These last couple of days I have been reading a fair amount in the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, and just yesterday I came across some of Jefferson’s ruminations on the importance of exercise that might interest you, especially given the likelihood that almost all of us will soon be watching a certain athletic contest.

The comments I have in mind come from a letter that Jefferson wrote to his nephew, Peter Carr, in the summer of 1785.  Carr was his wife’s brother’s son, and Jefferson seems to have taken great interest in his upbringing after Carr’s father died when young Peter was only three.  By 1785 Jefferson’s wife had also passed away, and it may be that Jefferson saw in the teenaged Peter a tangible link to his beloved Martha.  Perhaps he even saw in Peter the son he would never have.  Whatever his motive, Jefferson devoted considerable attention to Carr’s education, and he counseled him frequently on the path his nephew must follow if he aspired to a career of accomplishment and service worthy of a Virginia gentleman.

Thomas Jefferson sat for this portrait by Mather Brown in 1786, the year after he wrote to his nephew Peter Carr.

Thomas Jefferson sat for this portrait by Mather Brown in 1786, the year after he wrote to his nephew Peter Carr.

Although only forty-two years old, Jefferson in 1785 had already compiled an amazing record of publish service.  In the past decade alone, he had served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, been the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, held the post of governor of Virginia, and was now representing the United States as ambassador to France.  “Mortified” by reports of his nephew’s slow academic progress, Jefferson wrote from Paris on the 19th of August to exhort his fifteen-year-old nephew to greater effort.  Did Peter not realize that “every day you lose, will retard a day your entrance on that public stage whereon you may begin to be useful to yourself?” (It’s just a suspicion, but Jefferson may not have been cut out to work with teenagers.)

Jefferson began by focusing on his young charge’s character.  “The purest integrity” and “the most chaste honour” must be his nephew’s “first object.”  “The defect of these virtues can never be made up” by other accomplishments.   Then after integrity comes intellect.  “An honest heart being the first blessing,” Jefferson explained, “a knowing head is the second.”  And so the future president  lay out a course of reading for the teenager.  He must begin with “antient” history–“reading everything in the original” language, of course–and proceed from there to Greek and Roman poetry, followed by a systematic study of philosophy and ethics beginning with Plato and Cicero.

But the body was important as well as the heart and head.  To maximize his academic progress, Peter should set aside at least two hours every day for exercise, “for health must not be sacrificed to learning.”  “A strong body,” Jefferson lectured, “makes the mind strong.”  (Michelle Obama could not have said it better.)  But what kind of exercise should Peter pursue?   Jefferson left nothing to doubt.  “Walking is the best possible exercise,” he instructed, but not just any kind of walking.  “Never think of taking a book with you” while you walk, Jefferson stressed.  Instead,  “let your gun . . . be the constant companion of your walks.”  While “this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance [sic] to the mind.”

And what about more modern kinds of sports, you ask?  Peter should avoid “games played with the ball and others of that nature,” Jefferson cautioned his nephew.  They “are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.”

Thomas Jefferson probably wouldn't approve.

Thomas Jefferson probably wouldn’t approve.

Go Broncos!


  1. Well, I can see this was written prior to the outcome of this gladiatorial contest. Whatever happened to the idea that sports (including those with a ball) build character? Perhaps Jefferson would not have approved of the modern super bowl, but would he have watched just for the commercials? He was a curious guy and might have wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The game itself was, of course, a bit of a let down. Maybe he would have likened it to the American Revolution where the “best” team didn’t necessarily win but the other team was too demoralized to mount an effective comeback. Ah well, Bronco fans are just going to have to “walk it off!”

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