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Thomas Jefferson, Happiness, and Giving

Posted on Friday, July 28, 2023
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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Jefferson

Several years ago, after reading hundreds of Thomas Jefferson’s letters – some short, many to family, most to friends – a discovery emerged. Jefferson was an innate giver. The discovery was eye-opening and has implications – for history and for us.

Without much prodding, most know Jefferson was our third president, before which he was vice president to John Adams, governor of Virginia, and penned our Declaration of Independence.

What many do not appreciate is that, from a young age, Jefferson experienced profound losses, at 14 his father, age 22 his sister. Even these led to loneliness and early reclusiveness until he began to engage with the world, even then with reserve.

Interestingly, at college – William & Mary – he studied math, philosophy, religion, Latin, Greek, French, and violin, with early physicist Isaac Newton and philosopher John Locke, his favorites.

While Jefferson loved books, he also loved people. At age 30, seven years older than his young bride, he married Martha. They both loved music. Ten years later, she died, as did four of their six young children. Two daughters – Maria and Patsy – lived to adulthood, Maria gone at 25, but Patsy giving him 12 grandchildren, of whom 11 lived.

More to the point, Jefferson – the private man – was filled with giving. For all his loss, he engaged life and gave himself fully to all his grandchildren, which became the essence of giving.  

Politics always seemed a distant second. In letters and return letters, one hears about someone who realized clearly that living and giving are as intimately intertwined. On realizing a friend’s eyesight is failing, Jefferson orders “spectacles” that change the man’s ability to read and write. On realizing a friend needs seeds to replenish what was lost, Jefferson sends them.

Among the “laboring poor” outside Paris, he finds ways, without costing them their dignity, to buy and give what he has to lift them, in turn producing a depth of gratitude and tears.

On learning, friends are interested in ideas tied to philosophy, art, sciences, geography, biology, and anthropology, he orders books for them. Or, on the lighter side, friends who appreciated French wine got cases from him – always a surprise.

Of enduring interest should be how the “personal Jefferson” lived. He was especially focused on the word “happiness,” this student of words, who had intellectual curiosity, sipped from life’s fullness, and gave what he had to others, in word and deed.

Broadly, he wrote: “Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but…good conscience…and freedom in all just pursuits.” Thinking of his children and grandchildren, he wrote: “The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.

Somehow, despite loss and loneliness, he reached beyond his fears to live and give. He found peace – his highest peace – in it. “Friendship is precious – not only in shade but in the sunshine of life,” he said, and “thanks to a benevolent arrangement, the greater part of life is sunshine.”

Perhaps the most moving testament comes from his granddaughter, who adored him. “My grandfather’s manners to us, his grandchildren, were delightful…He talked with us freely, affectionately; he never lost an opportunity of giving pleasure or a good lesson. He reproved without wounding us and commended us without making us vain. He took pains to correct our errors and false ideas, checked the bold, encouraged the timid, and tried to teach us to reason soundly and feel rightly.”

She continued: “I remember when I was small enough to sit on his knee and play with his watch chain…I would join him in his walks on the terrace, sit with him over the fire during the winter twilight, or by the open windows in summer…I loved and honored him above all earthly beings, and well I might…To him I owed all the small blessings and joyful surprises of my childish and girlish years.”

She concludes: “His nature was so eminently sympathetic that, with those he loved, he could enter into their feelings, anticipate their wishes…surround them with an atmosphere of affection…My Bible came from him, my Shakespeare, and my first writing table…my first hat, my first silk dress. What in short of all my small treasures did not come from him? Our grandfather seemed to read our hearts, to see our invisible wishes, to be our good genius, to wave the fairy wand, to brighten our young lives by his goodness and his gifts.”

Final thought: Jefferson admired John Locke, but only to a point. Locke’s Second Treatise added justification for Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration, as Locke sought to enshrine a right to “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson changed that – to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Happiness was more the point, thought Jefferson. And that was another of his gifts.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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SusanW
SusanW
9 months ago

Thank you, Robert!! Prayers answered!! While I was sipping on my coffee this morning and pondering how this new glorious day might unfold,I began to feel a bit overwhelmed with all that is currently plaguing our country and world. So, I put everything aside, did my morning workout to prepare for my walk, but first, decided to see what might be on your mind. The perfect message for all of us! You so brilliantly reminded me of the importance of giving. Something that we all can do! My mind immediately switched from a fretting mode to a joyful “let’s get out there and make a difference mode”. So, once again, thank you! So, off I go in this miserable heat to see who might need a smile or a helping hand. Let’s all try to reach out to someone who might need a little sunshine to brighten their cloudy day.
From one of my many heroes – “The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving.” Albert Einstein

Rik
Rik
9 months ago

I was brought up in a “poor” family but mostly poor because of my wayward father who was a 4 pack smoker, an alcoholic and womanizer! He was not close with any of his 5 children and I was probably his favorite because I accepted him as he was. When I was 18 and was getting drunk more often than not, I one day just reprimanded myself that if I didn’t stop my excessive drinking that I would turn out just like my father and didn’t want that so I stopped! I haven’t smoked or drank alcohol in close to 45 years now! My mother was a “Saint” and died peaceably knowing ALL her children had become worthy adults. Life certainly ISN’T EASY but definitely a lot easier by not fighting what you can’t fix! Giving is certainly better than being a “Taker”!

Linda
Linda
9 months ago

A delight to read. Thank you

Emer
Emer
9 months ago

What a wonderful essay on Jefferson. The left has done much to try and discredit him. They have called him the names they now call conservatives today. // I have understood that the meaning of the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration has to do with Aristotle’s definition of happiness. He wrote that one can be happy only in pursuing being a good person. Certainly most of the Founders lived by the pursuit of good. This is what I have understood for years and have read about. It was written that the Founders knew of this meaning of Aristotle’s and we know they certainly lived by it.

Ron
Ron
9 months ago

A wonderful insight to a founding father that the left enjoys vilifying these days. Thanks,

Cross
Cross
9 months ago

Thomas Jefferson
The tree of Liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants

Carol
Carol
9 months ago

Dear RBC and the world:
I do not have too much time so this will be short. LOL First let me thank Mr. Charles for standing up to the left. I have read almost every article (or saved the email on my computer) you have written and they have all taught me something. I learned a lot about Thomas Jefferson that I did not know (mostly of a personal nature),
I have had a rough early life but I did not expect my so called “GOLDEN YEARS” to be so difficult. My husband also is so upset and he says “things just don’t feel right”! This is a man who grew (born in Berlin in 1938) up under socialism (hitler’s germany). He lived in east Berlin under communism until the age of 18 when he and most of his family went to West Berlin and then flew (the only way to get out back then) to West Germany. Thank you again Mr. Charles for your very needed writing in this time of WOKE.
Sincerely, Carol

An older blonde women laughing in the kitchen with a grey haired man.
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