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Category Archives: Aging

Enough of politics. Now, about me.

So much as to my country. now a word as to myself. I am retired to Monticello, where, in the bosom of my family, & surrounded by my books, I enjoy a repose to which I have been long a stranger. my mornings are devoted to correspondence. from breakfast to dinner I am in my shops, my garden, or on horseback among my farms; from dinner to dark I give to society & recreation with my neighbors & friends; & from candlelight to early bed-time I read. my health is perfect … as great as usually falls to the lot of near 67 years of age.
To Tadeusz Kosciuszko, February 26, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Retired leaders can enjoy the benefits that come from no longer leading.
In a long letter, Jefferson wrote frankly and at length on the nation’s strength and preparation for a likely war with England. Business taken care of, he wanted his old friend to know how he was personally.

He enjoyed great rest to be amid his family and books. He rose at dawn each day and wrote from then until breakfast at 9:30. After breakfast and until dinner at 3:30 (only 2 meals a day), he was outside, supervising his multiple agricultural endeavors. After dinner and until dark, he enjoyed the company of family, friends and neighbors. Once daylight was gone, he read by candlelight until an early bedtime.

He claimed his health was as good as any 67 year old man could enjoy and credited his retired and relaxed lifestyle for that result.

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Who is more useful in old age and why, doctor, farmer or politician?

I am become sensible of a great advantage your profession has over most others, that, to the close of your life, you can be always doing good to mankind: whereas a retired politician is like a broken down courser [a swift horse], unfit for the turf, and good for little else. I am endeavoring to recover the little I once knew of farming, gardening Etc. and would gladly now exchange any branch of science I possess for the knolege of a common farmer. too old to learn, I must be contented with the occupation & amusement of the art.
To Benjamin Rush, September 22, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some old leaders are far more valuable than others.
Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) was a Philadelphia physician, life-long friend of Jefferson’s and co-signer of the Declaration of Independence. His medical views were controversial. He favored bloodletting and purging. He sent 600 of “Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills” with Lewis and Clark. Also known as “Rush’s Thunderclappers,” this mercury and chlorine laxative of his own creation had an explosive effect on the human bowel.

But Rush also opposed capital punishment, favored education for women, actively promoted Christianity and pioneered more humane treatment of the mentally ill. He is regarded as the father of American psychiatry.

Here, Jefferson praises the value of the doctor, who can “be always good to mankind,” even to the end of his life. He likened himself, a retired politician, to a former race horse, once fast but now broken down and worthless. In between was the farmer, the identity he always preferred, who also could be useful for a lifetime. Public service drew him away from the land, and he regretted it. He would trade any of his vast scientific understanding “for the knoledge of a common farmer.” He thought himself too old to learning farming once again and amused himself by puttering around his lands.

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Why are Virginians giants and New Englanders but Pygmies?

Your letter of March 25th has been a cordial to me, and the more consoling as it was brought by your Grandsons Mr Randolph and Mr Coolidge … how happens it that you Virginians are all sons of Anak, we New Englanders, are but Pygmies by the side of Mr Randolph; I was very much gratified with Mr Randolph, and his conversation …
Public affairs go on pretty much as usual, perpetual chicanery and rather more personal abuse than there used to be …
My love to all your family—and best wishes for your health—
FROM John Adams TO Thomas Jefferson, April 17, 1826

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The personal abuse of leaders is on the rise!
In honor of President’s Day (Monday, February 20), this week’s posts are devoted to the last letters exchanged between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Tuesday was Jefferson’s letter, today, Adams’ reply.

Jefferson’s letter to Adams requesting an audience for his grandson, T.J. (Jeff) Randolph, must have been presented personally by Jeff to the elder statesman, who was delighted with their conversation. Jeff’s younger sister, Ellen, had married Joseph Coolidge of Boston the year before and now lived there. The “Mr. Coolidge”Adams referred to must have been Jeff’s brother-in-law, Ellen’s husband.

Jeff Randolph was probably tall like his grandfather, who was 6′ 2 1/2″. Adams was only 5′ 7”. He wanted to know why New Englanders were short while Virginia produced “sons of Anak,” a tall race described in the Old Testament books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In a deleted portion of this letter, Adams complained about two current politicians, at least one of whom was contesting the legality of his son John Quincy Adams’ election as President. That probably explains his reference to “more personal abuse.”

Health was a concern for both men, who had far exceeded normal life expectancy. Jefferson was almost 83, and Adams was 90. He died 2 1/2 months later on the same day as Jefferson, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

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Is 77 too old for the job?

… it is objected indeed in the remonstrance, that he is 77. years of age: but, at a much more advanced age, our Franklin was the ornament of human nature. He may not be able to perform in person all the details of his office: but if he gives us the benefit of his understanding, his integrity, his watchfulness, and takes care that all the details are well performed by himself, or his necessary assistants…
To the New Haven Merchants, July 12, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Inclusive leaders don’t rule anyone out.
The merchants in New Haven, CT, wrote a remonstrance, a letter of complaint, to the new President about his appointment of Samuel Bishop to be federal tax collector for their city. A previous office-holder died in early February. John Adams, defeated for reelection, appointed Federalist Congressman Elizur Goodrich to the post, two weeks before Jefferson was inaugurated. The new President routinely made it clear that he considered such lame-duck appointments by Adams as nullities. Jefferson removed Gingrich and appointed the Republican Blair in his place.

The merchants raised a number of objections, in particular, Blair’s age (77) and ability to do the job. Jefferson countered with the example of Benjamin Franklin, a major contributor to the American cause until his death at age 84. Second, the qualities that Blair had demonstrated in his long life (wisdom, character and caution) would be assets in this position. Finally, even if Blair could not perform all of the duties personally, they could be done by others who worked under his supervision.

