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That Pesky Billiard Table

by Anna Berkes There are a lot of stories about Monticello that crept into the lore over the years - mostly...More »

Billiards

There are no known references to Thomas Jefferson ever playing billiards, but there is some documentary evidence that he did not look favorably on the game, at least later in life. He wrote in "Thoughts on Lotteries" in 1826, "...But there are some [games of chance] which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them, or of others depending on them. Such are games with cards, dice, billiards, etc."[1]

Some have claimed that the Dome Room was intended as a space for billiard tables. This claim has no basis in fact; it most likely originated with Sarah N. Randolph (Jefferson's great-granddaughter), who wrote in The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (1871):

"The west front the rooms occupy the whole height, making the house one story, except the parlor or central room, which is surmounted by an octagonal story, with a dome or spherical roof. This was designed for a billiard-rooom; but, before completion, a law was passed prohibiting public and private billiard-tables in the State. It was to have been approached by stairways connected with a gallery at the inner extremity of the hall, which itself forms the communication between the lodging-rooms on either side above. The use designed for the room being prohibited, these stairways were never erected, leaving in this respect a great deficiency in the house."[2]

Randolph says this information was given to her by a "member of Mr. Jefferson's family, who lived there for many years." Sarah Nicholas Randolph, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was born in 1839 and thus never lived at Monticello herself.

This story was repeated and elaborated upon in 1899, in an account by Maud Howard Peterson of a visit to Monticello (then owned by Jefferson Monroe Levy):

"On the third floor is the famous ballroom, built originally for billiards of which Jefferson was extremely fond. Scarcely was it completed, however, when he discovered, to his chagrin, that the game was prohibited by a law recently passed by the State Legislature. The story runs that some years earlier there lived within the borders of Virginia a very brilliant and promising young lawyer named John Marshall, who insisted on wasting his time on games of all sorts, and most especially on billiards...Finally some one suggested that a law should be enacted to suppress billiards, declaring that "Marshall would never break a law." The State Legislature, at the time, was composed largely of the young man's friends, and they passed the necessary bill...However, the fact remains that billiards were prohibited throughout Virginia; and Jefferson, with the calm philosophy that characterized so much of his life, made the best of a bad bargain, and the room was converted into a ballroom..."[3]

It is worth noting that there was never a law passed in Virginia during Jefferson's lifetime that would have prohibited people from playing billiards in private homes.  A law was passed in 1779 which stated that "any tavern-keeper who shall permit cards, dice, billiards, or any instrument of gaming to be made use of in his house; or shall permit any person to bet or play for money or other goods, in any outhouse, or under any booth, arbour, or other place, upon the messuage or tenement he possesses, and shall not make information thereof, and give in the names of the offenders to the next court which may be held for the county, city, or borough wherein he resides, shall be deprived of his license, and moreover shall pay to the informer, one hundred pounds, to be recovered by action of debt, in any court of record."  A law was also passed in 1781 taxing billiard tables at fifty pounds a year.[4]  Either or both of these laws may be the source of the claim that billiards were outlawed totally in Virginia.

Based on photographs included in Maud Peterson's article, it is evident that the Levy family did in fact have a billiard table in the Dome Room, which no doubt encouraged the myth.  The claim that Jefferson himself originally intended the Dome Room for billiards, or that he ever used it as such, is completely unsubstantiated, however.

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