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Whose chip is it, anyway?

A wood chip by itself is very modest.  Small in size, light-weight, it could easily be lost or thrown away.  Happily, the wood chip Thomas Jefferson cut from William Shakespeare’s chair during his 1786 trip to Stratford-upon-Avon comes with an explanatory note. 

"A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespear's house at Stratford on Avon, said to be the identical chair in which he usually wrote, if true, like the relicks of the saints, it must miraculously reproduce itself. Cut by myself in 1785."

"Cut by Gov. Thomas Mann Randolph and given to his daughter Mary J.R."

Wood chip and note lent by John G. Lamb

As historical documents do, the note raises questions.  It dates the visit to 1785.  It is written in two distinct handwritings.  It suggests that Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law, was the “myself” who cut the chip from Shakespeare’s chair. 

The top section of the note is in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting.  Even though he dates his trip to 1785, his Memorandum Books, John Adams’ diary, and Abigail Adams’ letters all confirm Jefferson visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in 1786.  Maybe Jefferson mixed up his dates? 

Someone else wrote the bottom line.  The writing does not look like Mary Jefferson Randolph’s hand, which suggests she did not make the note as the direct recipient of the chip.   The handwriting might belong to her niece, in whose family the note and chip descended.  Born the same year Jefferson died, she recorded her memories of the chip long after it was cut.  She may have mistakenly given Thomas Mann Randolph credit for collecting the family’s Shakespeare relic – or maybe there is another possibility. 

What if Jefferson’s wood chip was bigger than the one that remains?  Thomas Mann Randolph might have cut a small piece of the chip for his daughter, Mary.  We may never know, unless we find another chip and another note.  No matter what, this chip and its complicated story show us yet another way Jefferson and his family engaged with Shakespeare.

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Thomas Jefferson

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