Thomas Jefferson: Home Brewer

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson by artist Rembrandt Peale A portrait of Thomas Jefferson by artist Rembrandt Peale AP

The transition out of the presidency can't be easy. It's one of the wonders of American democracy: a president going from being one of the most powerful people in the world to being just an unemployed dude (well, so far just dudes). George W. Bush had his ranch in Texas, and his love of clearing brush. Richard Nixon had the gorgeous ocean view of San Clemente, Calif. Thomas Jefferson had, among the other joys of Monticello, the scrupulous production of alcohol.

Founders Online, a new search engine and online directory from the National Archives that was released this week, has a massive wealth of primary documents about the Foudners. Included are official records, but also private journals and correspondence. And it has an incredibly acute search function. For instance, if you wanted to find every instance where George Washington mentioned "ham" in his writings, you can do just that.

Combing deeper into the archives, with the most relevant of search terms, we find another historical insight: just how into making booze our third president was.

For Thomas Jefferson, it wasn't at all just about the alcohol. He made that clear in a letter from Monticello to John Adlum—a pioneer American winemaker—on April 20, 1810, about a batch of wine he was working on. It was about being a perfectionist:

I noted Cooper’s recipe for making wine which you mention in your letter, and regretted it because it will have a tendency to continue the general error in this country that brandy always, & sugar sometimes are necessary for wine. this idea will retard & discourage our progress in making good wine. be assured that there is never one atom of any thing whatever put into any of the good wines made in France. I name that country because I can vouch the fact from the assurance to myself of the vignerons of all the best wine cantons of that country which I visited myself. it is never done but by the exporting merchants, & then only for the English & American markets where by a vitiated taste the intoxicating quality of wine, more than it’s flavor, is required by the palate.

In September, 1813 Jefferson wrote to William D. Meriwether about an exciting new venture:

We are this day beginning, under the directions of Capt Millar, the business of brewing Malt liquors...

The "business" of malt liquor (with a captain, no less) is presumably the only thing President Jefferson had in common with Billy Dee Williams.

But Jefferson didn't stop with malt liquor and fine wine. Like Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson also had a passion for beer. Here's a letter from September, 1814, when Jefferson was 71:

I am now engaged in brewing a year’s supply of malt strong beer, which however I have no chance of saving but by a supply of quart jugs from you. I recieved (I think) 10½ dozen. and must ask the favor of 4. gross more for which mr Gibson will pay your bill. be so good as to inform me when they will be ready.

In that case, it seems as though Jefferson went a little too far.

And there's surely more out there. Check out the full archives for yourself here.

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