Lifetime Learning

Jefferson and his Family of Friends

ragostaBy John Ragosta

A pending auction of a small survey map (smaller than a standard piece of paper) has historic collectors all aflutter. It is a 200 year old plat for a 1300 acre farm in central Virginia originally called Indian Camp.

What is generating all of the excitement is that the plat was hand-drawn by Thomas Jefferson. An original Jefferson document on the market is always interesting. (I can dream of a surprise Christmas present, but the auction house has conservatively estimated the sales price at $8,000 to $12,000.) As it turns out, though, this particular plat relates directly to the topic for the 2014 Summer Jefferson Symposium: “Thomas Jefferson: Family, Friends, and Foes.”

The story starts with William Short, a distant Jefferson relative by marriage who served as Jefferson’s private secretary while he was ambassador in Paris. Working together closely over a period of years, years in which Jefferson was intoxicated with the cultural and intellectual delights of Europe, Jefferson grew inordinately fond of Short, describing him as an “adoptive son.” When Jefferson returned to America Short stayed in Europe in an effort to develop his own diplomatic career. Only months later, Jefferson wrote to his former secretary that “affection and the long habit of your society have rendered it necessary” that they again live in close proximity; Short must move to Albemarle. By 1795, Jefferson bought Indian Camp on his behalf.

Jefferson, plagued by the vicissitudes of politics in the early republic, imagined an intellectual retreat of intelligent and committed friends in the piedmont of Virginia. Enchanted by that prospect, he worked diligently to create such a family of friends. James Madison was, of course, ensconced at Montpelier, a day away (close enough by eighteenth century standards). James Monroe would move to the area in 1799 at Jefferson’s insistence, only selling what would become known as Ashland-Highland in 1825 under financial pressure. Jefferson also hoped to attract Philip Mazzei as a permanent resident.

Short was intrigued by the idea. Not only could Indian Camp bring him more tightly into the orbit of the extended Jefferson “family,” but it might permit him to test his theory about replacing slaves with tenant farmers. Unfortunately, Short never took up residence in the vicinity, although he did visit Jefferson at Monticello for a month at a time on several occasions. In 1813 Short sold the property, after which it became known as Morven, a wonderful plantation that attendees at the 2012 Summer Jefferson Symposium will remember fondly.

All interesting pieces of the Jeffersonian puzzle and how this cosmopolitan early American really longed for a retreat of family and friends where his foes could not reach. As with other of Jefferson’s visions, finances and human nature interfered (with Short’s decisions certainly influenced by his belief that Madison and Monroe had failed to support his own diplomatic career sufficiently).

We can look forward to June and an opportunity to continue the conversation about Jefferson’s efforts to construct a community of friends.

Learn more about the 2014 Summer Jefferson Symposium

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *