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  • "Take Care of Me When Dead"Jefferson Legacies
  • Annette Gordon-Reed (bio)

Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, Hemings family, slavery, racism

"Take care of me when dead," Thomas Jefferson wrote on February 17, 1826, to James Madison, his friend of over fifty years. Although he would live another five months, Jefferson likely understood that the end was near. The final two years of his life, with the exception of his old friend Lafayette's two visits to Monticello on his triumphant return to the United States in 1824, had been a parade of horribles. His physical condition, particularly in the final year before he wrote this letter to Madison, was rapidly deteriorating. He was in constant pain that required ever increasing doses of laudanum that, no doubt, affected his mood and his day-to-day functioning. His financial affairs were in ruins. The lingering effects of the Panic of 1819 and his own flawed economic decisions—including co-signing notes for a relative who defaulted on the obligations—left him reeling.1

James Morton Smith, who edited three volumes of the correspondence between Jefferson and Madison, has written that "Despite their talent for epistolary camaraderie, the correspondence between these two Virginia gentlemen, these closest of friends, is characterized by a grave [End Page 1] formality, a dignified reserve, a mannered elegance, with little display of affection except for a friendly salutary close." Morton also noted that Jefferson confided to one of his granddaughters that it is "easier to write ten letters of business than one of the intangible affections of the mind." Although this letter does not stray far from the parameters of emotion that Morton discerned, the letter's final paragraph, with Jefferson's request that Madison take care of him after he was gone, casts a different light on the substance of the paragraphs that go before it. In his gloomy circumstances, Jefferson's mind roamed over the public and the private, touching on things that meant a great deal to him that he understood would be imperiled once he was gone.2

First, there was talk of the University, interspersed with a perhaps too-optimistic prediction about the number of students who would enroll, and there was an acknowledgement of the Virginia legislature's decision not to give the effort any more money. That discussion veered into Jefferson's perennial obsessions—politics, and their relationship to the American Revolution, and the role that young people, young white men, of course, would play in the still New Republic:

In selecting our Law-Professor, we must be rigorously attentive to his political principles. you will recollect that, before the revolution, Coke Littleton was the universal elementary book of Law Students; and a sounder whig never wrote, nor of profounder learning in the orthodox doctrines of the British constitution, or in what were called English liberties. you remember also that our lawyers were then all whigs. but when his black-letter text, and uncouth, but cunning learning got out of fashion, and the honied Mansfieldism of Blackstone became the Student's Horn-book from that moment that profession (the nursery of our Congress) began to slide into toryism, and nearly all the young brood of lawyers now are of that hue. they suppose themselves indeed to be whigs, because they no longer know what whiggism or republicanism means. it is in our Seminary that that Vestal flame is to be kept alive. it is thence to spread anew over our own and the sister states.

The spirit of the Revolution and the beneficial nature of the American Experiment could be imparted through the right books and the right [End Page 2] course of study—as could wrong notions—"toryism," "honied Mansfieldism." His new "Seminary" appears as a last best hope to keep alive the flame—and the disciples, the students who would one day form half of the state legislature, would carry the torch to other states.3

And then it was on to more personal matters, Jefferson's "mortification" at the very public controversy over the lottery that he had proposed as a scheme to help save himself from financial ruin. After listing the catalogue of events that had...