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Journal of the Early Republic 26.4 (2006) 682-698

Reviewed by
R. B. Bernstein
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, volume 1, 4 March to 15 November 1809. Edited by J. Jefferson Looney. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. xlix, 729. Illustrations, maps. Cloth, $99.50.).

The publication of the first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series marks the launch of a remarkable, invaluable scholarly enterprise. This project will illuminate a period in Thomas Jefferson's life that, though often studied, has never been plumbed fully, for so many of the relevant primary sources only now are coming into public view. The devoted labors of J. Jefferson Looney and his colleagues easily meet the highest standards of scholarship set by the field of documentary editing; this volume balances with skill and grace the demands of explanatory annotation and accurate transcription with the reader's desire for a clear, accessible, and useful presentation of otherwise inaccessible primary sources. In this review essay, I propose to build on the first installment of the Retirement Series to examine an aspect of Thomas Jefferson's retirement that has not just biographical but historical and constitutional consequence.1 [End Page 682]

Previous scholars have not grasped fully the significance of Thomas Jefferson's retirement from the presidency, perhaps because it was not his first retirement from public life. Twice before (first in late 1781 at the close of his second term as Virginia's governor and then at the end of 1793 when he stepped down as the nation's first Secretary of State), Jefferson had abandoned politics, assuring himself and everyone else that he was determined to return to his farms, his family, and the charms of "natural philosophy." In his magisterial biography of Jefferson, Merrill D. Peterson aptly characterized these first two retirements as episodes of "withdrawal and return," for, Jefferson's protests to the contrary notwithstanding, he revived his career as politician, diplomat, and statesman after insisting otherwise.2

Jefferson's third retirement differed from its predecessors, however—and not just because in 1809 he truly brought his active political career to a close. In two ways, the office that he was giving up made his retirement something unique and special, both in his eyes and in the eyes of the American people. As Jefferson rejoined the ranks of his fellow citizens after two terms as their chief magistrate, he was adopting and extending the example set by the first president, George Washington, in 1797. So, too, Jefferson's friends, allies, and eventual successors as president, James Madison and James Monroe, followed his example in 1817 and 1825, respectively, cementing the "two-term tradition" into American constitutionalism as an informal term-limit on the presidency.

That much we already knew. And yet the pages of this first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series teach us something new. Jefferson's retirement from the presidency took him, the American people, and the American constitutional system into new intellectual territory. To understand that unexplored world, we have to juxtapose it with a concept that today we take for granted. Having endured not just one or two but forty-three presidents of the United States, and thirty-four ex-presidents,3 we are used to the idea of an ex-president. Ex-presidents [End Page 683] are familiar figures in the public landscape, with customary, long-accepted roles and uses. They write memoirs and give lectures; they play in celebrity golf tournaments; they accept special assignments from sitting presidents; they act as observers of other nations' elections and coordinators of charitable enterprises; they are even honored—sometimes—as incarnations of amassed national political experience and wisdom. In short, we now know the answer to what in our eyes have become simple questions: What do you do with an ex-president? What role should an ex-president perform?

At the beginning of government under the Constitution, those questions were not simple. Indeed...


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