When Thomas Jefferson retired from public life in 1809 after serving two terms as U.S. President, he thought his retirement years at Monticello, his Virginia plantation, would be peaceful, quiet and relaxing. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Utterly broke as a result of his out-of-control spending sprees while in the White House, Jefferson returned home to his farm just as a series of environmental disasters made it almost impossible to earn a living from his sole remaining source of income: farming. What was more, Jefferson suddenly had to support his grown daughter, her alcoholic husband and their eleven children as well as lay out the red carpet for the steady streams of visitors and well-wishers who descended on Monticello. And that’s to say nothing of Jefferson’s own unacknowledged children by his slave mistress Sally Hemings. Add to this a war, a crippling drought and a boneheaded financial move, the 1810s proved to be nothing less than the very long winter(s) of Jefferson’s discontent.
Sean Munger not only tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s difficult retirement during the decade of the 1810s, but also provides some historical context for understanding one of the most contradictory and controversial figures of Early America. Unpacking Jefferson’s challenges at Monticello involves everything from volcanoes in Indonesia to the passionate desires that led him into one of history’s most famous and scandalous love affairs. While we cannot hope to “solve” the enigma of Thomas Jefferson, the story of how the vaunted Sage of Monticello descended into the tragedy of his twilight years might just help us understand some of the challenges and preoccupations that shaped the personality of this extraordinary man.
If you sign up on Patreon to support Sean Munger and the Second Decade podcast, you’ll get access to a members-only video lecture that is a companion piece to this episode, where Sean goes into more detail on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.