Archive for the ‘Jefferson in the News’ Category

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?


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We are having some calamitous (for Virginia) weather lately – an astonishingly brutal winter altogether so far, in fact.  I’m told the kids are calling it “Snowpocalypse,” or “Snowtorious B.I.G.”   So I thought it would be nice to shamelessly mooch off some splendid research done by one of my colleagues and bring you a snow-themed post in honor of this snowy weekend; something to do for about 3 minutes while you’re snowed in, or, if you are not snowed in, something to feel real good about.

Some days ago, the local paper discussed our completely-uncalled-for recent snowfalls in the context of a historic snowfall, supposedly of 36″, mentioned by Our Man Jefferson.  Someone we know (rightly) became curious about this reference, and asked me about it.  I blithely passed it on to a colleague because, if there’s anything said colleague loves more than a reference question, it’s a reference question about weather.  Here’s the scoop*:

Unfortunately, TJ didn’t start keeping formal weather records with daily temperature records and observations until 1776.  However, he did note it in his Garden Book: “Jan. 26.  the deepest snow we have ever seen. in Albemarle it was about 3. f. deep.” In his endnote connected to that entry in his Garden Book, Edwin Morris Betts notes that “[t]his snow . . . was often referred to by Jefferson” (p. 36).

This is the same snow storm that Thomas and Martha slogged through to get to Monticello on their return after getting married on New Year’s Day (as daughter Martha reported).

…George Washington recorded the daily development of a storm that dumped three feet at Mount Vernon from January 26-27-28.  He describes the snow as starting the night of the 26th-27th and already accumulating six inches by the morning of the 27th, with more snow on the 28th totaling three feet (after a gap, more snow would fly the night of the 29th).  A diary entry from Sally Cary Fairfax…also records the snow as falling on the 27th (“On Monday, the 27th of Jan. there fell an amazing snow, two feet & a half deep”).  So…my guess is that it started on the 26th at Monticello but ended a day or two later.

Gadzooks, this is giving me bad flashbacks to, like, yesterday!

Well.  At least those olden people didn’t have to worry about the power going out.


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There was a little mini-explosion of chatter over the last week on What Jefferson Thought About Intelligent Design.  I wasn’t aware that Jefferson thought about intelligent design, but as we all know, if you use Thomas Jefferson’s name in your argument, you automatically win.  Double points for including a relevant quotation.

It’s a bit of a mess at this point, but I believe the fury was unleashed by this op-ed in the Boston Globe on July 15th.  This was countered almost immediately by some guy in the New Scientist.  Then the Grumpy Lion got involved.   And all the while the Discovery Institute is blogging about the bloggers blogging about their guy’s op-ed piece.  Meanwhile, the debate has caught fire in other realms; here’s a self-described “Australian high school student with a bone to pick with creationists and intelligent-design proponents” on his hilariously-named blog, “Homologous Legs: Evidence for a Common Ancestor between Tables and Chairs.”  Wow.  They should have this kid moderate the debate.  Anyway, then some outraged citizens chimed in again at the Boston Globeone of them none other than Steven Pinker.  The dust now seems to have settled and bloggers are just recounting the whole thing blow-by-blow – er, like me – although the Sensuous Curmudgeon has done a more comprehensive job of it if you are interested.

So where is our Jefferson in all this?  Um, he’s still dead.  I couldn’t help but think of the movie Weekend at Bernie’s during this whole intellectual scuffle.  Poor dead Jefferson, being hauled around and dressed up in other people’s clothing, propped up and his arms rigged to move the way other people want them to.  All the while, he’s totally unaware of all the carrying-on around him.

Well, I’m sure these people all know, intellectually, that Jefferson is dead.  But it doesn’t matter a whit to them.  Now that’s immortality!

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It would be gilding the lily somewhat for me to try to talk too much about this, so I’ll just say that author/artist Maira Kalman visited Monticello and captured the experience in one of her trademark picture-essay blog entries, entitled “Time Wastes Too Fast.”  It is, in the words of one commenter, “sublime.”  And the comments on her entry (379 and counting) are the most remarkable outpouring of emotion about Jefferson that I’ve ever seen.  You must see this thing.

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As I believe I mentioned in a previous blog post, this fall will mark the 200th anniversary of Meriwether Lewis’s untimely and weird death on the Natchez Trace.  To prepare for the momentous occasion, I felt the need to read up on the whole debate on the nature of his death: was it suicide, or murder, or something else?  Since at work I have the attention span of a gnat, I am having to keep my background reading cursory, and so my program consists entirely of reading By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis, ed. John D.W. Guice (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006).  A few weeks ago I read the chapter on the case for suicide, after which I firmly believed Lewis killed himself; yesterday morning I read the chapter on the case for homicide.  Unfortunately I have to say that I don’t think that this second chapter is as well-argued as the first, but after reading it I will say that I’m not prepared to entirely dismiss the possibility of homicide.   Mostly because it seems a little hard to believe that someone could manage to shoot themselves twice with .69-caliber bullets, using a 14 1/2-inch-long pistol, then stagger around still alive for hours afterward.  I’m just saying.

Others are even more adamant in their skepticism about the suicide theory.  There was a recent article in the local paper about a group of collateral Lewis descendants who are petitioning the federal government to have Lewis’s body exhumed and a forensic investigation performed on whatever remains, er, remain.  Lewis’s grave lies inside the boundaries of a national park, and so far the government seems less than keen on allowing poor Lewis to be dug up.  I can’t really blame them, I suppose – don’t want to encourage all the distasteful furor and so forth.  Of course, it’s already kind of a circus.  Maybe they should just give up and hire Geraldo to come and preside over the exhumation. Of course, then they’re sure to open up the coffin and find nothing but a bunch of buttons.  Perhaps some whisky bottles.

