we see the subject presented with minor or major challenges and how he managed to cope with them, drawing our own conclusions as to how contemporary coping mechanisms compare with those in the subject's time.
Dipping into the Jefferson post-presidential papers, one cannot help draw comparisons between him and President Bill Clinton. Although Jefferson was about a decade older than Clinton when he stepped down, both were vital, purposeful men ready to tackle new challenges rather than to simply retire to the farm. Jefferson's great passion in these years was the creation of the University of Virginia.
As an attorney, an exchange of correspondence that caught my attention concerned Jefferson's relationship with Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the brilliant Polish civil engineer who helped design military battlements during the Revolution and thus aided the colonists' cause. He and Jefferson struck up a long relationship with blossomed into one of lawyer/client after Jefferson's presidency. (While Jefferson lacked a law degree, he had "read for the law," a common custom in his day, usually ending up in an apprenticeship followed by actual practice of law).
It seems that Kosciuszko asked Jefferson to act as trustee of some of his assets. Had he known that Jefferson spent much of his post-presidential years robbing Peter to pay Paul to finance his rather lavish lifestyle, he might have been less inclined to do so. In any event, it seems that Jefferson yielded to the temptation to "borrow" from Kosciuszko's funds, an action that could send a modern-day attorney to prison, whether or not he ever returned the funds. We follow Jefferson, in his day to day correspondence, sweating to come up with enough money to pay Kosciuszko back.
So while it seems dry reading, perusing a month or two of a former president's daily incoming and outgoing correspondence contains its own fascination. Princeton is building a monument for the ages.