As many of you will have noticed, Monticello has a brand-new shiny website.  This development came along in October, and as part of Phase II of the new website, we’ll be launching a whole bunch of social media features, including a Megablog.  That’s what I call it, anyway.  This will be one big blog containing posts from all sorts of Monticello staff members, including myself.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  I’ll be ceasing blogging operations here as of Monday, December 20, and will resume blogging operations over at Monticello.org.  It won’t be hosted on my beloved WordPress, but don’t worry, I’ll still be me, and I’ve been assured that it will still be called “A Summary View.”  All that, and you’ll have a chance to hear from some of my inimitable compatriots here at Monticello, too.  If you’d like to revise your bookmarks, here’s the new URL (it will probably still say “Page Not Found” until Monday).

So, this isn’t really a goodbye or an ending, just a metamorphosis – an awesome butterfly-type metamorphosis, not a creepy Franz Kafka-like Metamorphosis.  That said, I do want to say that I’ve loved blogging here at WordPress, and I’m truly honored that people have taken the time to read what I’ve written.  I’ve met lots of wonderful and fascinating people through this blog, and I hope you’ll all stick with me as I trundle over to my new blogging digs!


That Pesky Billiard Table

There are a lot of stories about Monticello that crept into the lore over the years – mostly after Jefferson died, after all the family had left Monticello, and no one who had lived there during its heyday was around anymore to refute them.   These stories found their way into popular literature and are still coming back home to roost, so to speak, in the form of queries from visitors.  One of the most persistent of these stories is one about Jefferson using the Dome Room as a billiard hall.

This myth flourished with some very able help from no less than Sarah Nicholas Randolph, great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and author of The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (1871).  In this book she matter-of-factly relates the Billiard Story, which information was given to her by a “member of Mr. Jefferson’s family, who lived there for many years”:

The west front the rooms occupy the whole height, making the house one story, except the parlor or central room, which is surmounted by an octagonal story, with a dome or spherical roof. This was designed for a billiard-room; but, before completion, a law was passed prohibiting public and private billiard-tables in the State. It was to have been approached by stairways connected with a gallery at the inner extremity of the hall, which itself forms the communication between the lodging-rooms on either side above. The use designed for the room being prohibited, these stairways were never erected, leaving in this respect a great deficiency in the house.

This is a rather well-developed and fascinating piece of family lore, and I would love to know how it came into being.  Needless to say, we have no reason whatsoever (other than this story) to believe that Thomas Jefferson originally intended the Dome Room for billiards, or that he actually employed it as such.

But…the Levy family did!  Check this out:

Photograph of a billiard table in the Dome Room, 1899.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s a billiard table.  In the Dome Room.

This is from an article that appeared in the January, 1899 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, “The Home of Jefferson,” by Maud Howard Peterson.  This account of a visit to Monticello was also published in Merrill Peterson’s Visitors to Monticello, and Peterson (Merrill, that is) takes pains to refute Maud’s billiard story.  Her version of the billiard story is even more elaborate than Sarah Randolph’s:

On the third floor is the famous ballroom, built originally for billiards of which Jefferson was extremely fond. Scarcely was it completed, however, when he discovered, to his chagrin, that the game was prohibited by a law recently passed by the State Legislature. The story runs that some years earlier there lived within the borders of Virginia a very brilliant and promising young lawyer named John Marshall, who insisted on wasting his time on games of all sorts, and most especially on billiards.  In vain his friends urged him to work seriously and give up such unprofitable pastimes.  Marshall was not to be moved.  Finally some one suggested that a law should be enacted to suppress billiards, declaring that “Marshall would never break a law.” The State Legislature, at the time, was composed largely of the young man’s friends, and they passed the necessary bill.  They laughingly used to say, afterwards, that Marshall owed to their timely intervention his subsequent brilliant career, which made him chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

However, the fact remains that billiards were prohibited throughout Virginia; and Jefferson, with the calm philosophy that characterized so much of his life, made the best of a bad bargain, and the room was converted into a ballroom, perhaps the most famous in any private residence of the time.  Could its walls speak, they would tell strange tales of the beauty, gallantry, and wit that once assembled there.  It was to have been approached by stairways connected with a gallery at the inner extremity of the hall.  For some unknown reason these were never erected; instead, a staircase was built in each wing, of such narrow dimensions that it is still a problem how the grand ladies with their ample hoopskirts ever ascended to the ballroom above.

