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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Thursday, March 29, 2018

“Severely wounded and bruised by your excellency’s ram”

After Thomas Jefferson’s four-horned Shetland sheep gored a boy near the Presidential mansion on 6 Feb 1808, the President “ordered a blinder or board to be put on the face of the ram,” according to the U.S. Gazette of Philadelphia.

But that wasn’t enough for some of his critics. On 12 Mar 1808 the New York Commercial Advertiser ran this commentary, which originally appeared in the North American of Baltimore:
The President’s Ram.—This sturdy animal is a native of Africa.—Besides his uncommon size, he is, if we well remember, a unicorn, and characterised by other peculiarities. He was some time ago presented to his present owner by a gentleman of Washington.

This is the concise history of a monster, who has added to the proofs, that unbridled liberty is productive of nought but evil. We are extremely sorry to hear, that for want of confining him, he was recently killed a very promising and beautiful boy, a son of Mr. [Alexander] Kerr of the Branch Bank; knocked down and severely injured a poor old man, and a female child of one of the President’s domestics insomuch that her person has become disfigured
The editor of the North American was Jacob Wagner. When the Jefferson administration began, he was a clerk in the State Department appointed by Timothy Pickering. He convinced the new Secretary of State, James Madison, that he could stay on and perform his job without political leanings, which he did successfully until resigning in early 1807.

Then Wagner came out as a strident Federalist, editing one anti-administration newspaper after another. He was happy to find anything to criticize Jefferson for. In actuality, the President’s ram wasn’t from Africa but from a northern European breed. It had four horns, not one. But if it could serve as a symbol of “unbridled liberty” under Jefferson, all the better.

The man whom the President’s ram injured in February 1808 was named William Keough. On 3 March, Jefferson wrote in his memorandum book: “Gave Keough in charity 5.D. [five dollars]” as compensation.

The next month, Rep. Nicholas R. Moore of Maryland presented Keough’s petition to the U.S. Congress from “praying relief in consideration of wounds received and injuries sustained while serving as a soldier in the Maryland line, during the Revolutionary War.” That request doesn’t appear to have been granted.

In December 1808, the Maryland house of delegates considered Keough’s service and poverty and voted to grant him “a sum of money annually, in half yearly payments, equal to the half pay of a sergeant.” But the state senate “dissented from” that vote.

On 15 Feb 1809, with Jefferson less than a month from leaving office, William Keough wrote to him in desperation:
To his excellency the President of the United States

Your petitioner William Keough begs leave to state to your excellency that in February 1808 in Passing through the President’s Square he was attacked and severely wounded and bruised by your excellency’s ram—of which he lay ill for five or six weeks under the hands of Doctor [Arnold] Elzey.

Your petitioner troubles your excellency with regret, he would not presume to do it now but for extreme distress. He is without money and without freinds. His business in this place was for the purpose of obtaining a pension to which he considered himself entitled for his revolutionary services—He has been able to obtain lodgings in the poor’s house, but without the usual allowance of fare.—

It is probably the last time your excellency will be troubled as President of the U.S. by an individual, most assuredly the last, by your petitioner; and if the prayers of a poor, old soldier will be any consolation to your excellency in your retirement, you have them from his heart.—Hoping your excellency will take his distressed situation in consideration, and grant some relief, your petitioner as in duty bound will ever pray.
I’ve found nothing more about the unfortunate William Keough.

TOMORROW: The final fate of Jefferson’s ram.

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