Jun 172011
 
Thomas Jefferson's Grave

Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone: Maybe they toss pennies just to spite him

I think Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone is weird.

First of all, the well-wishers throw a lot of pennies on it. You’d think more people would toss nickels on Thomas Jefferson’s grave. After all, Thomas’s head, which is on the face of the nickel, lies just feet below the stone, and the image of his slavemanse Monticello, just down the path, is on the reverse. If a man is going to work so hard in life that he earns the nickel in death, the least people could do is chuck his own head at his headstone.

But the oddest thing about Jefferson’s grave is the way his birthdate is carved: April 2, 1743 O.S.

On my recent visit, tourists pressed their faces to the metal fence around his marker. “What’s that stand for?” one older lady asked.

Another visitor, a younger man with a baseball cap announced what he thought was the answer: “Our savior,” he said, as if the matter was settled.

“Oh,” said the elderly woman, who didn’t seem convinced.

The curators at Monticello, love ‘em, are aware of the confusion. They’ve drawn up a blog post about it. In my mind, such explanations help offset the $22 ticket price.

The story about the O.S. is this: The calendar used to be lopsided. Before 1752, Westerners used the Julian calendar, for which the first day of the year was March 25. But the calendar was imperfect, and its holidays didn’t properly coincide with the seasons year after year. A tidier, more accurate calendar was called for.

So the Gregorian calendar was invented, which started the new year on January 1, as we have it today. To make the switch, though, 11 days had to be chopped out of the year somewhere. Early September, 1752, was selected as the victim.

Jason Cochran and statue of Thomas Jefferson

Me with Tommy, a natural redhead, at Monticello, near Charlottesville, VA

(Something similar happened on November 18, 1883, the so-called “Day of Two Noons,” on which the minute and the hour across America underwent a similar synchronization. Except in that effort, people lost only some time off their lunch hours, and not nearly two weeks of their lives. I wrote about that on my blog last year. Curiously, 1883 was the same year the current Jefferson monument was erected. It’s possible the person who instructed that O.S. was to be carved, and didn’t simply translate the date to N.S. to spare us faulty tourist intellectual bravado, might have had a bee in their bonnet about that Day of Two Noons thing.)

Anyway, people in the American colonies went to bed on September 2, 1752, and they woke up on September 14, 1752. The intervening 11 days never happened.

If you had been born before those omitted 11 days, you were born using the Old Style calendar. Afterward, it was the New Style calendar, or N.S.

Something else from that period challenges historians and genealogists: When dates were written before everyone settled on what the calendar was, sometimes they were written in reference to the first month of the year — then, March. For example, if you were a Quaker, your birthdate might have been recorded as happening on the 19th day of the in the second month of the year, meaning April. So a date of 2/19/1690 would be April 19th, 1690.

Like the Metric system, the switchover happened fitfully and variously, depending on the political whims of the government and the laziness of the scribe in question. That means we’d better not talk even about the year, because you often had to add a year depending on whether the subject was using the Old Style or the New Style calendar. The Ancestry.com entry about all this confusion makes high school algebra look easy.

We could technically still carve N.S. on our gravestones today, and maybe I will, since I don’t have a coin made out of my face and I’ll need to leave something buzzy behind.

That’s what Thomas’s O.S. means. And it also means you have to add 11 days, or April 13, 1743, if you want to translate his birthdate into modern terms. It also means that for 11 days in 1752, when he was nine years old, Thomas Jefferson didn’t exist. No one in the American colonies did.

Flowers at Monticello

They’re pushing up more than daisies at Monticello

Monticello’s masters also have something else to say about where The Big Jeff is interred. The woman who guided me around the lost slave quarters area told me that even though DNA tests proved that a Jefferson — probably Thos., maybe not — had fathered a child (and maybe as many as six) by his slave Sally Hemings, the living descendants of Jefferson won’t allow that non-white wing of the family to share the family burial plot.

It’s still an active plot, and Jefferson fruit is still planted there after it falls from the family tree, but no non-white Jeffersons will be permitted, per family vote, to join them. DNA tests, after all, are never 100% definitive — more like 99 % — but as my guide told it, the family, sneakily, has decided that no one from the Hemings line shall join them in eternal rest until it’s been 100% proven that TJ was the babydaddy.

Monticello’s keepers, operating under a lawyer’s burden of proof rather than under the shield of logical likelihood that historians prefer, politely hedge about the DNA evidence record. Frustratingly, they seem to placate the stance of the Jefferson clan by admitting that we can’t be “entirely” sure.

The family, drenched in an undying sense of honor, appears obsessed with protecting his virtue even though his wife Martha had died a quarter century before the first alleged child was conceived. Two centuries later, they’re still smarting from the drubbing our old redhead took in the press. The way I see it, though, someone lying behind that metal fence at the Jefferson family plot fathered the Hemings line, because that’s where the DNA points.

That 1% of doubt, like that one drop of black blood in miscegenation days, keeps the Hemings-Jefferson line from claiming its full rights, and from the honor of having its progenitor’s head hurled at them daily on the obverse of legal tender.

Maybe the O.S. should stand for “Owes Sally.”

Fence of Thomas Jefferson Burial Plot

“You shall not pass!” (Even if you pass.)

  One Response to “The 11 days when young Thomas Jefferson never existed”

  1. Thanks for your post! I really enjoyed reading it and learning something new. Passing it along to my sister who recently finished university with a degree in history and has a love for stories like this. Cheers!

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