Thomas Jefferson potrait

Taken from, The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson,
Edited by Adrienne Koch & William Peden, 1944.

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743. He took office as the third President of the United States. The following is excerpted from a letter to his favorite nephew, Peter Carr, who had just begun his university studies. The letter was written on August 19, 1785.

“…Time now begins to be precious to you. Every day you lose will retard a day your entrance on that public stage whereon you may begin to be useful to yourself. The way to repair the loss is to improve the future time. When your mind shall improve nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor.

The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these then your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give up the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do a dishonorable thing. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.

Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual.

If you ever find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you. Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold; and those, who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but there infamy becomes more exposed.

There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him.

Take up ancient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydiddes, Xenophontis, Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form a good base for your historical reading Later we will add books coming down to modern history. Greek and Latin poetry including Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, Pope’s and Swift’s works. In morality read Epictetus, Xenophontis, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cicero’s philosophies and Seneca.

In order to progress well in your studies, you must take at least two hours a day to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. Walking is very important. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert yourself by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man; but I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained, by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse; and will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue.

I would advise you to take your exercise in the afternoon; not because it is the best time for exercise, for certainly it is not; but because it is the best time to take your break from early studies and before you return again to your studies. A little walk of half an hour, in the morning, when you first rise, is advisable also. It shakes off sleep and produces other good effects in the animal economy.”

To Martha Jefferson, his oldest daughter (15 years old, at the time) he wrote on March 28, 1787:

“…It is your future happiness that interests me, and nothing can contribute more to it (moral rectitude always excepted) than the contracting a habit of industry and activity. Of all the cankers of human happiness none corrodes with so silent, yet so baneful a tooth, as indolence. Body and mind both unemployed, our being becomes a burthen, and every object about us loathsome, even the dearest. Idleness begets ennui, ennui the hypochondria, and that a diseased body. Exercise and application produce order in our affairs, health of body, cheerfulness of mind, and these make us precious to our friends.

If at any moment, my dear you catch yourself in idleness, start from it as you would from the precipice of a gulf. You are not, however, to consider yourself as unemployed while taking exercise. That is necessary for your health and health is the first of all objects.

I do not like your saying that you are unable to read the ancient print of your Livy, but with the aid of your teacher. We are always equal to what we undertake with resolution. If you always lean on your master, you will never be able to proceed without him. It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate – to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance.

Remote from all other aid, we are obliged to invent and to execute; to find means within ourselves, and not to lean on others. Consider, therefore, the conquering of your Livy as an exercise in the habit of surmounting difficulties; a good habit to learn. Music, drawing, books, invention and exercise, will be so many resources to you against ennui.

I will write you long letters, as you have asked, if you promise to read them from time to time, and practice what they will inculcate. Think nothing insurmountable by resolution and application…”

To Dr. Casper Wistar, Jefferson wrote on June 21, 1807:

“…If a doctor is unable to establish a definite disease, there cannot be a known remedy. Here then,judicious, the moral, the humane physician should stop. Having been so often a witness to the salutary efforts which nature makes to reestablish the disordered functions, he should rather trust to their action, than hazard the interruption of that, and a greater derangement of the system, by conjectural experiments on a machine so complicated and so unknown as the human body, and a subject so sacred as human life. Or if the appearance of doing something is necessary to keep alive the hope and spirits of the patient, it should be of the most innocent character.

One of the most successful physicians I have ever known, has assured me, that he used more bread pills, drops of colored water, and powders of hickory ashes, than of all other medicines put together. It was certainly a pious fraud.

But the adventurous physician goes on, and substitutes presumption for knowledge. From the scanty field of what is known, he launches into the boundless region of what is unknown. On the principle which he thus assumes, he forms his tables, arrays his diseases into families, and extends his curative treatment, by analogy, to all the cases he has thus arbitrarily marshaled together.

The patient sometimes gets well in spite of the medicine. The medicine, therefore restored him, and the doctor receives new courage to proceed in his experiments on the lives of his fellow-creatures.

I wish the practitioner, especially, to have deeply impressed on his mind, the real limits of his art, and that when the state of his patients gets beyond these, his office is to be a watchful, but quiet spectator of the operations of nature, giving them fair play by a well-regulated regimen, and by all the aid they can derive from the excitement of good spirits and hope in the patient…”