I started to try to pick apart all the errors, distortions, and outright fantasies in Maud’s description of the Dome Room, but then I got tired.  Let’s just say, the only thing she’s right about is that the Dome Room is on the third floor.

In Maud’s defense, there was a billiard table right there in the Dome Room, at least in 1898.  You know and I know that that doesn’t mean there was one there in 1815, but Maud seems an easily suggestible lady.  Bless her heart.

The billiard table was apparently still in the Dome Room at least into the late 1920s, years after the Thomas Jefferson Foundation had opened Monticello’s doors to the public.  This no doubt helped to keep the myth going.  Here’s an image, taken ca. 1928, from I.T. Frary’s Thomas Jefferson: Architect and Builder (Richmond: Garrett and Massie, 1931), in which the corner of the (presumably) very same billiard table is clearly visible.

And, the author actually calls it “the Billiard Room” right there, in the caption!   No wonder people thought the Dome Room was a billiard room, what with all this calling it a “billiard room” and having billiard tables in it.

Regarding Maud’s Ballroom Fantasy, well…if there were any glittering balls held up there, then all the guests of these balls must have been sworn to silence, because I’m unaware of anyone ever mentioning attending such a thing in any letters, diaries, or memoirs.

The truth is that we simply don’t have good evidence for any specific intended function for the Dome Room.  But Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do inquiring minds.  In the absence of any clear explanation for the Dome Room’s existence, it’s no wonder that more interesting stories creep in to fill the space.

On the Welshness

In his Autobiography, Jefferson wrote:

The tradition in my father’s family was that their ancestor came to this country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowdon, the highest in Gr. Br. I noted once a case from Wales in the law reports where a person of our name was either pl. or def. and one of the same name was Secretary to the Virginia company.  These are the only instances in which I have met with the name in that country.

Interesting, eh?  Unfortunately, actual proof of a Welsh ancestry for the Jefferson family remains elusive.

Admittedly, Thomas Jefferson’s paternal lineage is still kinda murky; we are pretty solid on the Jefferson line back to Thomas Jefferson “the First” (d. 1697), but everything before that is in dispute.  Even so, none of the proposed lineages lead to Wales.  In fact, they all lead to various parts of England.

Dumas Malone, in Jefferson the Virginian, remarked rather dismissively on the Jeffersons’ claim to originate in Wales, “Whether they ever did seems to be beyond the possibility of historical verification and the matter is of no real importance.”  I respectfully disagree, on both counts.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, things that may have been (or seemed to be) impossible to find out years ago may be well within reach now.  And as for this matter being of no real importance, that is certainly in the eye of the beholder.  Clearly Dumas Malone wasn’t interested in investigating this question, but I’m sure the entire nation of Wales would be pretty interested in the answer.  Also, if it is not in fact true, somebody could probably write a whole dissertation on how the Jeffersons came to associate themselves with Wales and their reasons for doing so.

Now, interestingly enough, Thomas Jefferson himself owned several Welsh things:

  • In his vast library collection was a Welsh dictionary: Thomas Jones’ Y Gymraeg yn ei Disgleirdeb, neu Helaeth Eirlyfr Cymraeg a Saesnaeg, yn Cynwŷs llawer mwŷ o Eiriau Cymraeg nag sŷdd yng Eirlyfr y disgawdr Sion Dafis o Gymraeg a Lading (Shrewsbury, 1760).  The title actually goes on for seven (7) more sentences, but I haven’t got all day here and neither have you.  For the curious, the title translates roughly as The British Language in its Luster, or a Copious Dictionary of Welsh and English [something something something] John Davis [something something].  Jefferson’s reasons for owning such a thing are unclear, although a somewhat startling answer to this question was suggested by an article I found the other day on the Internet: that Jefferson used it to decode all the dispatches that Meriwether Lewis was writing to him in Welsh.  I’m unaware of any such dispatches, but would love to be enlightened.
  • Thomas Jefferson named one of his horses Caractacus, after one of the leaders of the British resistance to the Roman invasion in the first century A.D.  Although he wasn’t really Welsh, technically speaking, Caractacus later became associated with Wales and Welsh figures in literature and mythology.

While these may indeed be evidence of a particular interest in Wales, I do feel compelled to point out that, based on his house, books and other possessions, Thomas Jefferson appeared to be interested in almost everything.

