Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1 June 1822

To John Adams

Monticello June 1. 22.

It is very long, my dear Sir, since I have written to you. my dislocated wrist is now become so stiff that I write slowly and with pain, and therefore write as little as I can. yet it is due to mutual friendship to ask once in a while how we do? the papers tell us that Genl Starke is off at the age of 93. Charles Thomson still lives at about the same age, chearful, slender as a grasshopper, and so much without memory that he scarcely recognises the members of his household. an intimate friend of his called on him not long since: it was difficult to make him recollect who he was, and, sitting one hour, he told him the same story 4. times, over. is this life?   —with lab’ring step

to tread our former footsteps? pace the round

Eternal?—to beat and beat

The beaten track? to see what we have seen

To taste the tasted? o’er our palates to decant

Another vintage?—   it is at most but the life of a cabbage, surely not worth a wish. when all our faculties have left, or are leaving us, one by one, sight, hearing, memory, every avenue of pleasing sensation is closed, and athumy, debility and mal-aise left in their places, when the friends of our youth are all gone, and a generation is risen around us whom we know not, is death an evil?

When one by one our ties are torn, When trembling limbs refuse their weight
And friend from friend is snatched forlorn And films slow gathering dim the sight,
When man is left alone to mourn, When clouds obscure the mental light
Oh! then how sweet it is to die! Tis nature’s kindest boon to die!

I really think so. I have ever dreaded a doting old1 age; and my health has been generally so good, and is now so good, that I dread it still. the rapid decline of my strength during the last winter has made me hope sometimes that I see land. during summer I enjoy it’s temperature, but I shudder at the approach of winter, and wish I could sleep through it with the Dormouse, and only wake with him in spring, if ever. they say that Starke could walk about his room. I am told you walk well and firmly. I can only reach my garden, and that with sensible fatigue. I ride however daily. but reading is my delight. I should wish never to put pen to paper; and the more because of the treacherous practice some people have of publishing one’s letters without leave. Ld Mansfield declared it a breach of trust, and punishable at law. I think it should be a penitentiary felony. yet you will have seen that they have drawn me out into the arena of the newspapers. altho’ I know it is too late for me to buckle on the armour of youth, yet my indignation would not permit me passively to recieve the kick of an Ass.

To turn to the news of the day, it seems that the Cannibals of Europe are going to eating2 one another again. a war between Russia and Turkey is like the battle of the kite and snake. whichever destroys the other, leaves a destroyer the less for the world. this pugnacious humor of mankind seems to be the law of his nature, one of the obstacles to too great multiplication provided in the mechanism of the Universe. the cocks of the henyard kill one another up. boars, bulls, rams do the same. and the horse, in his wild state, kills all the young males, until worn down with age and war, some vigorous youth kills him, and takes to himself the Haram of females. I hope we shall prove how much happier for man the Quaker policy is, and that the life of the feeder is better than that of the fighter: and it is some consolation that the desolation by these Maniacs of one part of the earth is the means of improving it in other parts. let the latter be our office, and let us milk the cow, while the Russian holds her by the horns, and the Turk by the tail. God bless you, and give you health, strength, good spirits, and as much of life as you think worth having

Th: Jefferson

RC (MHi: Adams Papers); addressed: “John Adams Ex-president of the US. Montezillo Mass.”; franked; postmarked Charlottesville, 4 June; endorsed by Louisa C. Smith. PoC (DLC); edge trimmed. Printed in Boston Christian Register, 6 Dec. 1822, and elsewhere.

The intimate friend of Charles Thomson was Joseph Parker Norris. with lab’ring step … another vintage is extracted from the third part of Edward Young’s poem, The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality (London, 1742; see also Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4548), lines 335–7, 338–9, 342, and 344–6. Athymy (athumy): “despondency, dejection” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ). when one by one our ties are torn … tis nature’s kindest boon to die! are the third and fifth stanzas of Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem, “A Thought on Death, November, 1814” (William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft, eds., The Poems of Anna Letitia Barbauld [1994], 168, 320–1).

William Murray, 1st Earl of mansfield and lord chief justice of England, ruled in Millar v. Taylor (1769) that authors retained full control over the disposition of their unpublished writings, whether the physical manuscripts remained in their hands or not. If a work were published without their consent, therefore, they could initiate “an Action upon the Case, for Damages, or a Bill of Equity for a Specific Relief” (James Burrow, Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Court of King’s Bench [Dublin, 1784–85, and other eds.; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 2085], 4:2396).

TJ had recently been drawn into the arena of the newspapers when the pseudonymous “Native of Virginia” attacked him. In Virgil’s Aeneid, 2.518, the elderly King Priam donned the armour of youth as Troy fell (Fairclough, Virgil description begins Virgil, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library, 1916–18, rev. by G. P. Goold, 1999–2000, repr. 2002–06, 2 vols. description ends , 1:350–1). In the battle of the kite and snake, one of the fables attributed to Aesop, a bird that attacks a dozing snake is killed by it.

1Word interlined.

2Reworked from “eat.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; health of search
  • Adams, John; letters to search
  • Aesop; referenced by TJ search
  • aging; TJ on his own search
  • A Thought on Death, November, 1814 (A. L. Barbauld) search
  • Barbauld, Anna Letitia; A Thought on Death, November, 1814 search
  • health; memory loss search
  • horses; TJ rides search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; fatiguing or painful to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; publication of papers search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; aging search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; debility search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; wrist injury search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; A. L. Barbauld search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; E. Young search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Virgil search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; conflict as a natural law search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; death and dying search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; publication of his letters search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; reading search
  • Mansfield, William Murray, 1st Earl of; and authors’ consent for publication search
  • Norris, Joseph Parker; visits C. Thomson search
  • Ottoman Empire; and Russia search
  • Quakers; TJ on search
  • religion; Quakers search
  • Russia; and Ottoman Empire search
  • Stark, John; death of search
  • Stark, John; health of search
  • The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality (E. Young) search
  • Thomson, Charles; health of search
  • Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro); TJ quotes search
  • Young, Edward; The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality search
  • “A Native of Virginia” (pseudonym); TJ’s replies to search