Mockingbirds

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Early in November 1772 - when he had a wife, a month-old child, and an unfinished house - Thomas Jefferson acquired a family pet. For five shillings he bought a mockingbird from one of the slaves of his father-in-law, John Wayles. It was the first in a procession of singing birds that would always be part of Jefferson's household.

He purchased two more from the same Tidewater source the following year, evidence that the wild mockingbird - a conspicuous presence at Monticello today - was then absent from Jefferson's mountaintop. Twenty years later, it finally arrived in the wake of the westering population. Writing from Monticello in May 1793, Thomas Mann Randolph informed Jefferson in Philadelphia of the advent of the first resident mockingbird, and Jefferson responded with his well-known tribute to Mimus polyglottos: "I sincerely congratulate you on the arrival of the Mocking bird. Learn all the children to venerate it as a 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 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."Cite error 4; Invalid <ref> tag; refs with no name must have content

The mockingbirds Jefferson purchased in the 1770s came with only a stock of songs from the woods and fields of Charles City County. He must have provided additional musical instruction himself. If he in fact carried a bird to France in 1784, it may have added to its repertoire some sounds common to mockingbirds imported from America. After their month-long transatlantic voyage they interspersed their first European performances with long imitations of the creaking of the ship's timbers.

At least two of the birds in the President's House, however, had already received singing lessons when Jefferson purchased them in 1803 - for ten and fifteen dollars, the usual price of a "singing" mockinbird. Jefferson's butler, Etienne Lemaire, was apparently proud of their serenades, which included popular American, Scottish, and french tunes, as well as imiations of all the birds of the woods.

Jefferson's weather memorandum book reveals that he had at least four mockingbirds:

1806 Jan. 22.

Primary Source References

1772 November 2. "Pd. Martin at Forest for mocking bird 5/."[1]

1773 July 9. "Pd. Jame for two mockg. birds 11/6."[2]

1781 April 5. "Pd. Jame for mocking bird £18."[3]

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."[4]

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."[5]

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."[6]

1803 May 31. "Gave Joseph Daugherty ord. on J. Barnes for 10. D. to buy a mockg. bird & cage."[7]

1803 November 17. "Pd. Steele for a mocking bird 15.D."[8]

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!"[9]

Footnotes

  1. MB, 1:297.
  2. Ibid., 1:343.
  3. Ibid., 1:508.
  4. PTJ, 8:241.
  5. Ibid., 11:370.
  6. Ibid., 26:250.
  7. MB, 2:1101.
  8. Ibid., 2:1112.
  9. In an account of Jefferson's residence at the President's House. Smith, First Forty Years, 385.

Further Sources