Thomas Jefferson's use of a coat of arms is documented by impressions of a seal on several of his surviving papers. The image was also apparently considered his "coat of arms" by his descendants, who had them illustrated in Henry Randall's 1858 biography, engraved on the Monticello coffee urn, and incorporated in the graveyard entrance gate.1
These armorial bearings are described by the College of Arms, London, as: Azure a Fret Argent on a Chief of the last three Leopards' heads Gules. The crest: On a Wreath Azure and Argent a Talbot's Head erased Argent eared Gules.
The motto — "Ab eo libertas a quo spiritus" — has been translated as: "The spirit (comes) from him from whom liberty comes," or more freely, "He who gives life gives liberty."2
There are two possible sources for Jefferson's use of these arms. In 1771 he had some family arms in his possession, but expressed doubt of their authority. To a friend in London he wrote: "One farther favor and I am done, to search the Herald’s office for the arms of my family. I have what I have been told were the family arms, but on what authority I know not. It is possible there may be none. If so I would with your assistance become a purchaser, having Sterne’s word for it that a coat of arms may be purchased as cheap as any other coat."3
There is no record of confirmation or denial of authority to use the arms in his possession in 1771. In 1786, however, Jefferson had a second chance to clear up the question, when he spent six weeks in London as a treaty commissioner. There are two indicators of action on this English visit. On March 26 Jefferson purchased a very expensive seal (£3-7) from a London merchant and the wax impression of a seal with the above arms makes its first known appearance on a number of treaties signed by Jefferson in London in late April.4
There is no record, however, that Jefferson was officially entitled to use these arms, which were granted to the Jeaffresons of Dullingham House in Cambridgeshire, England, in 1839, although they were evidently using them for generations before that.5 It was common enough at the time to use arms without known official authority, but by a presumptive right by virtue of use over many generations. This was the case for George Washington, who finally enquired into the true nature of his crest in 1792.6
2. Note that the motto used by Jefferson is different from that associated with the same arms used by the English Jeaffresons — theirs is "Vivit post funera virtus." It is possible, therefore, that Jefferson devised his own motto.
3. Jefferson to Thomas Adams, February 20, 1771, in PTJ, 1:62. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4.MB, 1:615 (transcription available at Founders Online); PTJ, 9:418 (illustration on facing page); the seal impression also appears on a letter to Jan Ingenhousz, July 9, 1787, according to Malone, Jefferson, 1:156.
5. As reported by the College of Arms, London, in 1964, "these Armorial Bearings do not appear to be on record here and neither does Thomas Jefferson .... According to our Laws of Arms, for Arms to be legal, first, they must be on record at the College of Arms and, second, for a person to be entitled to bear those Arms he must be on record here as so entitled." The Armorial Bearings in question first appear in the College of Arms records, in very slightly different form, in 1839, for Christopher William Jeaffreson of Dullingham in Cambridgeshire. It is apparent that, despite the lack of record, this gentleman's grandfather, and probably others before him, bore the same arms. On this branch of the family, to which Jefferson's connection is not proven, see M. T. Jeaffreson, Pedigree of the Jeaffreson Family: With Notes and Memoirs (London: Privately printed, 1922).