Archive for the ‘TJ Encyclopedia Entries’ Category

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.


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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.

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A while ago, I was perusing the Memorandum Books, which Marie Kimball very eloquently (but somewhat over-optimistically) described as “candid tattlers of Jefferson’s every move,” when I spotted something curious.

1776 Aug. 8. Pd. Dowig for mourning ring 45/  thimble 4/6.

Dowig, I presume, is the merchant, although he’s not identified.  So the question that then immediately occurs is, for whom is this mourning ring?  One possibility that comes to mind is that Jefferson was buying it on behalf of someone else – but it’s been my observation that he usually notes that kind of thing, e.g. “Pd. Dowig for mourning ring for Mr. Smith.”  So while I suppose Jefferson may have forgotten to do this or deliberately not done it for reasons unknown, I’m going to lay that one aside in the interests of actually getting somewhere with this blog post.

So, assuming that this was a ring that TJ bought for himself to wear, I’m going to further presume that he wouldn’t feel the need to buy a mourning ring upon the death of anyone other than closely-related family.  So who had recently died?  Considering all the options here…

  • Children: The last child of Martha and Thomas Jefferson died in September 1775, and the next would not come along until 1777.  It’s been suggested that there were, in fact, other children or perhaps miscarriages in this period, but it seems unlikely that one would buy mourning rings on their behalf, especially if their births and deaths weren’t even noted in the record.
  • Siblings and in-laws: The last sibling who had died was his younger sister Elizabeth, in 1774.  As for in-laws, the most recent death would have been his father-in-law, John Wayles (d. 1773).
  • Parents: his father was long gone (1757), but…his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, had died just a few months before, at the end of March, 1776.

One might well point out that what I’ve constructed here is a rather large tower of assumptions, and by no means am I claiming this is definitely the answer.  I’m just presenting a small mystery, and one possible answer.

I’m sure by Monday I’ll be completely skeptical and sober about this: “Maybe he just forgot to mention he bought it for somebody else.”  “Maybe he just bought it for the sake of appearances.”  “Maybe I missed another relative who died.”  “We just don’t know.”  But, I can’t tell you that on Sunday, a little part of my brain won’t indulge in a little fantasy that maybe, just maybe, Thomas Jefferson bought a mourning ring because he loved his mother and was sad that she was gone from the world.

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Everybody loves countdowns, right?  Right.  So, I’ve come up with my own list of things people get wrong about Jefferson, based on my extensive observation of the stuff people put on the Internet or ask us about.  Here goes:

  1. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution. That would be the Declaration of Independence.  For Pete’s sake, they don’t even rhyme or anything, people!
  2. Thomas Jefferson invented coathangers/triple-sashed windows/skylights/polygraphs/dirt. Well, this is somewhat debatable, depending on what your definition of an “invention” is, but the party line now is that Jefferson invented only the moldboard plow and not any of those other things.
  3. Thomas Jefferson said [x]. TJ said lots of things, but strangely enough, not most of the things people think he said.
  4. Thomas Jefferson was a Democrat/Republican/liberal/conservative. Yeah, you wish, Democrats/Republicans/liberals/conservatives!  For one thing, the names of the parties have changed (that one really gets the ignoramuses out there).  For another, it’s practically impossible to put a modern political label on TJ, because, well, he’s not a modern politician.
  5. Thomas Jefferson grew marijuana. He did grow hemp, but as I understand it, the type of industrial hemp grown to make rope and cloth and so forth contains only minimal amounts of the compound that makes so many people so happy.  Nice try, potheads!
  6. Thomas Jefferson was an atheist/Deist/not a Christian. Some say that TJ cannot be called a Christian because he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus.  On the other hand, TJ called himself a Christian, so I’m just going to take him at his word.
  7. Thomas Jefferson was my ancestor/relative. Well, that could be, actually.  Statistically speaking, however, most people would be wrong about this.
  8. Jefferson was the first to bring vanilla/macaroni & cheese/ice cream to the United States. Jefferson was most likely not the first person to bring any of these foods to America, although his name probably has become attached to them because these were foods he served at dinners during his Presidency, which tended to be highly remarked-upon. So perhaps one could say that although he didn’t introduce them, he may have played a large part in popularizing them.
  9. Jefferson was a Freemason. Negatory.
  10. Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an so he could study his enemies and fight the Muslims. Some people clearly wish this was true, but sadly: no.

So there you go.  I apologize if your favorite Jefferson misconception didn’t make it onto the list, but you can always post it in the comments.  I love misconceptions, as long as they’re not mine!

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This blog entry came up in my Google Alert a few days ago – its main focus is actually a cathedral in Saigon, but it incidentally mentions a fascinating little episode in Jefferson’s life of which I was heretofore unaware.

As you may know, TJ was forever in pursuit of superior rice varieties to import to the U.S., and famously smuggled rice grains out of Italy in defiance of Italy’s harsh non-exportation laws.  While in France, a little birdie told TJ that Vietnam had some fabulous rice.  And it just so happened that a representative of Vietnam was then living in exile at the French court – 7-year-old Prince Canh.  Here’s a portrait of Canh on Wikipedia – he is very adorable, non? Apparently he was wildly popular with the ladies at the French court and predictably inspired them to do new and even stranger things to their coiffures.  Jefferson wasted no time in arranging for an audience with the pint-sized foreign dignitary.  Let’s pause a minute to savor the image of overly-dignified Minister Plenipotentiary Jefferson having a diplomatic tête-à-tête with a 7-year-old boy.

