By Brian Fischer
Thomas Jefferson had a great affinity for Mockingbirds. The names of most of these birds are lost to history. What is known is that Jefferson bought his first Mockingbird from a slave of his father-in-law, John Wayles, for 5 shillings in 1772. Jefferson was so fond of the bird that he purchased two more a year later.
It may seem odd that Jefferson would have to buy a Mockingbird considering how omnipresent they are in Virginia today, but in the 1770s they were rare. Indeed, it would be another two decades until Mockingbirds naturally made their way to Monticello.
When the first Mockingbird was seen at Monticello, Thomas Mann Randolph, the husband of Martha Jefferson, Thomas’ oldest daughter, wrote to Jefferson, who was serving as Secretary of State in Philadelphia, informing him that the first Mockingbird had arrived at his mountaintop. Jefferson was ecstatic about the news writing back
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.
Over the course of Jefferson’s presidency, he owned at least four Mockingbirds. It is thought that two of the birds he purchased in 1803 had previous singing lessons, as he bought them for ten and fifteen dollars, which was the going rate for birds that had been given lessons. (In Jefferson’s private journal on March 3, 1808, he wrote, “Dick sings.”)
Dick, the only name we are given for any of Jefferson’s pet birds, was (based on the observations of others) his favorite. Margaret Bayard Smith provides us with a description of the relationship Jefferson has with the bird. She said that the cage was hung among the geraniums and roses of his office and that
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 its 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.
When Jefferson would play his violin he and Dick would have a duet where the bird would “pour out his song along with the violin.”
Jefferson’s love of the Mockingbird was life-long. After his presidency ended in 1809, when he returned to Monticello, he wrote to Étienne Lemaire, his second mâitre d’hôtel, to say “[M]y birds arrived here in safety & are the delight of every hour.”
Brian Fischer has been a teacher of both American and classical history.
Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, June 10, 1793
Jefferson, Thomas, Weather Records 1776-1818
Smith, Margaret. The First Forty Years of Washington Society New York, Scribner 1906
Caulkins, Janet. Pets of the Presidents. Brookfield : Millbrook Press, 1992.
Jefferson to Lemaire, April 25, 1809