Sunday, May 19, 2019

Thomas Jefferson as Father

During the Constitutional Convention (May 25 – September 17, 1787), Thomas Jefferson was serving as United States Minister to France. On February 28, 1787, the forty-four-year-old Thomas Jefferson left Paris on a three-month, twelve-hundred-mile journey to southern France and northern Italy. Traveling anonymously as a private citizen from Virginia, not as a diplomat, Jefferson paid his own way, and none of his Paris servants went with him. While on this journey, on May 21st he wrote to his 14-year old daughter “Patsy” (Martha Jefferson Randolph, 1772-1836) from the famous Canal of Languedoc in southern France [Jefferson also mentions his youngest daughter “Polly” (Mary Jefferson Eppes, 1778-1804), who was 8 years old at that time]. He first describes the chorus of birds along the waterway -- nightingales. He then significantly refers to the “object most interesting to me for the residue of my life” -- and what he believes is “the true secret, the grand recipe for felicity [or happiness].”

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to his daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson
May 21, 1787

I write to you, my dear Patsy, from the Canal of Languedoc, on which I am at present sailing, as I have been for a week past, cloudless skies above, limpid waters below, and find on each hand a row of nightingales in full chorus. This delightful bird had given me a rich treat before at the fountain of Vaucluse. After visiting the tomb of Laura at Avignon, I went to see this fountain, a noble one of itself, and rendered for ever famous by the songs of Petrarch who lived near it. I arrived there somewhat fatigued, and sat down by the fountain to repose myself. It gushes, of the size of a river, from a secluded valley of the mountain, the ruins of Petrarch's chateau being perched on a rock 200 feet perpendicular above. To add to the enchantment of the scene, every tree and bush was filled with nightingales in full song. I think you told me you had not yet noticed this bird. As you have trees in the garden of the convent, there must be nightingales in them, and this is the season of their song. Endeavor my dear, to make yourself acquainted with the music of this bird, that when you return to your own country you may be able to estimate it's merit in comparison with that of the mocking bird. The latter has the advantage of singing thro' a great part of the year, whereas the nightingale sings but about 5 or 6 weeks in the spring, and a still shorter term and with a more feeble voice in the fall.

I expect to be at Paris about the middle of next month. By that time we may begin to expect our dear Polly. It will be a circumstance of inexpressible comfort to me to have you both with me once more. The object most interesting to me for the residue of my life, will be to see you both developing daily those principles of virtue and goodness which will make you valuable to others and happy in yourselves, and acquiring those talents and that degree of science which will guard you at all times against ennui [boredom or restlessness], the most dangerous poison of life. A mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe for felicity. The idle are the only wretched. In a world which furnishes so many employments which are useful, and so many which are amusing, it is our own fault if we ever know what ennui is, or if we are ever driven to the miserable resource of gaming, which corrupts our dispositions, and teaches us a habit of hostility against all mankind. We are now entering the port of Toulouse, where I quit my bark; and of course must conclude my letter.

Be good and be industrious, and you will be what I shall most love in the world.

Adieu my dear child.
Yours affectionately,
Th. Jefferson

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