Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s Account of Thomas Jefferson’s Death

Dear Sir

Mr. Jefferson had suffered for several years before his death, from a diarrhœa, which he concealed from his family, lest it might give them uneasiness. Not aware of it, I was surprised, in conversation with him, in March, 1826, to hear him in speaking of an event likely to occur about midsummer, say doubtingly, that he might live to that time. About the middle of June, hearing that he had sent for his physician, Dr. Dunglison, of the University of Virginia, I went immediately to see him, and found him out in his public rooms. Before leaving the house, he sent a servant to me, to come to his room, whereupon he handed me a paper, which he desired me to examine, remarking, “don’t delay, there is no time to be lost.” He gradually declined, but would only have his servants sleeping near him: being disturbed only at nine, twelve, and four o’clock in the night, he needed little nursing. Becoming uneasy about him, I entered his room, unobserved, to pass the night. Coming round inadvertently to assist him, he chided me, saying that being actively employed all day, I needed repose. On my replying that it was more agreeable to me to be with him, he acquiesced, and I did not leave him again. A day or two after, my brother-in-law (Mr. Trist) was admitted. His servants, ourselves, and the Doctor became his sole nurses. My mother sat with him during the day, but he would not permit her to sit up at night. His family had to decline for him numerous tenders of service, from kind and affectionate friends and neighbors, fearing and seeing that it would excite him to conversation injurious to him in his weak condition. He suffered no pain, but gradually sunk from debility. His mind was always clear—it never wandered. He conversed freely, and gave directions as to his private affairs. His manner was that of a person going on a necessary journey—evincing neither satisfaction nor regret. He remarked upon the tendency of his mind to recur back to the scenes of the Revolution. Many incidents he would relate, in his usual cheerful manner, insensibly diverting my mind from his dying condition. He remarked that the curtains of his bed had been purchased from the first cargo that arrived after the peace of 1782. Upon my expressing the opinion, on one occasion, that he was somewhat better, he turned to me, and said, “do not imagine for a moment that I feel the smallest solicitude about the result; I am like an old watch, with a pinion worn out here, and a wheel there, until it can go no longer.” On another occasion, when he was unusually ill, he observed to the Doctor, “A few hours more, Doctor, and it will be all over.” Upon being suddenly aroused from sleep, by a noise in the room, he asked if he had heard the name of Mr. Hatch mentioned—the minister whose church he attended. On my replying in the negative, he observed, as he turned over, “I have no objection to see him, as a kind and good neighbor.” The impression made upon my mind at the moment was, that his religious opinions having been formed upon mature study and reflection, he had no doubts upon his mind, and therefore did not desire the attendance of a clergyman; I have never since doubted the correctness of the impression then taken. His parting interview with the different members of his family, was calm and composed; impressing admonitions upon them, the cardinal points of which were to pursue virtue, be true and truthful. My youngest brother, in his eighth year, seeming not to comprehend the scene, he turned to me with a smile and said, “George does not understand what all this means.” He would speculate upon the person who would succeed him as Rector of the University of Virginia, and concluded that Mr. Madison would be appointed. With all the deep pathos of exalted friendship he spoke of his purity, his virtues, his wisdom, his learning, and his great abilities. The friendship of these great men was of an extraordinary character—they had been born, lived, and died within twenty-five miles of each other—they visited frequently through their whole lives. At twenty-three years old, Mr. Jefferson had been consulted on Mr. Madison’s course of study—he then fifteen. Thus commenced a friendship as remarkable for its duration as it was for the fidelity and warmth of its feelings. The admiration of each for the wisdom, abilities, and purity of the other was unlimited. Their habit of reliance upon mutual counsel, equalled the sincerity of their affection, and the devotion of their esteem.

In speaking of the calumnies which his enemies had uttered against his public and private character, with such unmitigated and untiring bitterness, he said, that he had not considered them as abusing him; they had never known him. They had created an imaginary being clothed with odious attributes, to whom they had given his name; and it was against that creature of their imaginations they had levelled their anathemas.

On Monday, the third of July, his slumbers were evidently those of approaching dissolution; he slept until evening, when upon awakening he seemed to imagine it was morning, and remarked, that he had slept all night without being disturbed—“This is the fourth of July.” He soon sunk again into sleep, and on being aroused at nine, to take his medicine, he remarked in a clear distinct voice, “No, Doctor, nothing more.” The omission of the dose of laudanum administered every night during his illness, caused his slumbers to be disturbed and dreamy; he sat up in his sleep and went through all the forms of writing; spoke of the Committee of Safety, saying it ought to be warned. As twelve o’clock at night approached, we anxiously desired that his death should be hallowed by the Anniversary of Independence. At fifteen minutes before twelve we stood noting the minute hand of the watch, hoping a few minutes of prolonged life. At four a. m. he called the servants in attendance, with a strong and clear voice, perfectly conscious of his wants. He did not speak again. About ten he fixed his eyes intently upon me, indicating some want, which most painfully, I could not understand, until his attached servant, Burwell, observed that his head was not so much elevated as he usually desired it, for his habit was to lie with it very much elevated. Upon restoring it to its usual position, he seemed satisfied. About eleven, again fixing his eyes upon me, and moving his lips, I applied a wet sponge to his mouth, which he sucked and appeared to relish—this was the last evidence he gave of consciousness. He ceased to breathe, without a struggle, fifty minutes past meridian—July 4th, 1826. I closed his eyes with my own hands. He was at all times, during his illness, perfectly assured of his approaching end, his mind ever clear, and at no moment did he evince the least solicitude about the result; he was as calm and composed as when in health. He died a pure and good man. It is for others to speak of his greatness. He desired that his interment should be private, without parade, and our wish was to comply with his request, and no notice of the hour of interment, or invitations were issued. His body was borne privately from his dwelling, by his family and servants, but his neighbors and friends anxious to pay the last tribute of respect and affection to one whom they had loved and honored, waited for it in crowds at the grave.”

Published in Henry S. Randall, Life of Thomas Jefferson (Boston, 1858), 3:543–4. Ellipses in published letter.
Date Range
January 1, 1856 to December 31, 1858
Life of Thomas Jefferson