One of the rather fascinating things about this debate is not necessarily the subject matter itself, but the people doing the arguing, their attitudes towards the whole thing, and how they’re viewed by their opponents and others.  My basic impression is that, historically, the suicide theory has always enjoyed wider and more mainstream acceptance, while the murder theory has a bit of the wacky underdog about it.  The two sides were rather dramatically personified in one incident recounted in my reading yesterday – a rather snippy exchange of letters in the 1960s between Julian Boyd, original editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, and Vardis Fisher, author of Suicide or Murder?.  Boyd apparently took exception to Fisher’s quotation of him in his work, or his criticism of Jefferson (maybe both).  Fisher retorted that Boyd had an “idolatrous attitude towards Jefferson.”  (Er, he was kind of right there.)

Anyway, tune in next week, or whenever I get the chance, for my humble opinion on what happened to Meriwether Lewis, based on superficial reading and no subject expertise whatsoever!

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Since I set up my Google Alert, which allows me to track when new mentions of “Thomas Jefferson” appear on the Internet, I’ve been amazed to see that there is almost always a tiny little wave of rhetorical consultations of TJ in reaction to each big news story.  In essence, every time something big happens, people start asking themselves and others, “What would Thomas Jefferson do/say/think about this?” and quoting his writings on the topic and talking about how he dealt with similar problems.  TJ apparently had lots to say about the recent bank crisis; he had the solution to the Somali pirate issue (“just send Stephen Decatur after them!”); and there’s been all sorts of invoking of Himself’s name in response to President Obama’s mention of Jefferson owning a copy of the Qur’an.

I am astonished, however, to find people out there in the Internet World claiming that the “real reason” Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an was so he could “study his enemy.”   Now, I’m no Jefferson-and-his-Qur’an expert, but, as my sister used to say, “I fail to see the logic underlying that conclusion.”

This topic was of course very hot when Congressman Keith Ellison had himself sworn into office using Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an in 2006.  At the time there was all sorts of news reportage – really, all the kerfuffle seemed positively prurient – and a flurry of questions sent to us about it.  We really we didn’t have much to say about it except what was in the Sowerby Catalogue.  So I decided it was time to have another look at this, and spent a merry 30 minutes discussing this with my colleague Endrina, who has been working on the Jefferson’s Libraries project ever since I’ve known her.  Anyway, here’s what we know – and do not know – about Jefferson’s Qur’an:

  • Jefferson’s purchase of a copy of George Sale’s Alcoran is recorded in the daybooks of the Virginia Gazette on October 5, 1765, for 1 pound, 6 shillings.
  • Jefferson was studying law at this time under George Wythe in Williamsburg.
  • It is possible that this very book survived the 1770 fire at Jefferson’s family estate of Shadwell and is the selfsame book now at the Library of Congress, and used by Keith Ellison.   By Jefferson’s own admission, very few of his books survived the 1770 fire.  It is also possible that the book Jefferson purchased in 1765 was destroyed five years later and he later purchased another identical copy of the Qur’an; we haven’t found any record of such a purchase, however, so we really can’t say for certain.
  • We do not know for certain why he purchased it. No clear evidence has yet to be revealed on this subject.  There are no known letters where Jefferson explicitly discusses his purchase of a Qur’an.  His main instructor, George Wythe, is not known to have had a copy; the presence of a Qur’an in Wythe’s library might suggest that Wythe considered it an important text for study and may have suggested or required that Jefferson read it as well.

The only substantial scholarly treatment of this specific topic that I’m aware of is Kevin Hayes’ 2004 article in Early American Literature, “How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur’an.”  Hayes suggests that Jefferson’s primary motivation in purchasing the Qur’an was his interest in it as a legal text.  This seems highly plausible to me.  What does not seem plausible is that, 21 years before he encountered a representative of an Islamic country in a professional capacity, he 1) decided that he considered Muslims his “enemy” and 2) conceived of a need to study their main religious text so as to be better equipped for conflict with them.

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Dear American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition (2009):

Hello!  How are you?  Ahem.  It has recently come to my attention that your definition of Founding Father (capitalized) reads thusly: “A member of the convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787.”  Now, as you may know, Thomas Jefferson did not attend the Constitutional Convention, occupied as he was in France, furthering the new nation’s interests and buying many many nice things.  Therefore, according to your definition, Thomas Jefferson is not a Founding Father.  I would urge you to say that aloud to yourself a few times.  Doesn’t it sound silly?  Yes it does.

My point there, of course, is that it was not necessary to be physically present at the Constitutional Convention to have had a profound role in the formation of the new United States.  And anyway, I’ll have you know that, even though he wasn’t physically present, our man TJ was busily sending Little Jimmy Madison crates full of books so he could do some hard-core homework on how to write a constitution.

And lest you should think me purely offended on behalf of Thomas Jefferson, you are in fact also excluding John Adams and Patrick Henry.  Gunning Bedford, Jr.: Founding Father.  John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson: not Founding Fathers.

So in closing, American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition (2009), I urge you to revise your definition of Founding Fathers.  It is arbitrary and nonsensical, and what’s more, people in various blogs and columns and Letters to the Editor are constructing odd arguments based on its dubious authority as we speak.  This is not to be borne.  I would suggest something more inclusive.  Something like the Oxford English Dictionary‘s very reasonable “an American statesman of the Revolutionary period, esp. a member of the American Constitutional Convention of 1787.”

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Disgruntled Jefferson Librarian

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