Jefferson's Last Words
From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
Thomas Jefferson's last words cannot be determined with certainty. Three men left written accounts of Jefferson's last days: Robley Dunglison, the attending physician; Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson's grandson; and Nicholas Trist, the husband of Jefferson's granddaughter, Virginia Randolph. Although there are some minor discrepancies, the differences in emphasis and detail one would expect to find in three different witnesses--each is reliable. Taken together they provide a full view of Jefferson's death.
Dunglison, Randolph, and Trist recall that Jefferson slept through the day on July 3 and woke in the evening, evidently thinking it was morning. According to Dunglison, Jefferson asked on waking, "Is it the Fourth?" To which Dunglison replied, "It soon will be." Dunglison then says these were the last words he heard Jefferson utter.
Trist records Jefferson's question in a slightly different form: "This is the Fourth?" (a question Trist pretended not to hear so he wouldn't have to inform Jefferson that it was still July 3). But Jefferson was insistent: "This is the Fourth?" he asked again. This time Trist nodded in assent, though he says he found the deception "repugnant."
In Randolph's version there is no questioning. Jefferson remarks on waking, "This is the fourth of July." Randolph goes on to say that Jefferson was roused a few hours later, at 9 p.m., to be given a dose of laudanum. But Jefferson refused the opiate, saying, "No, doctor, nothing more." Dunglison's omission of this exchange should not cast any doubt on the veracity of his account. In fact, it seems likely that a doctor, busy attending to the care of his patient, would not remember such mundane conversation while an anxious bystander (such as Randolph) probably would.
In summary, Jefferson's last words are lost; one supposes they were farewells to the household staff. His last recorded words are "No, doctor, nothing more." But these are perhaps too prosaic to be memorable. "Is it the Fourth?" or "This is the Fourth of July" have come to be accepted as Jefferson's last words because they contain what everyone wants to find in such death-bed scenes: deeper meaning.
- ↑ This article is based on Russell L. Martin, Monticello Research Report, 7 June 1988.
- ↑ Dunglison's account is in The Autiobiographical Ana of Robley Dunglison, M.D. (Philadelphia, 1963), as well as in Randall, Life, 3:547-549..
- ↑ Nicholas Trist's recollection of the death watch is printed in Randall, Life, 3:546.
- ↑ Randolph to Randall, Randall, Life, 3:544.
- Bear, James A. Jr., "Last Few Days in the Life of Thomas Jefferson." Magazine of Albemarle County History, 32 (1974): 63-79.