But back to the family story: is it true or not?  So far it’s looking like “not,” despite repeated claims to the contrary.  A friend recently sent me this article, which happily trumpets that “DNA tests prove Jefferson’s Welsh lineage.”  The DNA tests proved no such thing, however, and indeed the results seem to make it even less likely that the Jefferson family originated in Wales.  To summarize very briefly, DNA tests were performed on 85 men with the last name “Jefferson” at the University of Leicester, and only 2 of them turned out to have the same Y chromosome as our Jefferson.  These two men, whose relation to President Jefferson was estimated at about 11 generations back, had ancestral ties in Yorkshire and the West Midlands, respectively.  I have just looked at a map and can tell you with some authority that neither of those are in Wales.

But, one of the things that I like about studying people in times past is that they always surprise you.  Maybe the Jeffersons were Welsh, or the story is true in some way that we have yet to discover.  The West Midlands aren’t far away from Wales, relatively speaking – maybe the Jeffersons were originally-originally from Wales, by way of the West Midlands.  Maybe some Jefferson way back married a Welsh woman, and she was such a cool person that her origins loomed large in the family history – but not so much in the documentary record.  Anyone with relatives or ancestors knows that sometimes family stories can get a bit garbled.

I don’t have an answer for this question right now – I wish I did!  But by writing about it here, I’m hoping that a) some of those related Jeffersons in England might be intrigued and motivated to find the answer from the other end, so to speak, and b) somebody will tell me where those coded Welsh letters are!

A girl can dream, right?

The latest Shuffelton item to cross my desk is quite the Victorian jewel.  No, really.  You should see the cover.  In fact, here it is:

Ladies of the White House Cover

Yes, it’s Ladies of the White House; or, In the Home of the Presidents: Being a Complete History of the Social and Domestic Lives of the Presidents from Washington to Hayes – 1789-1880, by Laura C. Holloway.  With Numerous engravings on Steel and Wood.  (Cincinnati: Forshee & McMakin, 1880).

The contents of the book are just as gloriously, unashamedly, over-the-top as the cover.  Here’s  a particularly florid and naively dreamy passage  about Martha Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s daughter:

Her memory is so fragrant with the perfume of purity and saintly sweetness, that it is a privilege to dwell and muse upon a theme so elevating.  The world has not yet developed a more harmonious, refined, or superior type of womanhood than the daughters of Virginia in the last century.  Reared in ease and plenty, taught the virtues that ennoble, and valuing their good name no less than prizing their family lineage, they were the most delightful specimens of womanhood ever extant.  Most particularly was Martha Jefferson of this class, whose image is fast losing originality in the modern system of utilitarian education.  Her father’s and her husband’s great enemy pronounced her “the sweetest woman in Virginia;” and the assurance comes laden with the testimony of many tongues, that her existence was one of genial sunshine and peace.  Are not such natures doubly blessed, first, in the happiness they secure to themselves, and, secondly, in the blessing they are to those who walk in the light of their example?

Priceless!  Although, seriously, I doubt that a woman with eleven children would describe her existence as one of “genial sunshine and peace.”

Oddly Precise

I’m currently engaged in a long-term quest to acquire every single item in Frank Shuffelton’s epic Thomas Jefferson: A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him, 1826-1997. Frank Shuffelton, as some of you may already know, was a professor of English at the University of Rochester, compiler of the above bibliography as well as editing an excellent edition of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and the recent Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, and a member of the ICJS Advisory Board.  He was also a very nice man – I met him once for 2 minutes over a cheese plate at the 2004 launch of the new Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series.

When the Jefferson Library was just a little baby library, we used Frank’s bibliography to jump-start our online catalog, loading all of the citations into it.  Frank died earlier this year, but we’re carrying on his Jefferson bibliographizing here.  We’re pretty on top of the recent stuff about Jefferson, but for older stuff, we sometimes just have a citation in the catalog and no holdings; that’s the stuff that I’m filling in now.

So this is the first in a running series of Amusing Shuffelton Items.  Item #1 is a book called The People’s Choice, by Herbert Agar (Riverside Press, 1933).  Herbert Agar, we learn from the Internet, was “an American journalist and editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal.”  This book also won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1934.  Hmmm.  Anyway, I managed to get a copy that still has its dust jacket, which is fortunate because this one is pretty awesome: check out those 1930s-vintage graphics!

