The Healthful Habits of Thomas Jefferson

“Health is worth more than learning. -Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson’s diet, his hygiene, exercise regime and views toward alcohol and tobacco were amazingly in accord with contemporary attitudes. Conversely they were most opposite of those of his fellow Virginians. These habits allowed him to live to the age of eighty-four with little illness during his lifetime.

I have been more fortunate than my friend in the article of health. So free from catarrhs that I have not had one, (in the breast, I mean) on an average of eight or ten years through life…A fever of more than twenty-four hours I have not had above two or three times in my life.

He spoke of his habits in an 1819 letter to Doctor Vine Utley:

Sir,—Your letter of February the 18th came to hand on the 1st instant; and the request of the history of my physical habits would have puzzled me not a little, it not been for the model with which you accompanied it, of Doctor Rush’s answer to a similar inquiry. I live so much like other people, that I might refer to ordinary life as the history of my own. Like my friend the Doctor, I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet. I double however, the Doctor’s glass and a half of wine, and even treble it with a friend; but halve its effects by drinking the weak wines only. The ardent wines I cannot drink, nor do I use ardent spirits in any form. Malt liquors and cider are my table drinks, and My breakfast, like that also of my friend, is of tea and coffee. I have been blest with organs of digestion which accept and concoct, without ever murmuring, whatever the palate chooses to consign to them, and I have not yet lost a tooth by age.

Thomas Jefferson started each day early. “Whether I retire to bed early or late, I rise with the sun.” He rose as soon as he could read the hands of the clock kept directly opposite his bed. He started his own fire and soaked his feet in cold water. Jefferson maintained that this foot bath attributed to his good health. Jefferson was rare for his day in that he often bathed. Franklin was adverse to water baths, opting instead to stand nude in the wind to take an “air bath”.

Jefferson slept five to eight hours a night in a semi-reclining position since his bed was too short for his height. This position facilitated his habit of reading in bed. “I never go to bed without an hour, or half hour’s previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.”

While not a vegetarian, as we understand the term today, Jefferson was unusually moderate in his consumption of meat and was notable for the amount and variety of vegetables that he ate. His granddaughter wrote: “He lived principally on vegetables….The little meat he took seemed mostly as a seasoning for his vegetables.” Jefferson’s fondness for vegetables can be traced in his garden books that contain thousands of entries detailing the many varieties that he grew for his own consumption. Two of his favorites were peas and cucumbers.

As the founder of the University of Virginia, Jefferson had a say in all aspects of its building and operations. He drew up the daily menu for the students. It was heavy on vegetables and fruits. Only the mid-day meal included a small portion of meat.

for breakfast. Wheat or cornbread, at the choice of each particular, with butter, and milk, or Coffee-au-lait, at the choice of each. no meat.

for dinner. a soup, a dish of salt meat, a dish of fresh meat, & as great a variety of vegetables well cooked as you please.

for supper, corn or wheat bread at their choice, & milk, or Coffee-au-lait, also at their choice, but no meat.

their drink at all times water, a young stomach needing no stimulating drinks, and the habit of using them being dangerous.

Jefferson also advised collegians that a “strong body makes the mind strong.” He wrote to his favorite nephew Peter Carr:

In order to progress well in your studies, you must take at least two hours a day to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning…Walking is very important. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert yourself by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise.

Jefferson heeded his own recommendation concerning exercise. He daily walked his estate. Despite his advice though, his favorite form of physical activity was horseback riding. He continued the habit up to his 84th year when he “was so weak that he could only get into the saddle by stepping down from the terrace.”

Jefferson felt that the mind as well as the body should be exercised. He wrote his fifteen year old daughter:

It is your future happiness that interests me, and nothing can contribute more to it than the contracting a habit of industry and activity. Of all the cankers of human happiness none corrodes with so silent, yet so baneful a tooth, as indolence. Body and mind both unemployed, our being becomes a burthen, and every object about us loathsome, even the dearest. Idleness begets ennui, ennui the hypochondria, and that a diseased body. Exercise and application produce order in our affairs, health of body, cheerfulness of mind, and these make us precious to our friends.

To make sure that his daughter was not idle and exercised body and mind, Jefferson devised the following schedule for the teenager.

  1. From 8 to 10 o’clock practice music.
  2. From 10 to 1 dance one day and draw another.
  3. From 1 to 2 draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.
  4. From 3 to 4 read French.
  5. From 4 to 5 exercise yourself in music.
  6. From 5 till bedtime read English, write, etc.

Jefferson was adverse to tobacco usage, feeling it was dangerous to his health. He calls its cultivation of it “a culture productive of infinite wickedness.” This is from a person whose economy was based on the growing of tobacco. This dichotomy in Jefferson’s character can be seen in other aspects of his life such as his views on slavery.

One thing Jefferson was not ambivalent about though was his love of wine. He felt that wine was “indispensable for my health.” Jefferson was one of the most knowledgeable wine connoisseurs to ever hold national office. He advocated the virtues of wine stating “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” His own alcohol use was moderate and he often watered his wine to lessen its effect.

“…you are not to conclude I am a drinker. My measure is a perfectly sober 3 or 4 glasses at dinner, and not a drop at any other time. But as to those 3 or 4 glasses I am very fond.”

In this respect he was much different than his fellow Virginians. Washington was said to be able to drink four bottles in an evening. Indeed, Jefferson’s health habits fit more in the Twenty-first century than the Eighteenth. His high fiber diet, exercise regime, moderate use of alcohol and non-use of tobacco are the basis of healthful living today.

 

More about Thomas Jefferson: