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“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”

June 2024
2min read

Important new information on the central figure in the early American republic has surfaced with the publication of new volumes of Jefferson's journals and correspondence.

In late autumn of 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was in Germantown, Pennsylvania, then the nation’s temporary capital. A devastating outbreak of yellow fever had driven the government, including President George Washington, out of the capital, Philadelphia, to escape the horrific epidemic, whose origin was a mystery to all. Jefferson had not, in fact, been a part of the exodus. He had decided to leave Philadelphia in the winter of 1792, well before the outbreak. Perhaps he had grown weary of city living or, more likely, wished to find respite from the scene of his metaphorical death match with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, his chief rival in Washington’s cabinet. The two men had very different visions about the way the new country should progress, and Washington sided with Hamilton.

Jefferson had taken residence in a house along the Schuylkill River in April. After a brief sojourn at his home, Monticello, he moved to Germantown knowing that he was in his final days in the administration. When he lost the battle with Hamilton, he gave notice of his decision to resign his post. After some difficulties obtaining lodging in the town newly crowded with refugees, he was able to find a home. It was from this place, and against this backdrop of troubled and disorienting times, that Jefferson wrote to his friend Angelica Schuyler Church in the waning days of November.

That Jefferson called himself a patriarch provides a window into his thinking about his place in the world and his sense of self. 

Jefferson and Church had first met in Paris on the eve of revolution, while he was serving as minister to France. When he wrote to her from Germantown, she was still in London, but she had written to him of her impending return to America and with news of mutual friends they had known there. The marquis de Lafayette had been jailed (which Jefferson knew). Madame de Corny, who ran a salon that Jefferson often frequented, had lost her fortune. Maria Cosway, with whom Jefferson had had some sort of dalliance, had entered a convent. Jefferson reassured Church that efforts were being made on Lafayette’s behalf. He lamented Madame de Corny’s economic downfall and expressed surprise at the sharply religious turn in Cosway’s life. And then Jefferson’s love of language took flight:

And Madame Cosway in a convent! I knew that, to much goodness of heart, she joined enthusiasm and religion: but I thought that very enthusiasm would have prevented her from shutting up her adoration of the god of the Universe within the walls of a cloyster; that she would rather have sought the mountain-top. How happy should I be that it were mine that you, she and Mde. de Corny would seek.

Church knew Jefferson well enough to recognize what he was doing writing to her in this manner. Even as he flirted with Cosway, he had flirted with her over the years, fully aware that no connection to either woman (both married, Church with two children) could ever be serious or long-term. His suggestion that Cosway, Church, and Corny might repair to Monticello to live with him was on par with other fanciful things he had said to her before.

At this moment, however, matters were more complicated because in addressing Church, Jefferson was talking to the sister-in-law of the man responsible for his current discomfort: Hamilton was married to Church’s younger sister, Elizabeth. Open discussion of the implications of this fact in the letters they exchanged was not possible, given Jefferson’s sense of propriety and strong dislike of conflict. He could not let on that he even considered that Church knew of the titanic struggle that he and her brother-in-law had waged. Instead, he went back to basics, to a presentation of self that emphasized his attachment to his home, his values, and his faith that, with concerted effort, he could bend the future to his will.

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