Volume 16: 30 November 1789 to 4 July 1790

© 1961 Princeton University Press

Cover of Volume 16, which displays the title and publisher of the volume, as well as the names of the contributing editors.


In Volume 16 Jefferson and his two daughters are welcomed home in 1789 in time for Christmas and are given a tumultuous welcome by his “family” on neighboring farms.

In February he responds to his Albemarle neighbors’ official welcoming address with an elevated summation of his philosophy. He reluctantly accepts office as secretary of state, but postpones his journey northward because of his daughter’s marriage and the necessity of settling his private debts. The latter was one of his “great objects” in returning home, but he also wished to remove all grounds for a possible conflict of interest should the vexed question of debts owed by Americans to British merchants come before him as secretary of state.

In his new office, Jefferson finds a vast accumulation of work awaiting him. He reports at once to Washington on foreign affairs; recommends the beginning of a system of coinage; writes a remarkable series of letters taking leave of friends in France; sends plants from Virginia to Madame de Tessé and received seed of upland rice brought back by Lieutenant Bligh of the Bounty.

He makes a surprising alliance with John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States so as to insure a balanced view of the French Revolution in the American press, including the use of extracts from the Leyden Gazette, private letters, and even a speech by Edmund Burke.

He received the last letter written by Benjamin Franklin; assists Madison in guiding commercial policy along lines of reciprocity; recognizes that the right of the United States in the question of the Yazoo grants must be upheld, but argues against proposed coercive measures, since “respect and friendship should . . . mark the conduct of the general towards the particular governments”; has his first conflict of “principles of administration” with Alexander Hamilton on the matter of arrearages of Virginia and North Carolina soldiers’ pay; and, in the midst of a violent headache of six weeks’ duration, draws up his classic report on weights and measures. He also declares in a private letter intended for the eyes of British foreign officers that the United States will, he hopes, follow a policy of neutrality in the event of war in Europe.

Julian P. Boyd, Editor
Alfred L. Bush, Assistant Editor
Consulting Editor Lucius Wilmerding, Jr.