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Category Archives: Grief & loss

Who exactly is in charge here? Part 11 C (OR Hooray for optimistic leaders!)

 [This is the 13th post in a series abstracted from Jefferson’s famous “My Head and My Heart” dialogue written to Maria Cosway. This is part of Heart’s final reply.]

Heart: In a life where we are perpetually exposed to want & accident, yours [Head’s] is a wonderful proposition, to insulate ourselves, to retire from all aid, & to wrap ourselves in the mantle of self-sufficiency! For assuredly nobody will care for him who care for nobody. But friendship is precious, not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life; & thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine…
To Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Hooray for optimistic leaders!
Jefferson acknowledged Head’s “wonderful proposition,” striving for self-sufficiency as a means of protection from life’s difficulties. One would have to perfect that do-it-yourself mentality, because there would be no help in time of need for one who never helped others.

But friendship was more important than just giving or receiving consolation in times of trouble. Friendship was especially enjoyable “in the sunshine of life,” when there was no trouble. He affirmed, despite our difficulties and sorrows, that “the greater part of life is sunshine.”

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Who exactly is in charge here? Part 11 B (OR I need others to share in my sufferings.)

[This is the 12th post in a series abstracted from Jefferson’s famous “My Head and My Heart” dialogue written to Maria Cosway. This is part of Heart’s final reply.]

Heart: But let us now try the virtues of your mathematical balance, & as you have put into one scale the burthen of friendship, let me put its comforts into the other. When languishing then under disease, how grateful is the solace of our friends! How are we penetrated with their assiduities [diligence] & attentions! How much are we supported by their encouragements & kind offices! When heaven has taken from us some object of our love, how sweet is it to have a bosom whereon to recline our heads, & into which we may pour the torrent of our tears! Grief, with such a comfort, is almost a luxury!
To Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders need support when they suffer.
Jefferson’s Head advised his Heart to weigh all things, even potential friendships, in a balance of positives vs. negatives and choose only the weightier. Heart found the potential comforts in friendship always of more value than feared hurts or loss.
In the last post, Heart extolled the virtue of the comfort he could give to others in their suffering. Here he reversed it, appreciating the comfort he received from others when he suffered.
Afflictions of disease or great personal loss were easier to bear when others came alongside to console and encourage. Suffering almost (almost!) became a luxury when one had dear friends to share in the burden.

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Who exactly is in charge here? Part 11A (OR It is my pleasure to share another’s pain.)

 [This is the 11th post in a series abstracted from Jefferson’s famous “My Head and My Heart” dialogue written to Maria Cosway. This is part of Heart’s final reply.]

Heart. And what more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten! To watch over the bed of sickness, & to beguile its tedious & its painful moments! To share our bread with one to whom misfortune has left none! This world abounds indeed with misery: to lighten its burthen we must divide it with one another.
To Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Compassionate leaders suffer with the suffering.
Jefferson’s emotion-less Head’s final reply asked (paraphrased), “Don’t you have enough suffering of your own without taking on others’?” His Heart replied just the opposite (also paraphrased), “There could not be a greater delight than to suffer with a dear friend.” If he had plenty, he must share with the one who had none.

Heart did agree with Head that there was plenty of misery in the world. Sharing the sadness made it bearable, less overwhelming. It was not optional: “We must divide it [suffering] with one another.”

Mr. Jefferson promises to challenge your audience,
but he will not make them suffer!

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Can tragedy resurrect a leader?

Mrs Jefferson has added another daughter to our family. She has been ever since & still continues very dangerously ill. It will give me great pleasure to see you here whenever you can favor us with your company. You will find me still busy but in lighter occupations. But in these & all others you will find me to retain a due sense of your friendship & to be with sincere esteem, Dr Sir
Your mo ob & mo hble servt.
To James Monroe, May 20, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson was born 12 days before this letter. That was Martha Jefferson’s 7th pregnancy in 15 years. She was widowed with a young son when she and Jefferson began courting. That child died the summer before she-remarried. She bore six children to Thomas during their 10 year marriage.

Little is known about Martha, but she was an intelligent and resourceful woman. She was not physically strong and recovery from her pregnancies was difficult. She did not recover from Lucy’s birth and died four months later.

Jefferson was inconsolable for weeks in his grief. Toward the end of the year, his friends helped him escape Monticello by renewing his appointment to the team negotiating peace with England. That position wasn’t realized, but Jefferson was elected to Congress the next year and sent as minister to France in 1784.

