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An 18th-century sheep breed on display at Monticello.  Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.In the summer of 1793, Thomas Jefferson was thinking about sheep.1 He was then living far from his Virginia plantation, on the outskirts of the nation's largest city. Still harnessed to the Department of State, he dreamed daily of retirement from public life and the luxury of complete immersion in the restoration of his long-neglected farms. He soothed the pain of disputes with Alexander Hamilton with the study of the new husbandry, both in books and in the fields of the best practical farmers around Philadelphia. He filled his farm book with advice from the latest published works and rode out of town to demonstrations of plows and threshing machines.2

When George Washington showed him letters on farming from the English agricultural writer Arthur Young, Jefferson was inspired with a new idea. He decided to "push" the number of sheep at Monticello. As he told the President, "I had never before considered with due attention the profit from that animal."3

In January 1794, ten days after he reached home and a retirement meant to be permanent, he sent his overseer over the Blue Ridge mountains to bring back forty ewes from Augusta County. Jefferson's main consideration was that sheep were "good and cheap"; he did not care what they looked like nor who their ancestors were.4 These "common country sheep," costing a dollar apiece, were simply part of his strategy for restoring the productivity of his fields after decades of the ruinous rotation of corn and tobacco. He had inaugurated a soil-improving crop rotation scheme, replacing tobacco with wheat as the main cash crop and minimizing the cultivation of corn. "The first step towards the recovery of our lands is to find substitutes for corn and bacon," he wrote. "I count on potatoes, clover and sheep."5

The animals driven over the mountains to Monticello were soon joined by an exotic companion, when Jefferson accepted a gift from Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution. In 1795, the son of a ram smuggled out of Spain by the captain of one of Morris's ships arrived at Monticello, where he exercised sole dominion over the sheep pastures for seven years and was succeeded by his own offspring.6 In 1810 Jefferson therefore could claim that his flock, which he believed to be Spanish Merino, was "as pure as the original."7

For a dozen years, this Spanish-American alliance satisfied Jefferson's needs for wool and mutton. Then, as President, he became keenly interested in a number of different sheep breeds. His celebrity, as well as his recognized concern for the nation's welfare, made him a magnet for all manner of gifts. While Jefferson resolved to refuse anything of value, sheep made it through the gauntlet of his gift policy. He declined sculpture and barrels of wine, but accepted rams and ewes from naval captains, diplomats and civil servants, and even booksellers. In 1805 his Baltimore book importers gave him a Bengal ewe, supposed, Jefferson said, "to be the original stock of the sheep" and alleged to taste like venison.8 This sheep promptly "died after leaving me a pair of half-breeds, of which we are taking care at Monticello, in order to know their merit."9

"[A]lways desirous of trying the merits of new races of animals, and of adding them, if worthy, to our national stock,"10 Jefferson had mentioned his interest in the sheep of the Barbary Coast of Africa to his Secretary of the Navy. Robert Smith in turn mentioned it to naval hero Commodore John Rodgers, who had returned to the United States with sheep from Tripoli in his hold. In the summer of 1806, a ram and a ewe of the Barbary Broadtail breed (now better known as Tunis) arrived at the President's House, from which they were soon transferred to Monticello.11

It was not until the summer of 1807 that Jefferson actually began breeding sheep in the nation's capital. From James D. Barry he received the animal that leaps most vividly from the letters and diaries of the time: a four-horned Shetland ram who for five years provoked his owner to both eulogy and malediction.12 Four days after receiving this "round & beautiful animal," Jefferson wrote to his ten-year-old granddaughter: "I am now possessed of individuals of four of the most remarkeable varieties of the race of the sheep. ... I mean to pay great attention to them, pro bono publico."13 He commissioned his Irish coachman to begin purchasing ewes and the Shetland ram was immediately put to the task of reproducing his own kind.14

