Thomas Jefferson’s Midlife Crisis.

June 5, 2021

Thomas Jefferson’s Midlife Crisis.

May 29, 2023

It was more than 170 years before the phrase “midlife crisis” had been coined, but one of the fathers of our country was having an existential crisis in his late 40s.

He’d been the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, in the Continental Congress, the second Governor of Virginia, and the nation’s first Secretary of State, but he was also an architect, philosopher, husband, and father. His wife, Martha passed away in the midst of his career ladder and the very busy Jefferson didn’t give himself the time to grieve.

He raised his daughters but saw very little of them. It was while he was in Paris as Secretary of State that Jefferson had a revelation. It didn’t have to be like this. He quit his job, packed up his family and moved back to Monticello, all around his 50th birthday. He describes his situation in a letter to James Madison in 1793:

"The motion of my blood no longer keeps time with the tumult of the world. It leads me to seek for happiness in the lap and love of my family, in the society of my neighbors and my books, in the wholesome occupations of my farm and my affairs, in an interest or affection in every bud that opens, in every breath that blows around me.”

He sought a simpler life. One of our most famous statesmen lamented how his work took such prominence in his life to the detriment of other pursuits:

I’m “worn down with labors from morning to night, and day to day, knowing them as fruitless to others as they are vexations to myself...cut off from my family and friends, my affairs abandoned to chaos and derangement, in short giving everything I love in exchange for everything I hate…”

Of course, Jefferson didn’t become a couch potato at Monticello. He ran for President a couple years later, barely losing and becoming Vice President. Then, he became President for two terms early in the 19th century. Post-President, he founded the University of Virginia.

While it’s not clear that Jefferson substantially changed his workaholic ways during his gap year or two between 1793-1795, it is clear that the trajectory of his career only got better after age 50 after having felt stunted and dissatisfied before that.

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