A Puzzling Purchase

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.


So, I logged onto WordPress a few days ago, with vague thoughts of doing a semi-religion-related post, when I saw this.  A sign from God?  Well, at the very least, it’s a sign from Barbie dressed up as an Episcopalian minister, and that’s good enough for me.

Now, last time I talked about religion here, we had some argumentation.  And I will admit, I was completely, utterly caught off guard by it.  I’d never really consciously thought about my audience before, but if you asked me three months ago who I thought was reading the blog here I would have guessed my mom, my aunt and uncle, and possibly my aunt and uncle’s three cats.   One of the latter in particular, Mitzi, doesn’t seem to like me much, but I don’t worry about her being offended by anything I say on the blog because she’s unlikely to express her displeasure at me on Facebook.  Now I’ve been forcibly reminded of the fact that there are people other than Mitzi the cat reading what I write here, and they don’t necessarily know me personally or have a sense of my motivations.   So I just want to state, for the record, that my personal political and religious beliefs do not enter into my work, nor should they.  I feel very strongly about that.  I, and my other colleagues who engage in social media on behalf of Monticello, occasionally bring up the subjects of religion and politics, but we do so because any mention of Jefferson is of academic interest to us, and we think it might be of interest to you.   Truly.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, we shall now proceed with the latest Jefferson-related curiosity.  This item was recently the subject of a reference question we received.  It’s a document with Jefferson’s signature (and some other things) on it, and you will note that the description reads as follows:

Following is an original document in our possession, signed by Thomas Jefferson on September 24, 1807. This document is permission for a ship called the Herschel to proceed on its journey to the port of London.

(Here’s the interesting part):

The interesting characteristic of this document is the use of the phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ.” Many official documents say “in the year of our Lord,” but we have found very few that include the word “Christ.” However, this is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents.

Hmmm.  Two phrases in that last sentence that I’d like to look at more closely:

  1. “explicitly Christian language.”  Well, actually I guess it is literally explicit Christian language, mentioning Christ as it does.  What I mean is, it’s also…the date.  This is not usually the portion of a document in which important points are made.   Now, I totally agree that “In the year of our Lord Christ” instead of “In the year of our Lord” sounds a bit unusual, but I just don’t know that it really has anything to do with the religious beliefs of the person who signed the document.
  2. “that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use” – But did Jefferson specifically choose that language?  It seems unlikely to me.  It seems more likely that a clerk would be doing that.

As I was googling around, investigating this document, it became clear to me that it’s become a “thing,” or maybe the kids would call it a “meme” (possibly just a mini-meme).  I gather that somebody said something about this document on the television, and now it’s proliferating around the Internet, gathering more religious connotations as it goes.  Like this person.  Here it seems to be getting associated with Jefferson’s views on separation of church and state.  My googling turned up other appearances as well, each slightly different.  But I see the way this choo-choo is chugging, hence my post here to say, very sensitively, in the most kid-glove-way possible…let’s think about this before we draw any conclusions.  (And before I get any more reference questions about this.)  When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with thinking.  Unless maybe you’re standing in front of a rushing choo-choo.

I personally don’t have all the facts about this document – I don’t have any facts, in fact! – but now I’m super intrigued.  Especially since I can only read half the English portion in the image on the site above, and I can only understand half the Dutch part.  But I bet if we all put our heads together, we can come up with some good context for this document and maybe be able to figure out why it bears the unusually-extended phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ” instead of your usual “in the year of our Lord.”   I already have my own cockamamie theory about that, but I will keep it to myself for now.  Unless it turns out to have some merit, in which case I will tell everyone that’s what I was thinking all along.

So, back to the Herschel, and that document that started this whole thing.  Any maritime historians or similar out there, who can give us an idea of what this document is?  Any experts on government procedure or forms, who can help us out with how the specific language for this form may have been devised, and by whom?  Any experts in the history of the phrase “in the year of our Lord”?  Anybody?  Mitzi?

Snowpocalypse 1772!

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.


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!

