University of Virginia Vice President for Research
Sustainability Research Initiatives

Thomas Jefferson and William Short

William Short (1759-1849) was a relative of Thomas Jefferson, who called Short his "adoptive son". Like Jefferson, Short studied law at the College of William and Mary, and Jefferson was one of the examiners when Short passed the bar. Jefferson invited Short to accompany him as his secretary when Jefferson served as one of the new nation's ministers to France from 1785-89. After Jefferson's return, Short remained until 1802 for diplomatic missions to France, the Netherlands, and Spain. During Short's 17 year absence, Jefferson oversaw some of Short's financial investments – one of which was the 1796 purchase of the "Indian Camp" property near Monticello. Preliminary research in the Papers of William Short at the Library of Congress suggests that this property - now known as Morven - presented Jefferson and Short with an opportunity to propose and debate alternatives to large-scale agricultural economy that depended on enslaved labor. While they shared assumptions about the urgent economic and morel need for these alternatives, Jefferson and Short differed sharply on the capacity and potential role of freed black farmers.

A presentation about these proposals was held in May 2011 at the Jefferson Library in Charlottesville, in which a panel of UVA researchers discussed “William Short’s Emancipation Proposal to Thomas Jefferson.” Bringing together their individual expertise in contemporary issues of slavery and anti-slavery, the international perceptions of liberty and labor that Jefferson and Short had both encountered in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, and their separate roles as businessmen, the panel’s collaborative research yielded insights into the two men’s ideals and priorities beyond the scope of a conventional research focus, and incorporated digital visualizations of these multiple connections and relationships. Moderated by Thomas Jefferson Foundation professor of history Peter Onuf, and including a response by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed, this presentation will be broadcast on C-SPAN’s American History TV program in July 2011.

Previous scholarship about William Short has been limited to one full-length biography, and articles and chapters focused on his crucial diplomatic function in the Netherlands and Spain in the 1790s, as well as his romantic liaisons. New research about Short’s role and his relationships with the primary figures with whom he interacted, as well as a reexamination of the rapidly-evolving context in which he lived, is producing expanded perspectives on contemporary society in the Early Republic, and how Short was able to achieve a new level of success that eluded many in the planter culture in which he was raised. This research includes a pilot project for a digital edition of the William Short Papers in the collection of the Library of Congress, a Spring 2012 U.Va. History seminar +, and collaborative research with faculty at the College of William and Mary.