When Thomas Jefferson left the Presidency he wrote to Dupont de Nemours: 'Never did a prisoner released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power. Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the time in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself to the boisterous ocean of political passion.' 'The pursuit of happiness', which in the Declaration of Independence he had insisted was one of man's inalienable rights, was at last open to him. To the end of his life he remembered his political career as a perilous voyage and rejoiced in the expectation that his descendants would enjoy 'the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm', as he put it to his old fellow-sailor John Adams. Why should the new generation not flourish? To be sure, Jefferson did not believe that we could all be entirely happy, but 'the deity' had kindly 'put it in our powers' to come quite close to it. All of us have moreover been created in such a way that we are not only compelled to seek our happiness but are bound to look for it in different ways. Because we cannot help having dissimilar beliefs and desires, it was self-evident that nature and nature's God meant us to pursue our happiness in our own, unique manner. That was the reason for our inalienable right to search or not to search for our salvation here or hereafter as we saw fit. There was much confidence in the future in this, even if the securing of the right could not assure a successful pursuit. One cannot help feeling therefore that Jefferson's labours were poorly rewarded when one reads about the sad lives of the Virginian gentry to whom he returned so gladly.
LRB 17 May 1984 | PDF Download