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Thomas Jefferson: Family Life

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The simplicity of Thomas Jefferson's first inauguration set the social tone of his administration. He thereafter reduced the number of presidential balls, state dinners, and formal parties while greatly expanding private dinners, evening discussions, and gatherings of guests for readings in philosophy and science, which he hosted with great enthusiasm. His wine bill upon leaving the presidency exceeded $10,000. A longtime widower, Jefferson cared little for formal dress and presided over state meals without wearing a "Federalist wig;" he would often greet his dinner guests in old homespun clothes and a pair of worn bedroom slippers. Jefferson frequently dined with members of Congress at the Washington boardinghouses where most of them lived. Sitting at their tables, he could exercise effective policy leadership in an informal setting.

Something of a solitary person and embarrassed by his tendency to mumble—which was the reason he stopped delivering his annual address to Congress in person—Jefferson hated appearing in public. He gave only two public speeches during his entire presidency, but he spent up to ten hours each day at his writing desk. A typical day had him up by dawn, doing official business in the morning, followed by his cabinet meetings during the noon hour. In the afternoon, Jefferson liked to exercise by horseback riding for two or three hours. He then dined at around 3:30 in the afternoon with invited guests. He seldom accepted evening invitations and liked to work three or four hours before bed, which came at about 10:00 in the evening.

For his official hostess, Jefferson relied on the wife of his secretary of state, the enthusiastic Dolley Madison. Few women were as accomplished as Mrs. Madison in the art of combining a serious political agenda with wonderfully entertaining social affairs. She regularly attended Senate debates, led a drive to provide supplies for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and publicly defended Jefferson when given the opportunity. Jefferson liked having her around and felt so comfortable with her decisions on proper presidential behavior that he usually deferred to her good sense, but her role was necessarily limited by Jefferson's dislike for grandeur and ceremony.

Jefferson's two daughters had married political figures, and they sometimes lived with their husbands at the White House. When they were in residence, one or the other served as official hostess. In 1804, the youngest daughter, Mary, died at age twenty-five after giving birth to her second child. It was on the occasion of her death that Abigail Adams, who had cared for the young girl in England while Jefferson served as U.S. minister to France, ended the Adams family's long hostility by extending her written condolences.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Peter Onuf

Professor Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His writings include:

Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (University Press of Virginia, 2001)

Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Indiana University Press, 1987)

Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775–1787 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983)