J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Battle in the Monticello Garden

Yesterday I described the conflicting signals of when Edmund Bacon began work at Monticello. Late in life, he told author Hamilton Pierson that he’d gone to live at that slave-labor plantation at the end of 1800. Yet a letter from Thomas Jefferson dated Bacon’s tenure as manager from 1806, and Bacon’s name doesn’t appear on the Monticello records before that year.

I suspect Bacon actually was living and working at Monticello before 1806, and my first piece of evidence is this reminiscence from him, printed in Pierson’s book, Jefferson at Monticello:

Almost every Friday evening Jeff. Randolph would bring a lot of his mates [from Oglesby’s school in Charlottesville] to Monticello to play and eat fruit. If they did not come on Friday they were pretty certain to come on Saturday. I gave them the keys of the house and garden, and very often they all stayed there over night.

One Saturday a lot of the schoolboys that were not invited concluded that they would come also, and help themselves to fruit. They went around the back side of the garden, broke off the palings, and got in. They then climbed the trees and broke off a good many limbs, and did a great deal of damage.

The other party attacked them, and they had a tremendous fight. The party that had broken in was much the largest, and they could not drive them off. They threw stones at the old gardener and hurt him very badly. They sent to the mill for me, and when I got there the other party were gone, and some of Jeff.’s party were a good deal hurt. Vaul Southall was very bloody. He had fought like a little tiger.

Wm. C. Rives was one of Jeff.’s party. He was an uncommonly fine boy, and was always the peacemaker among the boys. Whenever they got into a difficulty among themselves, they would all say, “Let Willie Rives settle it.” Both parties were always willing to select him as umpire.

So I said to him, “Willie, why didn’t you settle this matter without all this fighting?”

He was very much excited, as well as all the rest of them. “Why, sir,” said he, “you know that I am a little fellow and couldn’t do much fighting, but I called them all the hard names I could think of, and then I started to turn Rompo loose on them, and they all ran off.” Rompo was a very fierce dog. . . .
To me this anecdote has the ring of truth. It doesn’t flatter Bacon, or Jefferson (whom he obviously idolized), or anyone involved—nor does it show anyone in a terrible light. It doesn’t have an obvious moral instruction, or a neat plot. In sum, there’s no reason for Bacon to have described this incident except that it was a memorable slice of life at Monticello.

A little digging, and I identified the boys Bacon named in that anecdote:
  • Thomas Jefferson Randolph (1792-1875), the President’s eldest grandson—shown above, courtesy of Monticello.
  • William C. Rives (1793-1868), who later studied law with Jefferson shortly after his presidency, and then became a politician and diplomat.
  • Vaul W. Southall, fully named Valentine Wood Southall (1793-1861), another future attorney.
They were all nearly the same age, so it made sense for them to go to school and pal around together.

And when did this event take place? Bacon didn’t give a date, but the schoolboys’ actions (getting into a bloody fight over fruit, but really over who’s in what gang; yelling insults) and Bacon’s diction (“to play,” “little tiger,” “little fellow”) suggest to me that those boys were about twelve years old. Which would mean this incident took place around 1804 or 1805.

Furthermore, we know that Jeff Randolph was sent for more schooling in Philadelphia in 1807 at age fifteen, as arranged by his grandfather. Willie Rives entered Hampden-Sydney College that same year. That means Bacon’s encounters with these schoolboys must have occurred before the middle of that year. Bacon must also have been at Monticello long enough to have come to expect Jeff’s weekend visits with his pals (“Almost every Friday evening”).

It’s possible that this great battle took place sometime between mid-1806, when Bacon is definitely documented as having been at Monticello, and the boys’ departure for college in 1807. Males in the culture didn’t have to be as young as twelve to get into stupid fights; Bacon also recalled several violent incidents involving grown men in the President’s family (his daughters and granddaughters did not all marry happily). But Bacon didn’t say that any of those men had “fought like a little tiger.”

Of course, that’s just my subjective impression. I still have to explain why, if Edmund Bacon was working at Monticello by around 1804 or 1805, his name didn’t appear on the records until 1806.

TOMORROW: The circumstances of Edmund Bacon’s hiring.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

This goes beyond the historical record, but I find it interesting to imagine Bacon’s thoughts on the occasion he describes.

You’re young, in your late teens or early twenties, and new on the job. You let your boss’s grandson have the keys to the house and garden, and go off to your work at the mill.

And then someone comes running, and you race up to the garden and find the fence busted and the gardener upset and fruit all strewn about. And your boss’s grandson is yelling about some boys who broke in and got away, and another boy is bleeding copiously from the nose.

And the one meek, sensible, respectable boy that you thought you could trust in these situations is yelling along with the rest, and he tells you he’s let the fierce dog loose!

It seems like a wonder Bacon stayed on the job as long as he did.