Mockingbirds

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Jefferson owned mockingbirds for most of his life and they really were his only pet. They gave him company as he worked alone. The first birds were purchased in the 1770s, but more documentation began during his presidency. As President, Jefferson's weather memorandum book states he owned at least four mockingbirds one of which he called a "New Orleans mockingbird."[1]

One of these birds was named Dick and it was considered his favorite. Margaret Bayard Smith states at the President's House, Dick's cage was suspended among the roses and geraniums in the window recesses of the presidential cabinet.[2] It was not unusual to open the cage and let the bird fly around the room while he worked. Dick was known to even sit on Jefferson's shoulder and hop up stairs with him. When he retired, he still had a bird although we don't know the length of Dick's life.

Primary Source References

1772 November 2. "Pd. Martin at Forest for mocking bird 5/."[3]

1773 July 9. "Pd. Jame for two mockg. birds 11/6."[4]

1781 April 5. "Pd. Jame for mocking bird L18."[5]

1785 June 21. (Jefferson to Abigail Adams). "...I heard there the Nightingale in all it's perfection: and I do not hesitate to pronounce that in America it would be deemed a bird of the third rank only, our mockingbird and fox-coloured thrush being unquestionably superior to it."[6]

1787 May 21. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "...Endeavor, my dear, to make yourself acquainted with the music of this bird [nightingale], that when you return to your own country you may be able to estimate it's merit in comparison with that of the mocking bird."[7]

1793 June 10. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "...I sincerely congratulate you on the arrival of the Mocking bird. Learn all the children to venerate it as superior being in the form of a bird, or as a being which will haunt them if any harm is done to itself or it's eggs. I shall hope that the multiplication of the cedar in the neighborhood, and of the trees and shrubs round the house, will attract more of them: for they like to be in the neighborhood of our habitations, if they furnish cover."[8]

1803 May 31. "Gave Joseph Daugherty ord. on J. Barnes for 10. D. to buy a mockg. bird & cage."[9]

1803 November 17. "Pd. Steele for a mocking bird 15.D."[10]

1809. "...In the window recesses were stands for the flowers and plants which it was his delight to attend and among his roses and geraniums was suspended the cage of his favorite mocking-bird, which he cherished with peculiar fondness, not only for its melodious powers, but for its uncommon intelligence and affectionate disposition, of which qualities he gave surprising instances. It was the constant companion of his solitary and studious hours. Whenever he was alone he opened the cage and let the bird fly about the room. After flitting for a while from one object to another, it would alight on his table and regale him with its sweetest notes, or perch on his shoulder and take tis food from his lips. Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains. How he loved this bird!"[11]

Footnotes

  1. Weather Book. January 22, 1806, February 19, 1806, February 25, 1806, January 23, 1808, January 31, 1808, March 2, 1808, and March 3, 1808. Thomas Jefferson Papers, MHi
  2. Smith, Margaret Bayard. The First Forty Years of Washington Society. (New York: Scribner, 1906), 385.
  3. MB, 1:297.
  4. Ibid, 1:343.
  5. Ibid, 1:508.
  6. PTJ, 8:241.
  7. Ibid, 11:370.
  8. Ibid, 26:250.
  9. MB, 2:1101.
  10. Ibid, 2:1112.
  11. In an account of Jefferson's residence at the President's House. Smith, First Forty Years, 385.

Further Sources