Life at Poplar Forest
Jefferson began regular visits to his Poplar Forest retreat in 1809, when he was 66 years old. For the next 14 years, he made the trip three or four times a year, in all seasons, staying from two weeks to two months.
A Revolutionary in Repose
In his time out of the public spotlight, Jefferson pursued an astonishing array of interests, from math and the natural sciences to classical history and Native American culture. He loved new technologies and often improved on items already in existence, such as the copying machine known as the polygraph.
He read in six languages besides English, including Greek and Latin, and amassed one of early America’s greatest libraries, keeping nearly 1,000 volumes at Poplar Forest alone.
While staying at Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson kept a schedule very similar to the one he had kept most of his life when he was not a public servant. He awakened before dawn, took an early breakfast, and planned for the day. He spent his mornings horseback riding, reading or writing. Jefferson maintained a library at Poplar Forest of more than 1,000 books in a variety of languages. Aesop, Virgil, Homer, Plato, Moliere and Shakespeare were a few of the authors whose works were found in Jefferson’s Poplar Forest library. He also kept a portable polygraph in the parlor that he used to make copies of the letters and documents that he wrote. Some of the letters Jefferson wrote from Poplar Forest pertained to his business operations. He also wrote to family and friends.
Dinner was usually between three and four o’clock. He dined with his family when they accompanied him. He also occasionally invited neighbors to join him for a meal. Neighbors often brought gifts of food such as asparagus, cider, homemade cheese, fruits, cakes and even bear cub meat for the table. Sometimes Jefferson bought chickens or turkeys from his enslaved workers. Jefferson spent late afternoons talking with family members or strolling around the property.
His granddaughters Ellen and Cornelia Randolph visited Poplar Forest regularly from 1816 to 1823. Jefferson wrote that “about twilight of the evening, we sally out with the owls and bats and take our evening exercise on the terras,” referring the flat roof of the wing. After tea in the early evening, Jefferson might read before retiring at ten.
A letter by his granddaughter Ellen to author Henry S. Randall in 1856 is considered by many to be one of the most detailed first-person accounts of Thomas Jefferson’s daily life at Poplar Forest.
“I write to you from a place 90 miles from Monticello, near the New London of this state, which I visit three or four times a year, & stay from a fortnight to a month at a time. I have fixed myself comfortably, keep some books here, bring others occasionally, am in the solitude of a hermit, and quite at leisure to attend to my absent friends.” Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush August 17, 1811
Reading and Writing at Poplar Forest
In nearly every letter he wrote at Poplar Forest, Jefferson mentioned reading. He was an avid reader, reading in six languages besides English, including Greek and Latin. During his lifetime, he amassed one of early America’s greatest libraries.
Research recently revealed that Jefferson kept nearly 1,000 books at Poplar Forest, hundreds more than previously thought. There were more than 330 titles and almost 1,000 volumes in Jefferson’s Poplar Forest collection.
In 1815, Jefferson sold his books at Monticello to Congress to start the nation’s library. He relied on his retreat library while he began rebuilding a collection at Monticello. Some of the books at Poplar Forest were “petit-format” editions, meaning they were small in size, allowing Jefferson to maintain a portable library away from home.
Analysis of the full array of book titles at Poplar Forest illustrates Jefferson’s intellectual preferences in retirement. He seemed to select titles for his retreat library that related more to personal rather than professional interests. For example, at Poplar Forest Jefferson kept more literary works, accounting for 36.3% of the Poplar Forest collection and only 9.7% of the titles in his Monticello library. By contrast, there were only 19 titles on politics (5.6% of the Poplar Forest library), compared to 22.1% of Jefferson’s original Monticello library.
“I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s Republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through.” Thomas Jefferson to John Adams July 5, 1814