Thomas Jefferson Papers

Isaac Briggs’s Account of a Visit to Monticello, 2–4 November 1820

Isaac Briggs’s Account of a Visit to Monticello

Richmond Va 11 mo. 21. 1820.

My dear Wife and children,

In my last letter to you, dated on the 7, I brought down to my arrival at Monticello the narative of the incidents of my journey. I will now continue the subject.

11 mo. 2—fifth day of the week, I reached Monticello about 4 o’clock afternoon. On entering the great hall I saw sitting just within the door a stranger; supposing him to be a member of the family, I asked him, “Is Thomas Jefferson at home?” he answered, “I believe he is—I am a stranger, on my way to the southward, and have called on purpose to see him—I have no one to introduce me—are you acquainted with him?”—I am—thou wilt not find him difficult of access, said I; for the man seemed under considerable embarrassment. I enquired if he had announced his being in waiting. He said he had, and in a few minutes the dear, venerable old man entered the hall. I instantly met him, took his offered hand and with warmth of feeling said, “my friend Jefferson! how art thou?” with equal cordiality he returned my salute; and then turning to the stranger saluted him, and asked us both to walk in and take a glass of wine with him. We followed him into the dining room, where were seated about a table his sister Marks, and three or four of his grand daughters, fine looking young women; Thomas Jefferson took his seat at the table, and placed me on his right hand and the stranger on his left; then turning to me, with a pleasant smile, he said—“Why, Mr Briggs, you have grown young again.”

In a short time the stranger took his leave, saying that he had parted from his company on purpose to make his respects at Monticello, and must join them again that evening in Charlottesville. As soon as he had departed, Thomas Jefferson said, “Mr Briggs, who is that gentleman?” I answered, “I do not know—he is quite a stranger to me.”—“I thought he came with you.” “No; I found him in the hall, when I first arrived.”

I told Thomas Jefferson I proposed to spend the next day with him and the day following to pursue my journey to Richmond, and that I wished to see the University of Virginia. He replied with quickness, “you must see it—I had intended to go there, the day after tomorrow, but it will be as well for me to go tomorrow, and you must ride with me.”

In the course of the evening I communicated to him the remembrance of my wife and of my daughter Mary; he seemed highly gratified, and in an affectionate manner enquired after the health of my family particularly of Mary. I delivered to him Thomas Moore’s message—“his Respects”—and that he had continually regretted, since it happened, that he did not visit him, when, in the course of his duties as Engineer in 1818, he passed within one mile of Monticello. “I blamed Mr Moore,” said he—“Where is he now?”—At his home in Maryland.—“Is he well?”—He is well. About 8 o’clock, after a very friendly, social and agreeable evening so far, he rose from his seat and said to me, “I feel that I am an old man, and it is proper for me to retire early to bed, you will excuse me and choose your own time.” I remained with his daughter and her daughters, the wife and daughters of Thomas M. Randolph, Governor of Virginia, till about 10 o’clock, when I retired for the night.

11 mo. 3—Sixth day of the week. This morning after breakfast, Thomas Jefferson and I rode to see the University of Virginia. It is situated about 4 miles from Monticello. The operations of tuition have not yet commenced, nor are the buildings finished, but the work is in active progress, and so far advanced, as to exhibit, to one acquainted with these things, a very good idea of the design, scope and probable fruits of the institution. It consists of three rows of buildings, each row a thousand feet long and having two fronts. The plan of it was furnished by Thomas Jefferson—it is going on, under his special superintendence and direction—it occupies a great portion of his time; his personal attendance is frequent and unremitted—it seems to be his favorite employment and the solace of his declining years. His 77th year finds him strong, active and in full possession of a sound mind. He rides a trotting horse and sits on him as straight as a young man. Compared with him, Madison, although ten years younger, looks like—a little old man. Returning to Monticello from the University of Virginia (which promises to be the greatest and most extensive establishment of the kind in the United States) we had much conversation. Among other political points, that which has been called the Missouri-question stood prominent. He said that nothing had happend since the revolution, which gave him so much anxiety and so many disquieting fears for the safety and happiness of his country. “I fear,” said he, “that much mischief has been done already—but if they carry matters to extremities again at the approaching session of Congress, nothing short of Almighty power can save us. The Union will be broken. All the horrors of civil wars, embittered by local jealousies and mutual recriminations, will ensue. Bloodshed, rapine and cruelty, will soon roam at large, will desolate our once happy land and turn the fruitful field into a howling wilderness. Out of such a state of things will naturally grow a war of extermination toward the African in our land. Instead of improving the condition of this poor, afflicted, degraded race, terminating, in the ordering of wisdom, in equal liberty and the enjoyment of equal rights (in which direction public opinion is advancing with rapid strides) the course pursued, by those who make high professions of humanity and of friendship for them, would involve them as well as us in certain destruction. I believe there are many, very many, who are quite honest in their humane views and feelings toward this people, lending their efforts, with an amiable but misguided zeal, to those leaders—those master-spirits, who raise the whirlwind and direct the storm,—who are not honest, who wear humanity as a mask, whose aim is power, and who ‘would wade through slaughter to a throne and shut the gates of mercy on mankind.’”1 “I have considered the United States as owing to the world an example, and that this is their solemn duty—a steady, peaceful example of morality and happiness in society at large, of moderation and wisdom in government, and of civil and religious liberty—an example, which, by its mild and steady light, would be far more powerful than the sword, in correcting abuses—in teaching mankind that they can, if they will, govern themselves, and in relieving them from the oppressions of king-craft and priestcraft. But if our Union be broken, this duty will be sacrificed—this bright example will be lost—it will be worse than lost. The predictions of our enemies will be fulfilled, in the estimation of the world, that we were not wise enough for self government. It would be said that the fullest and fairest experiment had been made—and had failed; and the chains of despotism would be rivetted more firmly than ever.” This is the substance; I do not pretend to recollect, exactly, although I believe very nearly, his words, for his manner was impressive. I told him, my anxiety had also been very great, on the same subject, and very much in the same way.

