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Category Archives: Grief & loss

Must my plants replace my children?

… I have had the inexpressible misfortune to lose my younger daughter, who has left me two grandchildren, & my elder one has such poor health, that I have little confidence in her life. she has 6 children. determined as I am to retire at the end of 4 years, I know not if I shall have a family to retire to. I must learn philosophy from you, & seek in a family of plants, that occupation & delight which you have so fortunately found in them. it will be the greater with me as it will give me opportunities of communicating to you new objects of enjoiment.
To Madam de Tesse′, March 10, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
What private fears do our leaders labor under?
de Tesse′ was the aunt of the French hero of the American revolution, Marquis de Lafayette. She was an accomplished woman and became friends with Jefferson during his service in France in the mid-late 1780s. The two shared a strong interest in horticulture, exchanging plants and seeds for years. Most of this letter pertained to that subject. At the end came this surprisingly personal and unusual observation.

Jefferson’s daughter Maria died the year before, leaving his firstborn Martha as the only surviving child of the six born to him and his late wife. Martha was well-educated and capable. Her husband was not an emotionally stable man, and the responsibility for managing the family and estate (and some of her father’s estate, Monticello) fell on her.  Her father was obsessing over several recent illnesses and feared for her life, too. Jefferson confided that his love of plants might be the only the only family he had left when his Presidency ended four years hence. If such loss came about, at least he could continue his correspondence with Madame de Tesse about their mutual love for plants.

His fears were unfounded. Martha would thrive, present him with 12 grandchildren, 11 who survived him, and outlive her father by 10 years.

“I just wanted to thank you again for the wonderful program …”
Daniel Boone Regional Library
A wonderfully inspiring presentation awaits your audience!
Invite Thomas Jefferson to speak. Call 573-657-2739
NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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This awful situation has only one insufficient remedy.

Your two letters, my dear friend, of Aug. 31. & Sep. 9. reached me on the 9th. & 31st. of October. I had already learned through other channels the melancholy event they announced. be assured I deeply felt for your situation: but on this subject I will not say one word; experience in the same school having taught me that time alone can mitigate what nothing can remedy.
To Elizabeth House Trist, November 23, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Compassionate leaders acknowledge loss … then shut up.
Jefferson met Trist (1751-1828) when he roomed at her mother’s boarding house during his congressional service in the early 1780s. They remained friends throughout their lives.

Trist’s two letters announced the death of her only child. The year before, the President appointed that son as tax collector for the lower Mississippi River. She moved with him and his family to New Orleans. A promising future for the healthy young man was wiped out in five days when he contracted yellow fever.

Jefferson had endured the death of five of his six children, most recently his daughter Maria just seven months earlier. He knew the torment of his good friend and acknowledged her loss. He would say no more, knowing that “time alone can mitigate [lessen]” her sorrow, which would always be with her.

“I would like to say how much we enjoyed your leadership addresses
as Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Boone.”
Past President, Washington Municipal Treasurer’s Association
Both Jefferson and Boone stand ready to share their leadership lessons with your audience.
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Death has opened a door for me. Part 2 of 4

… [I] am thankful for the occasion … of expressing my regret that circumstances should have arisen which have seemed to draw a line of separation between us. the friendship with which you honoured me has ever been valued, and fully reciprocated; & altho’ events have been passing which might be trying to some minds, I never believed yours to be of that kind, nor felt that my own was. neither my estimate of your character, nor the esteem founded in that, have ever been lessened for a single moment, although doubts whether it would be acceptable may have forbidden manifestations of it.
To Abigail Smith Adams, June 13, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders seek to restore damaged friendships.
Earlier in this letter, Jefferson expressed his appreciation for Adams’ condolences on the recent death of his daughter, Maria. He used that opening to address another subject, his regret about any damage to their friendship which resulted from his replacing her husband as President.

He expressed appreciation for the honor of her friendship. He esteemed her highly. Although political differences took their toll on some friendships, he did not believe it had affected theirs. He had no doubts about the quality of her character, and his high regard for her remained unchanged.

He waffled a little at the end when he expressed doubt whether she would have received any earlier affirmation of his esteem. That doubt “may have forbidden” his making that position known. In other words, he had said nothing out of concern that she wouldn’t accept it, rather than taking the initiative to repair any misunderstandings.

“We have used Mr. Lee on various trips over the last five years …
We intend to use Patrick Lee on future trips …”
Vice-President, RiverBarge Excursions, New Orleans, LA
Audiences invite Mr. Jefferson back time and again.
You can do the same. Call 573-657-2739
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On the death of our children … Part 1 of 4

The affectionate sentiments … in your letter of May 20. towards my dear departed daughter, have awakened in me sensibilities natural to the occasion, & recalled your kindnesses to her which I shall ever remember with gratitude & friendship. I can assure you with truth they had made an indelible impression on her mind, and that, to the last, on our meetings after long separations, whether I had heard lately of you, and how you did, were among the earliest of her enquiries. in giving you this assurance I perform a sacred duty for her…
To Abigail Smith Adams, June 13, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Suffering leaders value encouragement from fellow sufferers.
Still smarting over grievances between her husband, the previous President, and his successor, the current President, Abigail Adams delayed acknowledging the death of his daughter. Finally overwhelmed by her affections for Maria Jefferson, she wrote a sincere letter of condolence. Three of her six children preceded her in death, and she knew what her former friend was experiencing. (Maria’s passing marked the fifth of Jefferson’s six children to die.)

