… 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 …
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. All the rest 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. Everything I have read about Martha has given the impression that she inherited her father’s genes for good health and long life. Here, her already grieving father 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.
His fears were unfounded. Martha outlived her father and presented him with 12 grandchildren, 11 who survived him.