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, May 05, 2019

Assessing “Bradshaw’s Supposititious Epitaph”

As I quoted yesterday, around 1828 Nicholas Philip Trist, husband of one of Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughters, found an old chest in the former President’s attic.

In an appendix to his three-volume biography of Jefferson, Henry S. Randall quoted Trist’s description of taking a manuscript from that chest:
The epitaph on [John] Bradshaw, written on a narrow slip of thin paper, was a fine specimen. This has gone to France, through Gen. La Fayette, for M. De Lyon, a young friend of his who accompanied him on his triumphal visit to our country, and was with him at Monticello. De Lyon (who afterwards did his part in the “three days”) having expressed an earnest desire to possess a piece of Mr. J.’s MS., I had promised to make his wish known at some suitable moment. But, having postponed doing so until too late, and being struck with the appropriateness of this epitaph as a present for a pupil of La Fayette (and, through him, to the mind of “Young France”), I asked and obtained Mr. [Thomas Jefferson] Randolph’s consent to its receiving that destination.

’Tis evident, that the motto which we find on one of Mr. J.’s seals was taken from this epitaph, which, as we see from the note appended thereto, was supposed to be one of Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin’s spirit-stirring inspirations.
Because a note on the same paper in Jefferson’s handwriting stated:
From many circumstances, there is reason to believe there does not exist any such inscription as the above [in Jamaica], and that it was written by Dr. Franklin, in whose hands it was first seen.
Randall therefore titled his appendix “Bradshaw’s Supposititious Epitaph.”

(Speaking of suppositions, I can’t find any companion of Lafayette named “De Lyon.” Eyewitness accounts of the marquis’s trip to Monticello mention his son George Washington de Lafayette and his secretary, Auguste Levasseur. The latter was wounded during France’s 1830 revolution, sometimes called “the three glorious days,” so probably Trist just remembered that man’s name wrong.)

In the paper trail for “Bradshaw’s Epitaph,” most or all of the original documents have disappeared. We don’t have Jefferson’s copy of the epitaph, including the note at the bottom which Trist believed Jefferson had written himself. We have only Trist’s memo about the document. But let’s assume he produced an accurate transcription.

According to Trist, he found Jefferson’s copy of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” in a box of papers from the late 1770s that had been stowed away and forgotten. Jefferson never added the letters in that box to his carefully filed correspondence. Thus, there’s no indication that he ever opened the box after 1777, the date of the last letter inside. So Jefferson must have expressed his suspicion that Franklin wrote “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” around that time.

But we know that Jefferson repeated the statement “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” later in life. He had it engraved on an official Virginia medal in 1780. He used it as a motto on his personal seal after 1790. In 1823 he referred to the line in writing as “the motto of one, I believe, of the regicides of Charles I”—not as a stirring remark that Franklin came up with early in the Revolutionary War.

One possible explanation is that Jefferson concluded that Franklin had indeed made up the story of Bradshaw’s monument and composed the epitaph, but decided that he liked its last line so much that he’d ignore that hoaxing.

Jefferson is famous for having compartmentalized parts of his life and his thinking. Nevertheless, I don’t think he of all people would have been comfortable presenting that motto as historical when he knew it wasn’t. Adopting a stirring anti-tyrannical saying because it sounds good is one thing; telling a correspondent that it was a regicide’s motto is another. Why not just credit wise Dr. Franklin with composing the motto?

I therefore think Jefferson changed his mind about the epitaph between when he wrote about his doubt in the late 1770s and later. Maybe he talked to other Patriots and found they didn’t share his skepticism. Maybe he gained new information, perhaps in speaking with Franklin himself. He may not have been correct, but whatever happened, Jefferson’s early suspicions about the epitaph were washed away—until Henry S. Randall published that long-hidden note in 1858.

TOMORROW: More reasons to doubt.

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