Jefferson thanked Abigail, reminiscing about when she and Maria became close. Maria never waned in her affection for Mrs. Adams and always asked her father for news about her. Acknowledging Adams’ kindness to his daughter allowed him to “perform a sacred duty for her…”

The President had more to express to the former First Lady. That will be the subject of future posts.

” … please accept this letter of thanks and appreciation
for your outstanding presentation … “
Staff Advisory Council Chair, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
University of Missouri
Mr. Jefferson addressed the staff in a huge garage amidst multiple farm machines.
He will speak in (almost) any venue. Invite him! Call 573-657-2739
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My daughter died.

On the 17th. instant [i.e. April] our hopes & fears here took their ultimate form.
To James Madison, April 23, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
All leaders will be laid low now and then.
When Congress adjourned, the President returned to Monticello to see his daughter Maria. She had given birth to her third child in February and was not recovering.

Jefferson wrote six letters from the time of his arrival at Monticello through the date of this letter to Secretary of State Madison, his closest personal and political confidante. Five of those missives were devoted first to affairs of state and then to the deteriorating condition of his dear daughter.

This letter was no different. He began with ongoing diplomatic difficulties with England. His last paragraph began with this sentence, telling his friend of Maria’s death six days earlier. This was the first letter he wrote after her passing. He went on to write that he would stay at Monticello longer than he planned, citing “a desire to see my family in a state of more composure before we separate.”

The baby, who bore her mother’s name, would live only two years.

“… the content [was] interesting, informative and provided great insight …”
Sr. VP, Community Bankers Association of Illinois
For a presentation engaging, educational and insightful,
invite Thomas Jefferson to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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Cash out & in, 1804, plus sad news

Jan. 1                   Gave in charity 5.D. [$5]. …
Feb. 13                 Paid for 13. glass pens 2.43 3/4. …
Mar. 28                Sent Mrs. Madison for a mantua [lady’s dress] maker 3.50. …
Apr. 3                   Culpepper C.H. [Court House] oats & etc. .58.   barber .50…
May 13                 Thomas Shields for finding pistol   .1.D…
June 7                  Gibson & Jefferson have sold my tobo [tobacco]… 1267.D.
July 20                 Pd. S.H. Smith for newspapers 10.D. …
Aug. 30                Pd. shoeing horses at Mr. Madison’s 1. …
Sept. 14                Recd. of J. Barnes 500.D. …
Oct. 31                  Tooth pick case 1.75. …
Nov. 13                 Paid at the races 1.D. …
Dec. 10                 Recd. back from Jos. Daugherty 3.50 overpaid [for] contingencies.
Memorandum Books, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Careful leaders keep a record. (They should also keep a balance.)
The link above lists all of Jefferson’s expenditures and receipts for 1804. I excerpted one entry from the 50 or so listed for each month. These are not meant to be representative but to illustrate a variety of money coming and going.

Mr. Jefferson was an avid list maker. He would have jotted these amounts day-by-day during the year and summarized them all at year’s end. I have read (but cannot verify) that while he kept a careful record of every expense, he never struck a total at the end of the month or year, never a profit or loss statement, never an accounting of his net worth. Had he done so, he might have been more aware that his general financial health was slowly deteriorating through the years. He died deeply in debt.

Not all entries concerned money. On April 17, after recording a payment of $156.67 for corn, he also noted, ” This morning between 8. & 9. aclock my dear daughter Maria Eppes died.”

“Patrick Lee … as Thomas Jefferson … is obviously a very talented person
and did a great job of putting our regulatory burden in perspective.”
President & CEO, Citizens National Bank
Mr. Jefferson and I together will make a great addition to your meeting.
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“a knock of the elbow,” but get the doctor, too.

Not knowing the time destined for your expected indisposition, I am anxious on your account. you are prepared to meet it with courage I hope. some female friend of your Mama’s (I forget who) used to say it was no more than a knock of the elbow. the material thing is to have scientific aid in readiness, that if any thing uncommon takes place, it may be redressed on the spot, and not be made serious by delay. it is a case which least of all will wait for Doctors to be sent for. therefore, with this single precaution, nothing is ever to be feared.
To Mary Jefferson Eppes, December 26, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Confident leaders can still be anxious fathers.
Mary Eppes, known as Maria, was the President’s younger daughter. She was one of two Jefferson children who survived childhood, which had claimed four others.

The “expected indisposition” referenced was the upcoming delivery of her third child. Her first son, born in 1800, lived only a few days. Her second son, Francis, was now 27 months old. Like her mother who died of childbirth complications in 1782, Maria was not a strong, healthy woman. She had suffered considerably after the birth of her first two children.

