Letter from Thomas Jefferson to the New Jersey Legislature (1807)

How does Jefferson’s public explanation of his decision to retire compare to or cast new light on President George Washington’s precedent? What is implied about Washington in Jefferson’s letter?
What would Alexander Hamilton, the author of Federalist No. 72 (1788), say in response to Jefferson? Does Jefferson’s principle weaken the “will” necessary for presidents to carry out extensive and arduous enterprises?

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When George Washington retired after two terms, he set an important example of a president who would voluntarily turn over power without seeking it. When Jefferson announced that he would retire after his second term, he continued the precedent set by Washington. But Jefferson went further than Washington by explaining his decision as one of principle rather than one of personal preference. Washington, by comparison, had emphasized his longing for private life.

Since 1787, Jefferson had favored a term limit for the presidency. Here, Jefferson warns that the absence of such a limit would allow the presidency to degenerate into a lifetime appointment. Near the end, he also inserts a subtle insult to Washington and other executives in world history.

He also connects his retirement to principles announced in his First Inaugural Address (1801), especially to his faith in Americans to risk their lives and fortune to defend the country against threats to liberty.

—Jeremy D. Bailey

Source: From Thomas Jefferson to New Jersey Legislature, 10 December 1807, Founders Online, National Archives, https://goo.gl/aSpKJ2.

To the Representatives of the people of New Jersey in their legislature.

The sentiments, fellow citizens, which you are pleased to express in your address of the 4th. inst.[1] of attachment and esteem for the general government, and of confidence and approbation of those who direct its councils, cannot but be pleasing to the friends of union generally, and give a new claim on those who direct the public affairs, for every thing which zeal can effect for the good of their country.

It is indeed to be deplored that, distant as we are from the storms and convulsions which agitate the European world, the pursuit of honest neutrality, beyond the reach of reproach, has been insufficient to secure to us the certain enjoyment of peace with those whose interests, as well as ours would be promoted by it. What will be the issue of present misunderstandings cannot as yet be foreseen; but the measures adopted for their settlement have been sincerely directed to maintain the rights, the honor and the peace of our country. Should they fail, the ardor of our citizens to obey the summons of their country, and the offer, which you attest, of their lives and fortunes in its support, are worthy of their patriotism, and are pledges of our safety.

The suppression of the late conspiracy by the hand of the people, up-lifted to destroy it wherever it reared its head, manifests their fitness for self-government, and the power of a nation of which every individual feels that his own will is a part of the public authority.

The effect of the public contributions in reducing the national debt, and liberating our resources from the canker of interest, has been so far salutary; and encourages us to continue the same course; or, if necessarily interrupted, to resume it as soon as practicable.

I perceive with sincere pleasure that my conduct in the chief magistracy has so far met with your approbation, that my continuance in that office, after its present term, would be acceptable to you. But that I should lay down my charge at a proper period, is as much a duty, as to have borne it faithfully. If some termination to the services of the chief magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution, or supplied by practice, his office, nominally for years, will, in fact, become for life; and history shows how easily that degenerates into an inheritance. Believing that a representative government, responsible at short periods of election, is that which produces the greatest sum of happiness to mankind, I feel it a duty to do no act which shall essentially impair that principle; and I should unwillingly be the person who, disregarding the sound precedent set by an illustrious predecessor, should furnish the first example of prolongation beyond the second term of office.

Truth also obliges me to add that I am sensible of that decline which advancing years bring on; and feeling their physical, I ought not to doubt their mental effect. Happy [am I], if I am the first to perceive and to obey this admonition of nature, and to solicit a retreat from cares too great for the wearied faculties of age.

Declining a re-election on grounds which cannot but be approved, I am sincerely thankful for the approbation which the Legislature of New Jersey are pleased to manifest of the principles and measures pursued in the management of their affairs: and should I be so fortunate as to carry into retirement the equal approbation and good will of my fellow citizens generally, it will be the comfort of my future days, and will close a service of forty years with the only reward it ever wished.

            TH: Jefferson


  1. 1. abbreviation for “instant,” meaning “of the present month”
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