On another point, he enquired—“Mr Briggs, did Congress ever allow you compensation for exploring and locating a Post road from Washington to New Orleans?”—No; the utmost they could be brought to do, was to balance my accounts.—“Did they not avail the public of your labors—did they not use the road?”—O yes, they adopted the road, and it is still used, nearly as I reported it.—“Well, I think, the refusal to compensate you for that service, is one of the most disgraceful things Congress have ever done.”

After our return to Monticello, he left me in the hall, or drawing room, for a few minutes, and went into another room. Coming to me again, with something in his hand, he said, “Will your daughter, Mary, accept of this as a memorial of me?”—I replied, “She will most thankfully. Thou hast not, in the world, a more enthusiastic admirer than she is.”

A company of visitors, male and female, collected in the drawing room, before dinner. My friend Jefferson introduced me to each one, in the manner following—“Mr Briggs, the Engineer, who is to shew us how to navigate across the mountains.”

After dinner the company departed, and I spent the afternoon and evening in the delightful society of Thomas Jefferson, his sister         Marks, his daughter Martha Randolph, her daughters, Ellen, Cornelia, Virginia, Mary, and Septimia, & Browse Trist, the son of a former acquaintance of mine in New Orleans. Thomas Jefferson, as usual, retired about 8; and I continued until 10, chatting with Martha Randolph and her highly polished and highly instructed daughters. It seems to be a matter of equal facility with them to write or converse, in French, Spanish, Italian, or their mother tongue.

11 mo. 4—Seventh day of the week. After breakfast, I asked for my horse, and for a description of the road to Richmond. Thomas Jefferson rose to take leave of me, and, in a manne[r] which left no doubt of sincerity, said—“I am sorry you cannot stay with us another day.” I had like to have forgotten to mention, that, in conversation last evening, Thomas Jefferson, recounting over past events, dwelt with apparent satisfaction on his intimate acquaintance with Thomas Pleasants of Goochland.—This was uncle Thomas Pleasants, cousin Deborah Stabler’s father. About 9 o’clock, I departed from Monticello; after sunset, I arrived at Hayden’s 35 miles; and the next evening (11 mo 5—first day) in Richmond 45 miles more. From Monticello to Richmond, 80 miles.

RC (MdHi: Briggs-Stabler Papers); extract, consisting of opening two-and-a-half pages of letter; mutilated; signed “Isaac Briggs” on last page; addressed: “Hannah Briggs, Sharon, near Sandy Spring, Maryland”; stamped; postmarked Richmond, 22 Nov.; endorsed in two unidentified hands. The unextracted conclusion to this letter is a note to his daughter Mary Briggs in which the elder Briggs complains of her delay in posting her most recent letter to him; notes that a promised letter from an acquaintance had not accompanied it; hopes for the full recovery of another correspondent; expresses amusement at his daughter’s “philosophical disquisition on the question, whether curiosity be a male or female fault, exclusively one or the other—or whether it be common to both sexes—or if it be more commonly found in one sex than in the other, which has the larger share—to which I will add a fourth branch, whether it be a fault at all, if confined within reasonable limits”; informs her, so as to assuage her own curiosity, that the present from TJ “is his portrait, of small size, but an excellent likeness”; professes his love “to every branch of the family”; and asks that she write him punctually.