I received a little book in the mail just a bit ago, and I think it deserves to be read in front of a fire with a cup of tea.  It is called Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South, by Rollin Osterweis (Louisiana State University Press, 1971) and is full of paragraphs like this:

The Virginia and Carolinian especially were of direct descent from the “rufflers” of Hastings, and Templestowe, of Agincourt, and Rochelle.  They were kindred too in more than pride and sentiment for the same English strain flowed in the veins of both, separating them from the Puritan English of the North, and warmed with the Huguenot flush and the dash of the Hibernian.

Isn’t that delightful?  I mean, it’s complete twaddle, but it’s deliciously twaddlesome.  And Osterweis does in fact seem to rely on primary sources and has respectable footnotes, so I suspect that despite the occasional twaddly passage, the overall quality of the book is alright.

I ordered this book for a certain reason, though, and it wasn’t for the trippy prose.  No, it was because of this passage:

Many officers and soldiers were in Charlottesville in the fall of 1863 recovering from their wounds and their presence in all the stages of convalescence infused a spirit of gaiety to the little town.  Picnics were organized in the bright autumn days to historic Monticello…One day we had a Tournament in the grounds at Monticello.  Some of the Knights, with only one arm to use – holding the reins in their teeth and dashing valiantly at the rings with wooden sticks improvised as spears for the occasion.   – quote from Mrs. D. Giraud Wright, A Southern Girl in ’61

So, romanticism > chivalry > jousting on the lawn at Monticello.  See?  We really can connect pretty much everything to Jefferson.

A Very Respectable Bird

With the coming of Thanksgiving comes also a burble of chatty news stories about the origins thereof, and usually something about turkeys.  Not far behind comes some sort of mention of the Founding Fathers, and how they all felt about turkeys.  I’ve seen several of these articles in the last few days and I don’t know what else to think but that somebody out there has been working overtime, making up stories about Founding Fathers and turkeys.

The primary misconception that I’m seeing on the Internet-waves seems to be the perceived opposition between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin during the designing process of the Seal of the United States, and their relative preference for turkeys or eagles.  Apparently TJ wanted an eagle on the seal, and Franklin wanted a turkey – TJ obviously having prevailed.  And some articles have added the intriguing tidbit that Franklin, in a fit of pique after his beloved turkey was not chosen for the seal, began calling turkeys “Tom.”

Where do people come up with this stuff?  That doesn’t even make sense – if Franklin thought so highly of the turkey, it wouldn’t be an insult to name it after somebody he was supposedly mad at. Anyway, in case the precarious logic of this story didn’t tip you off as to its unreliability, I can also confidently tell you that it bears no relationship to anything that one might call “facts.”  Consider the following:

  1. The appellation “Tom” for various male animals, chiefly poultry and cats, was around long before Jefferson and Franklin didn’t have a disagreement about birds for the Great Seal.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary: “In 1760 was published an anonymous work ‘The Life and Adventures of a Cat’, which became very popular. The hero, a male or ‘ram’ cat, bore the name of Tom, and is commonly mentioned as ‘Tom the Cat’, as ‘Tybert the Catte’ is in Caxton’s Reynard the Fox. Thus Tom became a favourite allusive name for a male cat.”  (Ditto turkeys.)
  2. Jefferson had nothing to do with the selection of the eagle for the seal (see link to article on Seal above).  There was no eagle in any of the proposals submitted by Jefferson and his fellow committee members in 1776, and after that Jefferson was no longer involved in seal-designing for the new nation.  (Know what Jefferson did want on the seal?  Hengist and Horsa, his favorite Anglo-Saxon heroes.  What a dork.)
  3. Franklin did not propose (formally) that there be a turkey on the seal.
  4. Therefore, Jefferson and Franklin didn’t have a disagreement about whether there should be a turkey or an eagle on the Great Seal.
  5. After the seal’s design was finalized in the early 1780s (by a completely different committee), Franklin did grump a bit at the choice of the eagle over, say, the turkey:

Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country, tho’ exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie. I am on this account not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.  (BF to Sarah Bache, January 26, 1784)

And besides all that, turkeys probably taste way better than bald eagles.  So, off you all go then, and and enjoy chowing down on a Very Respectable Bird this Thanksgiving.

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.