A Puzzling Purchase

Posted in: A Summary View

A while ago, I was perusing the Memorandum Books, which Marie Kimball very eloquently (but somewhat over-optimistically) described as “candid tattlers of Jefferson’s every move,” when I spotted something curious.

1776 Aug. 8. Pd. Dowig for mourning ring 45/  thimble 4/6.

Dowig, I presume, is the merchant, although he’s not identified.  So the question that then immediately occurs is, for whom is this mourning ring?  One possibility that comes to mind is that Jefferson was buying it on behalf of someone else – but it’s been my observation that he usually notes that kind of thing, e.g. “Pd. Dowig for mourning ring for Mr. Smith.”  So while I suppose Jefferson may have forgotten to do this or deliberately not done it for reasons unknown, I’m going to lay that one aside in the interests of actually getting somewhere with this blog post.

So, assuming that this was a ring that TJ bought for himself to wear, I’m going to further presume that he wouldn’t feel the need to buy a mourning ring upon the death of anyone other than closely-related family.  So who had recently died?  Considering all the options here…

  • Children: The last child of Martha and Thomas Jefferson died in September 1775, and the next would not come along until 1777.  It’s been suggested that there were, in fact, other children or perhaps miscarriages in this period, but it seems unlikely that one would buy mourning rings on their behalf, especially if their births and deaths weren’t even noted in the record.
  • Siblings and in-laws: The last sibling who had died was his younger sister Elizabeth, in 1774.  As for in-laws, the most recent death would have been his father-in-law, John Wayles (d. 1773).
  • Parents: his father was long gone (1757), but…his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, had died just a few months before, at the end of March, 1776.

One might well point out that what I’ve constructed here is a rather large tower of assumptions, and by no means am I claiming this is definitely the answer.  I’m just presenting a small mystery, and one possible answer.

I’m sure by Monday I’ll be completely skeptical and sober about this: “Maybe he just forgot to mention he bought it for somebody else.”  “Maybe he just bought it for the sake of appearances.”  “Maybe I missed another relative who died.”  “We just don’t know.”  But, I can’t tell you that on Sunday, a little part of my brain won’t indulge in a little fantasy that maybe, just maybe, Thomas Jefferson bought a mourning ring because he loved his mother and was sad that she was gone from the world.



This post touched me. And yes, even if Jefferson’s relationship with his mom was not the best, it doesn’t mean he would not have mourned her. In fact, he may have mourned all the more, if he was full of regrets and things unsaid.


Thanks, Frances! To me, that is high praise indeed. And yes, you make yet another good point – human emotions are very complicated. The more I think about this, the more I realize what a vast wilderness this aspect of Jefferson is (and, well, all people, for that matter)! And we have no guides except a few cryptic references in the documentary record.


Anna, I listened to your NPR interview that you posted on Facebook. When I read this blog post, I had the same reaction Mr. Lewis did. I remembered reading stuff about TJ having a less than loving relationship with his mother. I dug around a bit, the book I picked this up from is a 1988 biography titled “Jefferson and Monticello” by Jack McLaughlin. McLaughlin asserts a strained relationship between TJ and Jane. He cites a letter in which TJ seems to be dissmissive of the Randolph side of his family. In another letter TJ informs Jane’s brother of her death, with “no expression of emotion or loss associated with his mother….” He gives other rather circumstantial evidence as well. He then tells of TJ’s “Literary Commonplace Book,” a journal in which TJ copied selections from writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, classical writers, etc. Some of the passages are apparently misogynistic, McLaughlin understands this to be evidence of antipathy toward his mother.

Well, anyway.

As you say, we really don’t know much about TJ’s relationship with his mom. Unless some evidence is produced to the contrary, I will understand the mourning ring to have been purchased in honor of Jane. I was tickled to see how you put it, that you “indulged in a little fantasy,” I do this as well, reading of TJ and his time, more than a little though! It is fun to bring these people to life. Interesting post, thanks.


Thanks, Nnox – I’m glad you found the post interesting (and perhaps thought-provoking!). I didn’t directly address the issue of TJ’s relationship with his mother in the blog post, and maybe I should have. But it’s fomented a great discussion anyway. I can see how people have deduced everything from minor friction to deep existential hatred between TJ and his mother from the bits we have available to us; but after reading Susan Kern’s overview of the historiography of Jane Jefferson in her dissertation, “The Jeffersons at Shadwell,” I have to say that I think she makes some good points about the assumptions people have made about the whole thing. This is not to say that TJ and Mom necessarily had the most awesome mother-son relationship ever, but an absence of evidence in and of itself shouldn’t, I think, be taken as definitive evidence of anything. Regarding TJ’s dismissiveness of the Randolph side, I do wonder about that as well – TJ’s mother was certainly not the only Randolph he knew, and it seems just as likely to me (possibly more) that he may have based his attitude toward the Randolphs and their notions of themelves on his interactions with his many many other Randolph cousins.


I read recently (can’t remember where) that Jefferson might have had a strained relationship with his mother. What do you know about that? By itself, of course, that wouldn’t mean he wouldn’t mourn her loss and purchase this ring. You brought up a good point.

As I was reading your post I noticed just how frequently death touched his life. Just the years you examined reveal that Mr. Jefferson lost someone fairly close nearly every year. 1773, 1774, 1775, 1776, 1777. Then add other examples such as Dabney Carr (best good friend) in 1773. How does a person deal with this kind of death? I can’t imagine it. Yet, these were some of the most intellectually creative years in Jefferson’s life.


You’re not alone in this idea. Independence National Historical Park, in designing the carefully researched, speculative recreation of the two rooms Jefferson rented from Jacob Graff in 1776, included a mourning ring in the display. Anyone who visits “The Declaration House”, at the storied corner of 7th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, might notice this ring unobtrusively nestled in a packing box, on a pile of other odds and ends meant to illustrate Jefferson’s shopping habits. Although there is no label on display to announce the identity of the mourning ring to visitors, my memory of the catalogue of objects for the Graff House is that this ring is meant to be such. Although I don’t have a copy of the catalogue in front of me at the moment, I believe your observation is in good company.

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