Cinder Stanton discusses this incident in fairly fine detail in a 1983 report she did on TJ’s pursuit of rice.  It seems that unfortunately Jefferson never obtained his Vietnamese rice, but the blog post I mentioned above mentions another aspect to this meeting that perhaps bears thinking about: this could well have been the first contact between the U.S. and Vietnam.  Now, I think it depends on how you qualify that – I have a hard time believing that no Americans had ever set foot in Vietnam before, or Vietnamese folks hadn’t at ever stopped off at U.S. ports.  Maybe it was the first diplomatic contact.  My slapdash googling did not turn up any information to the contrary, so I’ll let that one stand unless somebody cares to contradict me.

So, there you go – yet another first on Jefferson’s resume.

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If you’ve been following this blog, or even talking to me on a regular basis, you know that we went through an extraordinarily obnoxious patch a year or so ago in which we were getting fake Jefferson quotation questions about every 4 minutes or so.  This seemed to be largely due to some sort of chain-email thing that was making the rounds, although we’ve always done quite a brisk business in quotation debunking.  Some day I will compile some actual statistics on this, but off the top of my head I would venture to say that at least half of the questions we answer are to do with quotations.  Until recently, that is.

Since we started the wiki (our pet name for the TJ Encyclopedia), I’ve put up articles on any spurious quote that comes to our attention.  We now have quite the collection – there’s currently 31 infamous non-Jefferson sayings, and I have a list of at least half a dozen that need to be put up.  And I was just reflecting recently that I haven’t had a spurious quotation question in quite some time.   I’m sure that part of the reason for this is that that acursed chain email finally just sort of petered out.  But I like to think that the TJ Encyclopedia also has something to do with it.

Just this morning I received yet another inquiry about whether TJ shot somebody on the White House lawn.  We dealt with this long ago in a wiki article, but like many quotation questions, every time it comes up I like to give it a little Google just to see if any new information turns up.  In times past I’ve even had trouble getting the wiki article to come up, but this morning when I googled “white house” lawn execution “thomas jefferson”, eight of the first 10 results either were our encyclopedia article or quoted from it directly.  In other words, if you heard this story and googled it maybe a year ago, you’d get all sorts of random websites with people asking about it or just repeating the story.  Now, if you google it, it’s likely that you will get the correct answer because our information has crowded out the bad information at the top of Google’s PageRank system.

TJ Encyclopedia: 1

Random crank websites: 0

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Several years ago, a visitor to Monticello emailed me and asked about something they’d seen in the Jefferson family graveyard, just a short walk down from Mulberry Row: Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone seemed to be covered with coins.  What’s that about? (one might well ask).  Colleagues here quickly informed me that visitors routinely throw them onto Jefferson’s gravestone.  Nobody knows why – they just do.  I created a mini-article on it in our Encyclopedia, in case anybody asked about it again, and then forgot about it.

Well, as it happens, yesterday I looked through every single Monticello Association Annual Report between 1969 and 2006 (don’t ask) – specifically at the graveyard custodian’s reports contained therein – and found something interesting.  In 1978, the custodian first reported an odd phenomenon: visitors seemed to be throwing coins onto Jefferson’s gravestone (accidentally landing on some other lucky dead people as well).  The custodian was puzzled by this, but in the end simply took a philosophical stance and collected the small amount of money “donated” and added it to the fund to help maintain the graveyard.  The following year, the custodian reported the same thing, only more, necessitating frequent bouts of combing through the grass on her hands and knees, while the tourists looked on in puzzlement.  No further mentions of this are made until 1984, when the custodian remarked that “Mr. Jefferson’s grave is used as a wishing well.”  Apparently at this point this activity was feeding on its own momentum; the custodian mentioned that “donations” seemed to increase around Jefferson’s birthday, when the graveyard was decorated conspicuously with wreaths.  And it wasn’t just nickels, which seem most appropriate; all kinds of coins were recovered from the graveyard.  The volume got to be such that the custodian had to get herself an electric coin-sorting and -rolling machine.  Some visitors got creative with their donations; the custodian reported finding “a dead watch battery, a Canadian quarter, a small polished stone, a stamped copper oval and one orange M&M candy” in 1998.

The odd but sweet donations continue; what began with just a few dollars a year in 1978 has steadily grown over the years.  Why do people do this?  The graveyard custodian’s comment about a “wishing well” is interesting – is this some kind of weird cultural vestige, the modern-day equivalent to pleading your case with the gods by throwing something shiny into the water?  Maybe or maybe not, but I happen to have empirical evidence that it’s also self-perpetuating.  I was up at the graveyard not too long ago, and as I stood outside the fence near Jefferson’s gravestone, I heard a young boy ask his mother, “Mommy, why are there coins on his grave?”  And without waiting for her answer, he asked, “Can I have a coin to throw?”

I’m sure there’s an awesome dissertation in there somewhere.

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