Monday, September 14, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

To Thomas Jefferson, among the greatest blessings of happiness at Monticello were the “comforts of a beloved family.” Foremost among them, of course, was the presence of Martha, who was her father’s housekeeper, his hostess, and his intimate companion. Next in importance were the grandchildren. An elderly scholar in a house with eleven children, give or take a few, of all ages, may not sound like an infallible receipt for family comfort, but this scholar had his own quarters and enjoyed inviolable privacy. Moreover, Jefferson never became “elderly.” Keen intellectual curiosity, invincible optimism, and directness remained with him to the end of his life, and his rapport with the children around him was extraordinary. In the complicated arena of politics he had sometimes relied on his friend Madison to steer a course between the ideal and the politically possible. He could be patient, but he had no love of political maneuver. “Political party hatreds,” he had told Martha, “destroy the happiness of every being here.” (1) This was from Philadelphia as secretary of state. Always the company of children had come as a blessed relief.

The children, too, looked forward to every moment with Grandpapa; they had perfect confidence and could absorb all that he had to offer without the slightest sense of constraint… His granddaughter, Ellen [Coolidge] wrote this in a letter to Jefferson’s biographer, Henry Randall:

I was found of riding, and was rising above that childish simplicity when, provided I was mounted on a horse, I cared nothing for my equipments. … I was beginning to be fastidious, but I had never told my wishes. I was standing one brig day in the portico, when a man rode up with a beautiful lady’s saddle and bridle before him. My heart bounded. These coveted articles were deposited at my feet. My grandfather came out of his room to tell me they were mine. . . . My Bible came from him, my Shakespeare, my first writing table, my first Leghorn hat, my first silk dress. . . . Our Grandfather seemed to read our hearts, to see our invisible wishes… (2)

He also played games with the children. Virginia recalled that “cross questions” and “I love my love with an A” were two that she learned from him; they, in turn, would teach him some of theirs. “He would gather fruit for us, seek out the ripest figs, or bring down the cherries from on high above our heads with a long stick, at the end of which there was a hook and a little net bag. . . .” (3) Never had the famous Jefferson ingenuity been put to better use.

When they were all together Jefferson would take out his violin, and Jeff remembered “my grandfather playing . . . and his grandchildren dancing around him.”

By: J. David Gowdy
Quoted from: Elizabeth Langhorne, Monticello: A Family Story (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1987), chapter 23.
1. Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, Philadelphia, May 17, 1798 (Bear, Family Letters, 162).
2. Ellen Wayles Coolidge to Henry S. Randall
3. Randall, Henry S., The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Derby & Jackson, New York, 1858), 3: 350.