Jefferson could have ignored the complaint, written from strictly partisan motivation. Instead, he wrote a long, reasoned and respectful reply.

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What advice does a dying man offer?

This letter will, to you, be as one from the dead, the writer will be in the grave before you can weigh it’s counsels. your affectionate and excellent father has requested that I would address to you something which might possibly have a favorable influence on the course of life you have to run, and I too, as a namesake, feel an interest in that course. few words will be necessary with good dispositions on your part.
adore God. reverence and cherish your parents. love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself. be just. be true. murmur not at the ways of Providence. so shall the life into which you have entered be the Portal to one of eternal and ineffable bliss.
and if to the dead it is permitted to care for the things of this world, every action of your life will be under my regard. farewell.
Th: Jefferson to Th: Jefferson Smith, February 21, 1825

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Dying leaders can still inspire.
A better known portion of this letter is his “Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life,” Part One and Part Two. These summed his 81 years of experience and wisdom into 10 principles for everyday living.
Here, Jefferson encouraged his namesake to:
1. Love God
2. Love your parents
3. Love your neighbor as yourself
4. Love your country more than youself.
5. Be honest and truthful.
6. Don’t complain about God’s ways.
A life lived by these principles would usher young Smith into another life of perfect and eternal happiness.

It would be 16 ½ months before Jefferson died, but his health was failing. He knew his end couldn’t be far. If he could see this world from the next, he promised to watch over his namesake.

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The living don’t deserve it. The dead can’t deny it.

… I agree with you entirely, in condemning the mania of giving names to objects of any kind after persons still living. Death alone can seal the title of any man to this honor, by putting it out of his power to forfeit it ..
To Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 2014

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Living leaders don’t deserve permanent honor.
A month before, Rush wrote to Jefferson about a means of honoring distinguished citizens. He pointed out the Constitution prohibited bestowing honorary titles and many citizens opposed pensions for public service. What was left? “It consists in calling States, Counties, towns, Forts, and Ships of War by the names of men who have deserved well of their Country.” Not only was the method “cheap,” it could “stimulate to greater exploits of patriotism.”
There was a limitation to Rush’s suggestion. No living person should be memorialized in this manner. Jefferson concurred. Only death positioned one for such honor. Besides, a dead person couldn’t refuse it.

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Are you just going to SIT there?

The loss of the power of taking exercise would be a sore affliction to me. It has been the delight of my retirement to be in constant bodily activity … never damped as the pleasures of reading are, by the question of cui bono? for what object? I hope your health of body continues firm. Your works show that of your mind. The habits of exercise which your calling has given to both, will tend long to preserve them. The sedentary character of my public occupations sapped a constitution naturally sound and vigorous, and draws it to an earlier close. But it will still last quite as long as I wish.
To Dr. Benjamin Rush, August 17, 1811

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders exercise the body as well as the mind.
Jefferson had always been physically active. When at Monticello, he would often spend an hour or two on horseback. He wrote to his teenage nephew in 1785, “Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walking very far.”

Here, the 68 year old Jefferson wrote to his 65 year old friend that he delighted in exercise in his retirement. The benefit of doing so was also self-evident, for the preservation of health. He was a strong proponent of exercising both the mind AND the body. He lamented that his years of government service had precluded exercise, thus damaging his body and shortening his life.

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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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Please wait until I am dead.

I do not think a biography should be written, or at least published, during the life of the person the subject of it. It is impossible that the writer’s delicacy should permit him to speak as freely of the faults or errors of a living, as of a dead character. There is still a better reason. The letters of a person, especially of one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life; and few can let them go out of their hands while they live. A life written after these hoards become opened to investigation must supercede any previous one.
To Robert Walsh, April 5, 1823
From Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, P. 643-4

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders hope for a thorough biography (after they’re dead).
Walsh was a writer and historian. He had written Jefferson, asking him to supply the material necessary to write a biography of the 80 year old statesman. Jefferson declined for three reasons:
– Earlier in this letter, he said he wasn’t up to the task. His health was too poor.
– The biographer of a living person couldn’t be objective.
– He couldn’t turn over his correspondence, essential for any biographer.

There isn’t much in Jefferson’s writing that suggests humor, but there could be a wry bit in this letter. As further justification for biographies of the dead only, he wrote, “it may be observed too that before you will have got through with the dead, the living will be dying off and furnishing fresh matter.”

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Can you do both, hang on and be ready to let go?

There is a ripeness of time for death, regarding others as well as ourselves, when it is reasonable we should drop off, and make room for another growth. When we have lived our generation out, we should not wish to encroach on another. I enjoy good health. I am happy in what is around me; yet I assure you, I am ripe for leaving all, this year, this day, this hour.
To John Adams, August 1, 1816

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders are both willing to serve and ready to step aside.
The 73 year-old Jefferson and the 79 year-old Adams corresponded several times on aging and end-of-life considerations. Jefferson saw his physical abilities waning and worried that the mental ones would follow. Most of all, he feared a mind that was gone but in a body that lingered, no longer of benefit to those around him but a burden.

On the whole, Jefferson believed life was far more good than evil, more pleasure than pain, something to be enjoyed but not grasped too tightly. Still, he recognized his generation was coming to an end. A younger generation could flourish quite well without him.


This excerpt affirms his good health and happiness, but he was ready to give it up any time, even at that very moment.


Both men would live another 10 years, dying on the same day, July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after voting to adopt America’s Declaration of Independence. They would experience increasing physical difficulties but would remain mentally alert until the end.

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