Very rarely did Jefferson refer to his long deceased wife Martha, but he did so here. No doubt wanting to lesson Maria’s anxiety, and probably his own, he relayed a comment of a friend of his wife’s that childbirth “was no more than a knock of the elbow.” Even so, he urged his daughter “to have scientific aid in readiness,” i.e. a doctor. The onset of labor would provide time to summon the doctor so any help could be rendered immediately. A knock or not, with this precaution, Maria had nothing to fear.

Time would tell that both daughter and father had plenty to fear.

“Your presentation that night, your smooth ability …
was just uncanny.”
President, Centralia Historical Society
Invite Thomas Jefferson to speak.
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If I do it for one, must I do it for all?

No one would more willingly than myself pay the just tribute due to the services of Capt Barry, by writing a letter of condolance to his widow as you suggest. but when one undertakes to administer justice it must be with an even hand, & by rule, what is done for one, must be done for every one in equal degree. to what a train of attentions would this draw a President? how difficult would it be to draw the line between that degree of merit entitled to such a testimonial of it, & that not so entitled? … however well affected to the merit of Commodore Barry, I think it prudent not to engage myself in a practice which may become embarrassing.
To Benjamin Rush, October 4, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some expressions of compassion have unintended consequences.
The President’s old friend Rush had asked him to write a “letter of condolance” to the widow of a Philadelphia Navy officer. If Jefferson expressed his sympathies in this case, he would feel obligated to do it in all cases. The varying merits of the deceased and the potential for giving offense made this a minefield for the President.

In the excised portion of this letter, Jefferson explained that when Benjamin Franklin died, the King of France and the U.S. House of Representatives went into official mourning. The U.S. Senate did not. President Washington rejected the recommendation of his Secretary of State (Thomas Jefferson) that the Executive Branch “should wear mourning.” Washington’s position was if he started that policy for Franklin, he didn’t know where he would draw the line for ones less deserving. Best not to start down that slippery slope.

President Jefferson took a page from his wise predecessor’s playbook and followed the same hands-off policy.

“Thank you for playing a key role in making
our 118th Annual Conference such a great success.”
Executive Director, League of Wisconsin Municipalities
Mr. Jefferson will play a key role in the success of your conference, too.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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You are depressed. This will help.

I am sorry to find by your letter that you are become so recluse. to be 4. or 5. months without descending your stairs … I have admired nothing in the character of your nation [France] more than the chearfulness & love of society which they preserve to great old age. I have viewed it as a pattern which I would endeavor to follow, by resisting the inclinations which age brings on, of retiring from society, & by forcing myself to mix in it’s scenes of recreation. do you so also, my friend. consider chearfulness as your physician, and seek it through the haunts of society … your excellent dispositions should not be lost to those among whom you are placed … keep your mind then on more pleasing subjects, & especially on the remembrance of your friendships among which none claims a warmer place than that I constantly bear to you.
To Madame De Corny, April 23, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sensitive leaders seek to encourage those who are in sad straights.
Jefferson’s old friend from his days as a minister to France had fallen on hard times. She wrote a sad letter and said she spent months on end alone in her room. He appealed to her that the beauty of Paris and the life-long friendliness of its people would help her, if only she would leave that room.

Jefferson noticed that advancing age brought on a tendency to withdraw from society. He fought that tendency by forcing himself to mingle with others and thus be encouraged by the beauty of life. He appealed to his friend to do the same. “Chearfullness” would be her physician if she sought it through society.

His final appeal was not to deprive others of her gifts and personality, which he had come to know and appreciate. She should focus “on more pleasing subjects,” and remember her friends, of whom he was the warmest.

“After seeing you perform several years ago, I did not expect
you could improve much on your character.
However, I have to say your program has gotten even better with age!”

Missouri Department of Conservation
Mr. Jefferson continues to get better with age!
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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The only medicine works slowly and not very effectively.

Being about to embark for Europe, (induced to change the Scenes which Surround me, from a recent melancholy Event having rendered them peculiarly distressing) …
William Bingham to Thomas Jefferson, July 25, 1801

I had before felt a sincere concern for the circumstance which has made you wish for a change of scene, having myself … learnt from experience the indelible effects of such a loss. time is the only medicine & but an imperfect one.
To William Bingham, July 29, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know recovery comes only with time.
Bingham’s “melancholy event” was the death two months earlier of his wife and the mother of their three children. He was leaving for Europe to escape surroundings that reminded him of her.

Jefferson knew what Bingham was experiencing. His wife Martha died in 1783. Time was his only medicine then, as it would be Bingham’s.

A change of scenery can help, though. It was through the action of his friends that Jefferson became a minister to France after Martha’s death. His recovery continued there, probably faster than it would have come if he remained at Monticello.

There is a delightful letter from the late Anne Willing Bingham to Minister Jefferson in Paris in 1787. She acknowledged his position that “many of the fashionable pursuits of the Parisian Ladies” made them trivial in his sight. She countered very good-naturedly that he had ignored their good qualities and proceeded to enlighten him.

“It was a pleasure to have you perform as Thomas Jefferson …
[You] set just the right historical sense of place
to match our convention theme,
The Journey Ahead.

Executive Director, Association of Partners for Public Lands
Mr. Jefferson will tailor his remarks to enhance the theme of your meeting.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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