A Student's Poem and Thomas Jefferson's Legacy (1835)
    by Ben Hitchcock

Charles Ellis, Jr. was a student at the University from 1835 to 1836. While attending U.Va., he kept an astounding diary. Ellis meticulously describes every small detail of his university life, from the quality of the food to the temperaments of his friends to the weather each day. Even more wonderful is diary’s wealth of rich emotional description, as Ellis muses about the social culture of the school and his own transition into adulthood. Unsurprisingly given the quality of his diary, Ellis was also something of an aspiring poet. In a few places throughout the journal he references “some little song” he has penned, and once or twice he even lays down an original verse or two in the pages of his diary. 

On Sunday, March 29, 1835, Ellis and a few friends ventured to Monticello. He makes no direct mention of visiting the house in that day’s entry,  but the next day, the following appears, in its entirety, in the diary:

 

And have I stood upon the grave 

Of him, whose vast and patriot mind 

To his oppressed Country gave 

Freedom, and her rights defined. 

 

When he, tho' menaced by a haughty king, 

His proud defiance hurl'd, 

Was he not to his country opening 

The pathway to the world? 

 

Was not England’s self astounded 

At the high toned Declaration? 

Tho' not by him was Liberty first sounded 

To our brave and freeborn nation.

 

And tho' he raised not the first stone 

Of our stupendous Constitution, 

Who [carried], but he, the fabric on 

Through many an arduous revolution? 

 

And lies he here? whose fame 

Even kings themselves might seek, 

Does he no tribute from his country claim, 

His mighty deeds to speak? 

 

Oh! place him with our Washington! 

Oh sett him with our lov'd Henry! 

For 'tis but once a Jefferson 

On this base earth we see.

  

Ellis provides little explanation for his poetic explosion, simply stating “These lines were written on seeing the grave Jefferson covered only by a simple column of granite and that not at the expense of the states.” 

The poem has much to offer to besides the beauty of Ellis’s verse. On the one hand, the poem displays a burgeoning yet complicated American nationalism, a growing patriotic legend in which many key points are still up for debate. Yet this legend comes distilled through the idealistic and confident eyes of a young man who presents his heroic tale without hesitation. In the 21st century, Thomas Jefferson has become the ultimate contradiction, both a champion of liberty and a slaveholder. But for Ellis, Jefferson was not a contradiction at all. 

Ellis elevates the Jeffersonian generation to the level of myth — less than fifty years after the Constitutional Convention, the Constitution has already become a “stupendous” artifact, worthy of unending reverence. Ellis describes his country’s founding as though he were telling a medieval fable, pitting a menacing, “haughty king” against “proud” and “defiant” underdogs. Ellis speaks of Jefferson with deep admiration, describing the founding father as just short of a god, too clever and wise for this “base earth.” Visiting Jefferson’s grave was an emotional experience for Ellis, one deserving of a poem longer and more serious than any other Ellis presents in his diary.

Ellis’s account of the revolution and its aftermath is told with the single-minded assuredness of youth, and the poem is complimentary of Jefferson to an almost naive extent. To Ellis, Jefferson was not a notorious partisan, but rather a do-er of “mighty deeds,” equivalent to universally adored heroes like George Washington and Patrick Henry. More importantly and more jarringly, Ellis speaks of a “brave and freeborn nation” without so much as a hint of irony. The instinct to idealize heroes, to classify the world into right and wrong, to tell the great war stories of the past — these are things young men have always done and will always do. Ellis’ characterization of Jefferson and of the revolution is driven by his status as a wealthy white Virginian, but also by his tendencies as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young man. To modern readers, the poem carries an immense sense of foreboding — thirty years later those same youthful, patriotic instincts would lead millions of men just like Ellis to their deaths in the Civil War.  

Despite all of Ellis’ youthful bravado, the poem still belies an uncertainty in Jefferson’s legacy. The uncertainty does not come from Ellis himself, but his poem reflects the fact that, to many, Jefferson was already a controversial figure. Jefferson’s ambiguous status would have been made eminently clear to Ellis by the state of Monticello at the time. When Jefferson died in 1826 he left behind $107,000 in debt. His children were forced to offload the house but they didn’t manage to find a buyer for the quirky mansion until 1831, when local druggist James Barclay bought the property for $7,500. Barclay tried and failed to turn the grounds into a silkworm farm before selling the property again in 1835, for a measly $2,500, to naval officer Uriah Levy. A decade of inconsistent ownership took its toll on the property. Visitors came and went, destroying the gardens and vandalizing the house. When Ellis visited in 1835, the house would have lacked the flair and glamour Jefferson so meticulously cultivated during his life. (Ellis’ admiration for Jefferson is such that Ellis suggests Jefferson’s own humility was a cause for his decrepit gravesite. “Does he no tribute from his country claim?” Ellis asks, using Monticello’s disrepair as evidence of Jefferson’s modesty rather than his irresponsible spending habits.) 

Ellis does not feel Jefferson is getting the respect he deserves, as evidenced by his repeated use of rhetorical questions. “Was he not to his country opening / The pathway to the world?” “Who [carried], but he, the fabric on / Through many an arduous revolution?” Was he not a hero? Ellis knows the answer, but he suggests that others have forgotten. For Ellis, Jefferson was as important to the revolution as anyone, but his status as a southerner and a partisan prevented him from earning the respect given to other founders. Ellis wouldn’t have felt the need to write the poem if he didn’t think that a powerful declaration of Jefferson’s virtues was a necessary addition to the discourse.

Ellis makes it clear that he finds nothing controversial about Thomas Jefferson, but he also tacitly reveals that Jefferson’s legacy isn’t quite yet written. Today, Jefferson’s perch in our patriotic discourse remains unsteady. Looking carefully at this young man’s account of Jefferson shows that nearly two centuries ago, the debate over Jefferson’s legacy was already underway, no matter how fervently Charles Ellis may have supported the founder of his university. 

 

References: 

Head, Ronald B., ed., “The Student Diary of Charles Ellis, Jr., March 10- June 25,            1835,” The Magazine of Albemarle County History 35 and 36 (1977-1978)            Print."Sale of Monticello." Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. www.monticello.org.