William Short - Jefferson's First Disciple

William Short - Jefferson's First Disciple

William Short spent the first decade of his career as Thomas Jefferson’s personal Secretary.

Short followed Jefferson to France, eventually establishing an impressive (though not entirely successful) career as a diplomat.

William lived long, becoming a prominent abolitionist in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Jefferson’s ‘Family’

Thomas Jefferson mentored several young men during his career, but three in particular became his ‘family.’ These three men were James Madison, James Monroe and William Short.

Two of these names will be recognizable to even the most casual observer. Madison and Monroe would follow Jefferson as Presidents of the United States.

Short would fade gradually into the shadows of history, but his part in the American Revolution was no less important.

William Short

William Short was a bright young man who was a distant relative of Jefferson and most likely came to the latter’s attention before reaching maturity. Immediately upon his graduation from college, Short became Jefferson’s personal Secretary.

As Secretary, William took care of Jefferson’s affairs, including communicating with other notable Founders. Many of Jefferson’s surviving letters are in the hand of Short.

Short would maintain this position for the next decade, assisting Jefferson while he was Governor, through the death of his wife and during his time as Minister to France.

Charge d’Affaires

After five years in France, Jefferson returned home to become Secretary of State.

William Short remained behind, separated from his mentor for the first time in his adult life. William was appointed as charge d’affaires, essentially Jefferson’s replacement as Minister.

Short was the representative of the United States during the French Revolution, witnessing firsthand the horrors of the Reign of Terror. These circumstances gave him a very different opinion of France’s situation than Jefferson and Madison.


After three years in Paris, William Short was chosen by President Washington to be the Minister to the Netherlands, being replaced in France by Gouverneur Morris.

Short spent about twelve months in the Netherlands before being transferred to Spain. He worked towards a treaty with the Spanish, but this was difficult due to America’s alliance with France who Spain was at war with.

Unfortunately, William was replaced by Thomas Pinckney after two years of work, with a treaty being signed shortly thereafter.

Quarrel with Madison

William Short finally returned to the United States after over a decade abroad shortly after Thomas Jefferson was elected President.

During this time, his already shaky relationship with James Madison began to worsen. The two men had strongly disagreed over France’s situation and Madison (who had taken over Short’s position as Jefferson’s number two) was suspicious of William.

Short did not hold any official position in Jefferson’s Administration, only giving casual advice when solicited. That was until the final year of Jefferson’s time in office, when he sent William to be the nation’s first Minister to Russia.

Unfortunately for Short, his nomination was soon rejected by the Senate. When Madison assumed the Presidency, he chose not to renominate Short, leaving him stranded in Europe.


Luckily, William had carefully developed several businesses throughout his life and returned home unhappy but wealthy.

Short devoted the rest of his live to charity work. Most notably, William spoke openly about the injustices of slavery.

Short was ahead of his time while discussing racial equality in the United States. He was one of a small handful of Founders who believed black people had the same mental fortitude as white people. William promoted liberating slaves as well as giving them farmland and access to education, so they could more easily integrate into society.

In his later years, Short became a president of the American Colonization Society. This organization attempted to free slaves in the United States and resettle them in African colonies. Although, in hindsight, this Society was unsuccessful (and in many ways inhumane) it was at its heart a valiant attempt to find a way to manumit American slaves.

William Short passed away in 1849 at 90 years old. He was one of the last surviving Founders. To put this in context, he died 73 years after the Declaration of Independence and just 11 years before the Civil War.

If you’d like to read about other people in Thomas Jefferson’s life, try my article on his mentor Richard Bland or his childhood friend John Harvie.

If you’d like to learn more about William Short, you might like ‘Jefferson’s Adoptive Son’ which is a biography of the main man in today’s story.

Of course, if you’d like to receive a Founder every day make sure you subscribe to the email list.

Federalist #8 - Alexander Hamilton - Federalist Fridays

Federalist #8 - Alexander Hamilton - Federalist Fridays

Arthur Lee Gets Jealous And Starts Rumors

Arthur Lee Gets Jealous And Starts Rumors