The war he had helped launch and justify raged on, the enemy's army had swept through his state capital only hours before and his successor as Virginia's Governor still hadn't been selected by the legislature, but Thomas Jefferson was going home, convinced that his work for America was done. It was the summer of 1781, five years since the July in Philadelphia when the author of the Declaration of Independence had, in two inspired weeks of writing energized by years of thought and study and practical political activity, helped create a new nation with his pen. The course this nation would follow remained uncertain, the fate of its central ideals undecided and the question of its very survival unclear, but Jefferson's direction was firm and fixed: away from politics and public life and back to his cherished plantation, Monticello. Back to his loved ones, his gardens, his fields, his library and to the scores of people whose labor made his pursuit of happiness possible: his slaves.
The great revolutionary was calling it quits--or so he told his friends. In one of more than 20,000 letters that scholars estimate Jefferson completed before his death on July 4, 1826, the future Secretary of State, Vice President, two-term President and founder of the University of Virginia confirmed his premature decision to abandon the rigors of government service for the pleasures of rural solitude: "I have taken my final leave of everything of that nature, have retired to my farm, my family and books from which I think nothing will ever more separate me."
Jefferson thought wrong, of course. He didn't retire in 1781. Events didn't let him, and he didn't let himself, whether out of ambition, a sense of obligation or, as seems most likely, a mixture of both. As would happen again and again during his lifetime--and after his lifetime, right down to the present, when the question "What would Jefferson do?" feels as relevant to contemporary affairs as it did in the nation's early years--the institutions and ideas that the Virginian so strenuously advocated and eloquently defended carried him away from home, out of domestic seclusion and into history as the conscience of our country. It's the place where he truly belonged and still resides, not always comfortably but probably permanently.
"Jefferson wrote the magic words of American history, the 55 words in the Declaration of Independence that begin 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'" says Joseph Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and the author of the award-winning biography American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. "That promise and those words are probably the most important words in American history--and possibly all of modern history."