In his last letter to his wife and their children, dated Richmond, 7 Nov. 1820, Briggs described his visit more succinctly: “11 mo. 2—Fifth day of the week. This morning after breakfast, I left Montpelier and in the evening, about 4 o’clock, I arrived at Monticello, 28 miles—and (the way I came) 150 miles from Sharon. I found my dear, and venerable friend Thomas Jefferson in fine health. He expressed much pleasure in seeing me. I staid here on 5th day night, all sixth day, and seventh day morning till after breakfast, and when about to depart he expressed his sorrow that I could not stay longer. But my time at Monticello, was so very interesting that I cannot do justice to it, in this letter, I must reserve it for another. I am in possession of a present, from Thomas Jefferson to my Mary, but I cannot trust it to any messenger but myself; she must therefore wait till she sees me. In the mean time, she must guard herself against idolizing, even this good old man” (RC in MdHi: Briggs-Stabler Papers).

At the time of Briggs’s visit, work had not yet commenced on the West Range, the fourth and last of the rows of buildings that TJ designed for the University of Virginia. wade through slaughter to a throne and shut the gates of mercy on mankind quotes Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” lines 67–8 (Roger Lonsdale, ed., The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith [1969], 129–30). hayden’s: “Haden’s.”

In 1822 Briggs evidently visited Monticello again. He wrote his wife, Hannah Briggs, from Richmond on 9 July of that year that he had been urged “to take a trip to the mountains for a week or two. Governor Randolph strongly and affectionately presses me to make a visit, for 8 or 10 days, to Monticello—he says the mountain air would be of great service to me, and that the old gentleman (meaning Thomas Jefferson) would be delighted to see me. I have consented to yield to this advice, and to accept this invitation. I propose to leave Richmond for Monticello on tomorrow-week, the 17th and to return here about the end of the month.” Briggs added that while he was at Monticello a letter could be sent to him postage free under cover of one addressed to TJ (RC in MdHi: Briggs-Stabler Papers).

1Double quotation marks editorially altered to single, followed by editorially supplied closing double quotation mark.

Index Entries

  • Briggs, Hannah (Isaac Briggs’s wife); letter to, from I. Briggs search
  • Briggs, Isaac; Account of a Visit to Monticello search
  • Briggs, Isaac; family of search
  • Briggs, Isaac; petitions Congress search
  • Briggs, Isaac; visits Monticello search
  • Briggs, Isaac; visits Montpellier search
  • Briggs, Mary Brooke; mentioned search
  • Briggs, Mary Brooke; TJ gives portrait to search
  • Congress, U.S.; and Missouri question search
  • Congress, U.S.; petitions to search
  • Coolidge, Ellen Wayles Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); as linguist search
  • Coolidge, Ellen Wayles Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); hosts guests at Monticello search
  • Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (T. Gray) search
  • franking privilege; of TJ search
  • French language; and Randolph family search
  • Gray, Thomas; Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard search
  • Haden’s Tavern (Goochland Co.) search
  • horses; TJ rides search
  • Italian language; and Randolph family search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; franking privilege search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Descriptions of; by I. Briggs search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Family & Friends; dining search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Missouri question search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Portraits; engravings of search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); described search
  • Marks, Anne Scott Jefferson (TJ’s sister; Hastings Marks’s wife); mentioned search
  • Meikleham, Septimia Anne Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); and visitors to Monticello search
  • Meikleham, Septimia Anne Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); as linguist search
  • Missouri question; TJ on search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Dining Room (Breakfast Room) search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Entrance Hall search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Visitors to; Briggs, Isaac search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Visitors to; Trist, Hore Browse search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Visitors to; unidentified search
  • Montpellier (Montpelier; J. Madison’s Orange Co. estate); visitors to search
  • Moore, Thomas (ca.1759–1822); as engineer search
  • Pleasants, Thomas search
  • Post Office, U.S.; and post roads search
  • Randolph, Cornelia Jefferson (TJ’s granddaughter); and visitors to Monticello search
  • Randolph, Cornelia Jefferson (TJ’s granddaughter); as linguist search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); children of search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); hosts guests at Monticello search
  • Randolph, Mary Jefferson (TJ’s granddaughter); and visitors to Monticello search
  • Randolph, Mary Jefferson (TJ’s granddaughter); as linguist search
  • Randolph, Thomas Mann (1768–1828) (TJ’s son-in-law; Martha Jefferson Randolph’s husband); family of search
  • Randolph, Thomas Mann (1768–1828) (TJ’s son-in-law; Martha Jefferson Randolph’s husband); mentioned search
  • roads; post search
  • Spanish language; and Randolph family search
  • Stabler, Deborah search
  • Trist, Hore Browse (1775–1804); family of search
  • Trist, Hore Browse (1802–56); visits Monticello search
  • Trist, Virginia Jefferson Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); and visitors to Monticello search
  • Trist, Virginia Jefferson Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); as linguist search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; design of search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; progress of search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; ranges search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; TJ visits Grounds search
  • Virginia; roads in search
  • Virginia; taverns in search
  • wine; served at Monticello search