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