Tag Archives: Correspondence

Even if I have it, I will not give it to you.

Your letter of Dec. 10. is safely recieved … I have not examined my papers to see if I have the letter … which you ask for. I have no recollection whether I recieved such a letter. but it is not on that ground I decline looking for & communicating it. besides the general principles of law & reason which render correspondences even between private individuals sacredly secret, in my late official station [as President] they are peculiarly so … I have therefore regularly declined all communications of letters sent to me in order that they might be used against the writer: and I trust so much in your candor & good sense as to believe you will, on reflection, think I am right in so doing …
To Elias Glover, January 13, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders understand the importance of maintaining confidentiality.
Glover had requested a copy of a letter written by another to Jefferson, thinking that letter might provide vindication for a charge made against him. If Jefferson didn’t have that letter, Glover asked where else he might find a copy. The former President declined both requests. While he didn’t recall the letter, he didn’t even bother to look. (Jefferson had a very good filing and retrieval system!)

By both nature and common sense, correspondence between individuals was private. Eight years as President had reinforced that belief, especially when the one requesting the correspondence might use it against the original writer.

“Your well-researched portrayals of President Thomas Jefferson
and Captain William Clark were highlights of the five-day event.”
Director, Prairieland Chatauqua, Illinois
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I will have you arrested.

   Miss Eleanor W. Randolph to Th: Jefferson        D.[ebit]
1805. May 21. To a letter which ought to be written once in every 3. weeks, while I am here, to wit from Jan. 1. 1805. to this day, 15. weeks 5.
Cr.[edit]
Feb. 23. By one single letter of this day’s date               1
Letters Balance due from E. W. Randolph to Th:J.                                                                        4
                                                                                     5

So stands the account for this year, my dear Ellen, between you and me. unless it be soon paid off, I shall send the sheriff after you.
To Ellen W. Randolph, May 21, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders need the encouragement of news from home.
Jefferson prepared a chart indicating that he expected a letter every three weeks from the recipient, for a total of five letters due since the first of the year. So far, he had received only one. The recipient was delinquent four letters and threatened with arrest unless the imbalance was corrected.

Who was the laggard letter-writer? Jefferson’s nine-year old granddaughter. He subsequently lightened the tone, inquiring about the flowers at Monticello, for a report on mumps afflicting the family, and asking her to convey his affection to her parents and siblings.

Being away from Monticello was a sacrifice Jefferson accepted. More correspondence from everyone at home was a frequent request, one never acted upon to his satisfaction.

“… how enthralled our attendees were …
a pleasant and refreshingly different aspect of the overall medical lectures agenda.”
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Mr. Jefferson is always relevant, even at a 21st century medical conference.
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In whose debt are you? Get out! Stay out!

My Dear Maria:
I have received your letter of May 23 which was in answer to mine of May 2nd, but I wrote you also on the 23rd of May, so that you still owe me an answer to that, which I hope is now on the road. In matters of correspondence as well as money, you must never be in debt.

To Maria Jefferson, June 13, 1790
From Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, P. 459-60

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders avoid all kinds of debt.

President Washington’s Secretary of State was writing to his almost 12 year old daughter, also known as Mary or Polly, who was in the care of a relative in Virginia. Jefferson was known to place high expectations on Maria and her older, recently married sister Martha. Two of those expectations are contained in this excerpt: 1. When someone writes to you, write back promptly. 2. Live within your means. Jefferson himself was diligent in the first command, woefully lacking in the second.

He believed if someone had written him, he had an obligation to reply. It was a commitment he kept until well into his retirement years, until he finally was overwhelmed by the volume of mail he received and the time and effort it to reply. At that point, he limited himself only to that correspondence he wished to answer.

By 1790, Jefferson was already in debt. There were a number of reasons why, some beyond his control, some directly related to his choices to indulge himself or his family and friends. Over time the debt continued to grow. It would overwhelm him, too, as the correspondence had done.

Jefferson was a diligent and faithful correspondent. A personal money manager, not so much at all.

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