Martha’s death set in motion the events that would draw Jefferson back onto the public stage for the next nine years. Would he have remained retired and content at Monticello had Martha not died? Anybody’s guess.

Lucy Elizabeth would die two and a half years later.

“Thank you so much for the great job you did as Thomas Jefferson.”
Missouri Mappers Association
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I would SO like to see you!

Those [friends] of our earliest years stand nearest in our affections … our college friends (… are the dearest) … Will not Mrs. Page, yourself, and family, think it prudent to seek a healthier region for the months of August and September? And may we not flatter ourselves that you will cast your eye on Monticello? We have not many summers to live. While fortune places us then within striking distance, let us avail ourselves of it, to meet and talk over the tales of other times.

To Governor Page, June 25, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders need the company old friends.
Jefferson and Page had known one another since college days at William & Mary in the early 1760s. A number of reminisces, more sad than glad, characterize this letter. The saddest was grieving over the death of his daughter, Maria. Yet, it ends with an invitation.

August and September were the worst months for the yellow fever. Those who were able fled the coastal regions. (It would be long after Jefferson’s time before the mosquito, which flourished in the low wetlands of late summer, was discovered as the agent of yellow fever.) President Jefferson himself left Washington City (now D. C.) for home at that time of the year. While he would be a Monticello, and the Pages needed to escape Richmond, would they not come see him while they still had the chance? Both men were 61, and life expectancy for a male who survived childhood was about 60. Though Jefferson would live 22 more years, Page lasted only until 1808.

Jefferson wanted to swap stories about old times, perhaps back to college day pranks, while they still had time, with someone he’d known and loved for almost half a century.

I cannot determine if Page accepted the invitation.

 “… we wanted an “upbeat” kind of talk. That’s exactly what you gave us.”
Clinical Laboratory Management Association, Syracuse, NY
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What would I have done without you?

… But why afflict you with these details [about my dire financial difficulties]? Indeed, I cannot tell, unless pains are lessened by communication with a friend. The friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me through that long period … If ever the earth has beheld a system of administration conducted with a single and steadfast eye to the general interest and happiness of those committed to it … it is that to which our lives have been devoted. To myself you have been a pillar of support through life. Take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.
To James Madison, February 17, 1826

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Old leaders appreciate faithful friends.
The first portion of this letter dealt with the University of Virginia, the Legislature’s refusal to provide more funds for it and the qualifications needed in the school’s professor of law. From there, Jefferson turned to a summary of his overwhelming debt, reasons for it, and his hopes that a lottery for some of his Monticello lands might eliminate that debt and spare his home. (It did not.) Otherwise, he could be homeless, maybe lacking even ground for burial. It was a sad account.

He found some solace in sharing his difficulties with James Madison, his closest political ally and perhaps his best friend. They had labored together for a half century. He thanked Madison for his faithful friendship and support of the government they helped create, with a single-minded devotion “to the general interest and happiness” of all.


Jefferson knew the end was near and told his old friend so. Death came three and a half months later.

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It was a delight working with you from the moment of our first phone conversation … “
Conference Coordinator, Iowa League of Cities

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What’s a polite way to say, “Hogwash!”?

… I may think public service & private misery inseparably linked together. I have not the vanity to count myself among those whom the state would think worth oppressing with perpetual service … I am persuaded that having hitherto dedicated to them the whole of the active & useful part of my life I shall be permitted to pass the rest in mental quiet … I dare say you did not expect by the few words you dropped on the right of renunciation to expose yourself to the fatigue of so long a letter …
To James Monroe, May 20, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Thin-skinned leaders have a tougher time.
Monroe had written his older friend, challenging his (Jefferson’s) intention to decline any further public service, and suggesting the public had a right to make that claim on his life. Jefferson would never write, “Hogwash!,” but that is the essence of his reply.

In mid-1781, Jefferson had completed two difficult years as war-time Governor of Virginia. His tenure was followed by accusations of cowardice and an investigation into his official actions as British soldiers overtook his state. Though vindicated of all charges, Jefferson was deeply wounded.

At this point, he thought “thirteen years engaged in public service” was enough, and he had earned the right to renounce any more. He cited business and family matters that needed his full attention. He apologized to his friend for such a lengthy reply, “the fatigue of so long a letter,” but he felt a strong compulsion to defend his decision.

