Billiards

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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It is unclear whether Jefferson ever played billiards, but there is some documentary evidence that he did not look favorably on the game. He wrote in "Thoughts on Lotteries" in 1826, "...But there are some [games of chance] which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them, or of others depending on them. Such are games with cards, dice, billiards, etc."[1]

Some have claimed that the Dome Room was intended as a space for billiard tables. This claim has no basis in fact; it most likely originated with Sarah N. Randolph (Jefferson's great-granddaughter), who wrote in The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (1871):

"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-rooom; 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."[2]

Randolph says this information was given to her by a "member of Mr. Jefferson's family, who lived there for many years." Sarah Nicholas Randolph, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was born in 1839 and thus never lived at Monticello herself.

This story was repeated and elaborated upon in 1899, in an account by Maud Howard Peterson of a visit to Monticello (then owned by Jefferson Monroe Levy):

"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...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...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..."[3]

It is worth noting that there was, in fact, never a law passed in Virginia during Jefferson's lifetime prohibiting billiards, although a law was passed in 1781 taxing them at fifty pounds a year.[4]

Ultimately, the claim that the Dome Room was originally intended by Jefferson for billiards is completely unsubstantiated, and there is no reliable evidence indicating that it was ever used for that purpose.

Footnotes

  1. Thomas Jefferson. "Thoughts on Lotteries. February 1826." Ford, 12:436.
  2. Randolph, Domestic Life, 332.
  3. Peterson, Visitors, 165-6. There is no evidence that the Dome Room was used as a ballroom, either.
  4. Hening, William W. The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of the Laws of Virigina, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (Richmond: R. & W. & G. Barrow, 1810-1823), 10:504. Text available online.