Jefferson's popularity, though shaken, remained high to the end, and he retired to his beloved Monticello with the gratitude and the affection of the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. Not the least of his political accomplishments was the control of the presidential succession, first to Madison and then to Monroe, so that the next sixteen years continued the Republican dominance he began. More than most former presidents he exercised an influence on his successors, although the extent of this was often exaggerated by political enemies. He rejoiced at "shaking off the shackles of power," wanting nothing so much as to return to his farm, his family, and his books, which had always been his supreme delights.
For three years the nation drifted toward war. When it finally came, Jefferson expressed mingled feelings of satisfaction and disappointment. On the one hand, the war would be "the second weaning from British principles, British attachments, British manners and manufactures," and in that light would introduce "an epoch in the spirit of nationalism." On the other hand, what was war itself but the curse of the Old World blighting the hopes of the New? The country was meant to be "a garden for the delight and multiplication of mankind," Jefferson mournfully observed. "But the lions and tigers of Europe must be gorged in blood, and some of ours must go, it seems, to their maws, their ravenous and insatiable maws."
Monticello was more than a home, it was a republican mecca. Men came from far and near to see the renowned Sage of Monticello, who was not only a statesman but a scientist, architect, agriculturist, educator, and man of letters. In retirement, as throughout his life, mind and hand were never idle. Jefferson kept up a lively correspondence; that with John Adams, the revolutionary friend and then political foe, with whom he was reconciled in 1812, stands as a literary monument of the age.
Beginning in 1814, Jefferson concentrated his energies on the "holy cause" of education in his native state. In his philosophy, freedom and enlightenment depended on each other; education, therefore, was a paramount responsibility of free government. He revived the general plan of education he had proposed for Virginia during the Revolution. Again the legislature rejected Jefferson's farsighted plan. It approved, however, a major part, the state university, which was close to his heart.
Jefferson was the master planner and builder of the University of Virginia in all its parts, from the grounds and the buildings to the curriculum, faculty, and rules of governance. When it came time for him to write his epitaph, "Father of the University of Virginia" was one of the three achievements, together with authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for which he wished to be remembered. Many have often remarked upon his omission of the presidency and much else besides. Perhaps in that he silently testified to his own sense of values.
Jefferson's declining years were etched with sadness. His health began to fail in 1818. At the same time, his personal fortune was doomed. He owned a large estate—ten thousand acres of land and the slaves to work them—but years of embargo, nonintercourse, and war had crippled Virginia agriculture, and recovery had only begun when the Panic of 1819 struck. New debts were piled upon old, some descending from before the Revolution, some descending from his years in the White House, and drove Jefferson into bankruptcy. In the end, even Monticello would be lost.
Jefferson was also deeply troubled by the course of national affairs. The Missouri Compromise "fanaticized" politics on a sectional line dividing free and slave states; the Supreme Court, realizing his worst fears, became "a subtle corps of sappers and miners" of the Constitution; and the drift toward consolidation in the national government threatened both individual liberty and the federal balance on which the Union depended. Under these blows, Jefferson retreated to the safety of old Republican dogma and gave aid and comfort to the revival of states' rights politics in Virginia. Through all this, nevertheless, he preserved his deep faith in freedom, self-government, enlightenment, and the happiness and the progress of mankind.
The Sage of Monticello died there on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, 4 July 1826. Ten days earlier, barely able to hold pen in hand, he had declined an invitation to attend ceremonies in Washington marking this golden anniversary. Seizing as if by foreknowledge this last opportunity to embellish a legend, Jefferson made his letter an inspiring last testament to the American people:
All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their back, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day, forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Death would not end Jefferson's influence. Generations of Americans turned to him for inspiration and guidance in the successive crises of the nation's affairs. And thus it was that John Adams, who also died on that fateful day of jubilee, uttered a prophetic truth in his last words, "Thomas Jefferson still survives."