Five months later would find him once again accepting a public appointment, but for reasons he couldn’t have imagined. A clue is given near the end of this letter, “Mrs Jefferson has added another daughter to our family. She has been ever since & still continues very dangerously ill.” This was her 7th childbirth, and she would die in September. Two months later, he again accepted a public role, this time to escape his private torment.

Maybe all public servants on occasion would agree with Jefferson’s opening line, “I may think public service & private misery inseparably linked together.”

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County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania

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Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! (Sorry, Dorothy.)

This very day, to others the day of greatest mirth and jollity, sees me overwhelmed with more and greater misfortunes than have befallen a descendant of Adam for these thousand years past, I am sure; and perhaps, after excepting Job, since the creation of the world … I thank my God, I have the advantage of brother Job in this, that Satan has not as yet put forth his hand to load me with bodily afflictions …
To John Page, December 25, 1762

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders-in-making can be reduced to whining!
On Christmas Day, Jefferson poured out his heart to a close friend. What made his circumstances so miserable?
– He claimed to be surrounded by enemies.
– During the night, rats ate up his pocketbook, carried off his silk garters along with some new dance music.
– A hole in the roof directly over his watch let rain in, which caused it to stop working. (He accused the Devil himself of boring that hole in the exact place to accomplish this!)
– The rain also soaked a small paper rendering (silhouette?) of his girlfriend inside the watch case.
– When he attempted to remove the paper so he could dry it out, it shredded in his fingers.
– He was weary of studying boring legal textbooks.

When the sob-story was done, he asked for a letter from his friend in Williamsburg with all the news. He sent his greetings to the ladies.

If you read the whole text, available on the link above, you might think Jefferson had entered this as a creative writing assignment!

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Executive Director, Missouri Safety Council

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On the death of a child

I lament to learn that a like misfortune has enabled you to estimate the afflictions of a father on the loss of a beloved child. However terrible the possibility of such another accident, it is still a blessing for you of inestimable value that you would not even then descend childless to the grave. Three sons, and hopeful ones too, are a rich treasure. I rejoice when I hear of young men of virtue and talents, worthy to receive, and likely to preserve the splendid inheritance of self-government, which we have acquired and shaped for them.
To John Tyler, June 18, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
This leader desperately needed the good health of his only remaining child.
This excerpt to the father of a future President is also from the letter featured in the June 5 post, on freedom of the press. This one is on a sadder subject, for both men.
Tyler’s eldest child of eight, daughter Anne, had died the year before at age 25. Just two months before writing this letter, Jefferson’s younger daughter died, 26 year-old Maria. (Four other Jefferson children died very young, leaving only Martha and Maria surviving to adulthood.) The first sentence of this post staked out common ground shared by two grieving fathers.

The second sentence contemplates something worse, the death of another child. Tragic should that happen, John Tyler would still have six living children. Jefferson called that a blessing “of inestimable value.” Should that fate strike him and take his firstborn Martha, he would “descend childless to the grave.” It was something Jefferson feared.


That second sad fate struck neither man. Tyler’s seven remaining children and Jefferson’s Martha all outlived their fathers.


Interesting to note, too, is the “rich treasure” Tyler had in three sons. Jefferson’s only son died within days of birth. His name is unknown.

“…Jefferson was inspiring and was very appropriate for our audience of leaders …
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Out of a death came a new future

It [your letter which arrived October 17] found me a little emerging from the stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as she was whose loss occasioned it. Your letter recalled to my memory that there were persons still living of much value to me …
Before that event my scheme of life had been determined. I had folded myself in the arms of retirement, and rested all prospects of future happiness on domestic & literary objects. A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up. In this state of mind an appointment from Congress found me, requiring me to cross the Atlantic…

To The Marquis de Chastellux, November 26, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Great tragedy can destroy leaders … or make them greater.

This French scholar and officer visited Monticello in the spring of 1782 shortly before Martha Jefferson gave birth to Lucy Elizabeth on May 8. This was Martha’s seventh childbirth, and she never recovered from the toll. She died on September 6, shortly before her 34th birthday. Her husband suffered an emotional breakdown and was disconsolate for weeks. Chastellux’s letter helped pull Jefferson out of his stupor.

Although his plans to remain retired among his family, farms and books “had been determined,” her death wiped his future clear. His friends in Congress, hoping to re-energize him, appointed his as a commissioner to help negotiate the final peace settlement with England. For several reasons, it would be almost two years before Jefferson sailed for Europe on a different diplomatic mission.


If Martha had lived, Jefferson might have remained content for the rest of his life in a relatively private world atop his little mountain.

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