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In what will hopefully become an interesting and enlightening series, I will be showcasing letters of correspondence written by an assortment of characters from various periods in history. The letters will be edited and context will be provided by myself in order to give you, the reader, a sense of the setting and events that surround each piece of correspondence. What is most fascinating about this method of reading history is that the people are real, not only that they physically existed but that they lived like you and I. They faced similar problems and had familiar aspirations. In writing these private letters our ancestors have provided for us a firsthand account of the events that shaped our world.


The first is a letter written in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson. The Revolutionary War had just begun and British prisoners who had surrendered at the battle of Saratoga were being held in Albermarle, Virginia not far from Jefferson’s estate in Monticello. After only staying a few months, the governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry, urged the prisoners to be moved to some other part of the country because he felt their use of provisions would be better suited for his own forces. Writing about the wellbeing of British prisoners, Thomas Jefferson petitioned:

 “Their health is also of importance. I would not endeavor to show that their lives are valuable to us, because it would suppose a possibility that humanity was kicked out of doors in America, and interest only attended to.... But is an enemy so execrable, that, though in captivity, his wishes and comforts are to be disregarded and even crossed? I think not. It is for the benefit of mankind to mitigate the horrors of war as much as possible. The practice, therefore, of modern nations, of treating captive enemies with politeness and generosity, is not only delightful in contemplation, but really interesting to all the world—friends, foes, and neutrals.”

 Jefferson was successful in his petition and the troops were accommodated. One grateful British officer wrote to Jefferson, thanking him for maintaining their well-being. Jefferson replied with this, 

“The great cause which divides our countries is not to be decided by individual animosities. The harmony of private societies can not weaken national efforts. To contribute by neighborly intercourse and attention to make others happy, is the shortest and surest way of being happy ourselves. As these sentiments seem to have directed your conduct, we should be as unwise as illiberal, were we not to preserve the same temper of mind.” 

These two entries exemplify Jefferson’s strong moral character. They reveal that he is a man who understands that the war being fought was a conflict of ideas, not individual animosities. And while the men he petitioned for had likely killed Jefferson’s fellow Americans, he understood that their humane treatment would be a powerful message not only to the American citizenry but to the world - a representation of America’s humanity in the midst of war.

-Kevin Zorn

(Letters supplied by the open source book, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson compiled by Sarah N. Randolph)