It is one specific chapter of this book, of course, that we are particularly interested in, because it is titled “John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.”  Fortunately I don’t need to bother to read it, because Frank already did, and summarized it thusly in his annotated bibliography:

Adams and TJ were part of the oligarchic class, “A little group of privileged and public-spirited men” which occupied the presidency during the first fifty years of the nation’s existence. The election of 1800 was no revolution; “in fact, there was no important change.”

“No important change”?!  Whatever, Herbert!  As you will have divined from Frank’s summary, Mr. Agar is a man of strong opinions.  Witness the question posed on the cover, which seems to be the result of Mr. Agar’s very strong opinions combined with some oddly precise math.

Good question, Mr. Agar!  How those eighteen bunglers among the twenty-two presidents after the first seven presidents got elected to office is truly one of the great mysteries of our time.

Seriously, I poke a little fun at Mr. Agar’s convoluted ranking, but his comment actually puts me in mind of Jefferson’s own famous comment, speaking of his daughter, that “the chance that in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate at about fourteen to one…”  I would love to know what kind of analysis led to that oddly precise math…but that’s for another blog post.

Eternal Vigilance

Much as I love debunking Jefferson quotations that were probably made up by college students last week on Facebook, it’s somewhat more intellectually stimulating to revisit some venerable old spurious quotes.  There’s a whole slew of these that are routinely attributed to Jefferson and various others, and you’ll see most of them dealt with in all the standard quotation references.  Whatever the apparent vintage of the spurious quote, however, I find that it behooves me to keep searching for them at regular intervals.  Those heroic scanners at Google Books are chewing relentlessly through the stacks of all sorts of huge academic libraries at a pretty steady pace.  The ultimate source of almost all these spurious quotations is in some book, somewhere.  It’s just a matter of time until Google scans that book!

The venerable old quotation that happened to present itself  for investigation most recently is the eternally beloved, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” which as of this last check was still not said by Jefferson.

The standard sourcing of this quotation is given in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, ed. Suzy Platt – a fantastic reference, by the way, not least because it is compiled by people at the Library of Congress – that pretty much guarantees awesomeness.  RQ traces the ultimate origins of this quote to a speech by John Philpot Curran, given on the occasion of his election as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1790.  “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” said Mr. Lord Curran.  It’s not quite “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” but he said “eternal vigilance,” “liberty,” and a word that means sort of the same thing as “price” all in the same sentence, and hey, what are the odds?  RQ also provides a cross reference to the first known appearance of the quote in its shorter form, in a speech by abolitionist Wendell Phillips in 1852.

Lovely as RQ is, it was also published in 1989 (2nd ed. in 1993).  Back in those days, what you did when you want to track down a quotation was, you went over to the reference shelf and checked the keyword indexes of Bartlett’s and whatever other quotation reference books happened to be there.  Indexes are created by people.  And people are, as we all know, people – by which I mean, those indexes are only as good and thorough as the people making them.  If it’s not in the index, oh well.  Game over.  You might get lucky and come across a quote purely by accident, but if you’re writing a reference book, relying on serendipity probably would slow down your publication schedule considerably.  Anyway, my point is that in tracing quotations, you try any way you can to get some kind of access to the publications of the past.  Back in 1989, your methods of access were pretty limited indeed, and probably resulted in a very limited glimpse.  Like looking through a keyhole.

Now we have all these fancy full-text databases, along with Google Books and the Internet Archive.  Although there’s still loads of material we can’t see yet, our glimpse into the printed past is now quite a bit bigger.  Which is why I thought it might be worth a try to see if I couldn’t find out some more about this quote.

Not to be mean to Mr. Wendell Phillips, but he’s about to get slightly less famous.

After two days of ridiculously feverish searching, I’ve traced the purported Phillips version of this quote all the way back to 1809.  (For the record, Mr. Phillips was -2 years old at that time.)  And it seems fairly clear to me that this source is repeating something that was already well-known by then, and therefore of even older vintage.  In fact, the 1809 source even puts the phrase in quotes.  The reference appears in The Life of Major General James Jackson (yes, my favorite book too!), in a passage where the author is talking about Jackson returning to his home turf to help repeal laws under which Georgia land had been speculated away:

The biographer approaches the subject with loathing, impelled to it by the obligations he has assumed. His painful duty will be comparatively light if he can convince himself that his succinct presentation of the speculation shall have the least effect in fastening upon the minds of the American people the belief that, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”…

I’ve looked through the aforementioned fancy databases with hundreds of thousands of newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets and books from the 17th through 19th centuries, plus Google Books, which contains another squillion or so items, and I can tell you with certainty that this phrase was incredibly big in the nineteenth century.  I found almost 700 usages of the phrases “eternal vigilance” and “price of liberty” together in various combinations just between 1800 and 1850 in books, newspapers and periodicals.  There was even supposedly a newspaper that ran the motto on its masthead, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but the price of the Star is only one cent.”  Hyuck, hyuck!

