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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

Letter Writing

Writing style is the way in which a writer selects and arranges words to convey ideas and achieve a particular purpose. A writer’s style may vary depending on the audience to whom he or she is writing. The Thomas Jefferson Papers include letters written by Jefferson to a variety of audiences, from his children and grandchildren to friends, political allies, and opponents. Analyze several of Jefferson’s personal letters to relatives and friends, focusing on the style in which he wrote. For example, read a letter he wrote to his daughter in 1783, in which he advised her on how to dress. Also read the letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, written November 24, 1808, in which he gave advice on character and education.

. . . Be a listener only, keep within yourself, and endeavor to establish with yourself the habit of silence, especially on politics. In the fevered state of our country, no good can ever result from any attempt to set one of these fiery zealots to rights, either in fact or principle. . . . Get by them, therefore, as you would by an angry bull; it is not for a man of sense to dispute the road with such an animal. You will be more exposed than others to have these animals shaking their horns at you, because of the relation in which you stand with me.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 24, 1808”

What seemed to be Jefferson’s purposes in writing to his young relatives? How did he adapt his writing style to those purposes and the young people to whom he was writing?

In corresponding with a married woman in whom he seemed to be interested, Jefferson structured a letter in the form of a dialogue between head and heart. His letter to Abigail Adams, responding to her note of condolence on the death of his daughter, expressed both appreciation for her sympathy and a candid appraisal of his political differences with her husband. Compare these letters with letters to professional colleagues, such as James Madison, James Monroe, and George Washington. How did Jefferson’s style change when he wrote to personal acquaintances? Did he structure his sentences similarly or differently? How did he adapt his language choices to the audience addressed?