Everybody was saying it, but nobody knows who first said it.  Occasionally someone would pin the saying on some unsuspecting departed famous person – Patrick Henry a few times, Jefferson somewhat more often, and a couple references to Junius, a pseudonymous letter-to-the-editor-writer of the eighteenth century.  (I assume that’s the Junius they mean, and not this Junius.)  That one got me all excited for a while, but so far has not panned out.

The earliest attribution to Jefferson that I’ve found so far is in 1838, in an article in the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier.  There are a few near misses that predate that, however, and what we may be seeing there is a 150-year-old slo-mo demonstration of how quotes come to be associated with specific people.  Observe:

Virginia Free Press and Farmers' Repository, May 2, 1833

Vermont Patriot and State Gazette, March 21, 1836

Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, January 4, 1838

The quotation is almost literally sidling up to Jefferson on the printed page.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t say this.  But strangely enough, I’ve discovered a whole string of quite famous people who did say this, which makes it seem even odder that the attribution got pinned on a relatively obscure figure like Phillips.  Andrew Jackson said this in his farewell speech in 1837.  James Buchanan said this in a speech on veto power in 1842.  Frederick Douglass apparently said this enough to warrant discussion in this book on Frederick Douglass’ proverbial rhetoric, which Google won’t let me see.

So while it’s still true that Wendell Phillips did say this, now the picture is a somewhat different.  He was only one of legions of people who used this phrase – most of them obscure or nameless, but some of them quite prominent.  You will all have noticed, however, that couldn’t find anything to predate the Curran attribution.  Oh well.  I’ll just wait another six months and try again…

P.S.  Newspaper images are from Gale’s 19th Century U.S. Newspapers.

Back in the 1920s, when the nascent Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (my current employer, now called the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., and not to be confused with the Monticello Association or the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association) was trying to scrape together the cash to purchase Monticello from Jefferson Monroe Levy, they found themselves a little short.   So they conceived a cunning plan, of course – they would sell short-term mortgage bonds to willing supporters as a way of a) footing the bill, and b) getting their interested audience invested (literally) in the success of Monticello as a historic site.  Genius, right?*

I was not previously aware of any of this.  Generally, in the context of my job I’m not aware of most things until somebody asks me about it – then I make it my business to become the World’s Foremost Expert on that one little topic.  Which makes for a weird, patchy knowledgebase with lots of random blindspots – I might be able to give you a dazzling dissertation about something, or I might be clueless as a fencepost about it.

Between you and me and the rest of the Internet, the latter was in fact the case when we were contacted a few weeks ago by someone at Ohio State University; they said they were processing an archival collection and had came across what was apparently a mortgage bond for Monticello.  But, any state of cluelessness about something is also a golden shining opportunity to educate oneself.  That’s why we got all these books and papers lying around the library.  So I went digging into the archives and found this.

300 of these things were issued, maturing in 1, 2 or 3 years.  The one above is a class A mortgage bond, issued to Henry Alan Johnston, the secretary of the Foundation.

As for the one Ohio State contacted us about – well, apparently Monticello had some famous friends.  That one was issued to Richard E. Byrd – that’s right, polar-exploring Byrd!  (Not to be confused with big-wig-wearing, diary-writing, lady-chasing William Byrd, or recently-deceased Senator Byrd.)

The Byrd Polar Research Center has been busily digitizing items from Richard Byrd’s papers and artifacts, and have a whiz-bang online digital collection.  You can now see Admiral Byrd’s Monticello mortgage bond right here, in all its glory.

Oh, and about those mortgage bonds – Monticello was all paid off and debt-free by 1940, so if you’ve got one in your attic, sorry, you don’t own a piece of Monticello.  But it does mean that someone you know was very nice to Monticello long ago, and that’s something to be proud of!

*Update: Some more information has come to my attention and, just to clarify, here’s how the bonds worked: the TJMF purchased the bonds.  Every time somebody donated $1,000 to them, the Foundation would cancel one bond and present it to the donor with their name on it.