By the spring of 1808, there were almost forty presidential sheep grazing on the square in front of the President's House.15 If it had been the year 2000, there would also have been a flock of lawsuits. Several unsuspecting pedestrians tried to take a short cut across the square, met the Shetland ram, and were vanquished in their encounter. One William Keough wrote Jefferson that "in Passing through the President's Square [I] was attacked and severely wounded and bruised by your excellency's ram—of which [I] lay ill for five or six weeks."16 Another of the ram's unfortunate victims, as we learn from the diary of Jefferson's friend Anna Maria Thornton, was "a fine little boy killed by the Ram that the president has."17

For the next three years, American post-riders were loaded down with packets of wool, as samples were sent to and from the President's House. The spur to manufacturing provided by the Embargo of 1807 caused Americans to focus more attentively on the perennial produce of sheep. In the fall of 1808, Jefferson mailed off an entire fleece of his Shetland ram to a friend in Philadelphia, believing it the kind of wool from which "the famous Shetland stockings are made which I believe sell for a guinea a pair being as soft as fur." He wished to know if "there will be any particular utility in raising this kind of wool .... if encouraging I can probably extend it’s produce to any requisite degree in my neighborhood."18

The friend consulted a general weaver, a stocking weaver, a hatter, and even the steward of the Philadelphia almshouse. All agreed Jefferson's Shetland breed was "not deserving the attention of this country," its wool suitable only for blankets.19 These judgments decided Jefferson to "make trial of them on quite a small scale, until [I] shall see whether they possess any other qualities which may countervail the low value of their wool," and he sent the presidential flock home.20 Overseer Edmund Bacon and enslaved wagoner David Hern drove the Shetland ram and his large family back to Monticello, where they and the Barbary Broadtail sheep already in residence were installed in "separate ranges."21

For Jefferson, raising the Tunis breed "pure" was "a favorite object."22 He especially valued these broadtails for their meat, the "most delicious" lamb he had ever tasted. But somehow the system of maintaining separate enclosures for the two breeds broke down. Despite his small size, the Shetland ram killed two Barbary rams and then his own son. "This abominable animal," Jefferson explained to the intended recipient of the latter, "was so dangerous generally that I was obliged to have him destroyed."23

Meanwhile, an agricultural craze was brewing that would grip the nation for two years. For centuries, Spain had closely guarded her renowned Merino flocks, noted for the finest fleeces in the world. The wool was bought up by European cloth manufacturers, but the sheep were forbidden to leave the country. Cracks in this embargo had begun to open in the previous century, with Spanish gifts of choice Merinos to the rulers of Denmark, Germany, and France. Smuggling, however, was still the only method of acquiring one if you were not a king. The unfortunate Andrew Craigie is remembered in the annals of agricultural history for having received the first Merinos smuggled into Boston in 1793. Unaware of their value, he butchered and ate them. Sixteen years later, in the midst of the Merino craze, Craigie had to pay $1,000 for a Spanish ram.24

Several enterprising Americans were able to pry a few Merinos out of Spain, Germany, and France. Robert Livingston in New York, David Humphreys in Connecticut, and the Du Ponts in Delaware were particularly active in promoting the breed. In 1801, soon after he became President, Jefferson was to receive a lamb from one of the first shipments of pure Merino stock, imported by the Du Ponts.25 Jefferson's designated ram, however, died on the voyage, and the sole survivor of the transatlantic crossing, Don Pedro, spent ten years improving flocks in New Jersey, New York, and Delaware, where he was periodically put on exhibition at the Du Pont gunpowder works.26

Interest in Merinos did not spread widely until prices of both wool and sheep began to rise. Sheep became associated – as never before – with dreams of profit, a situation which another embargo, Jefferson's own, did much to bring about. As he wrote the Marquis de Lafayette early in 1809, "Our embargo, which has been a very trying measure, has produced one very happy, & permanent effect. it has set us all on domestic manufacture, & will I verily believe reduce our future demands on England fully one half. we are all eager to get into the Merino race of sheep."27 The Embargo of 1807 stimulated more than mere household production; large-scale textile mills sprang up all over New England and the mid-Atlantic states.

Jefferson at this time still believed he already had the Merino "race of sheep." Rising excitement about the Spanish Merino led him to mail more wool, this time from his Spanish flock out of Robert Morris's ram. Certain it was equal to wool then selling for five times the normal price, he sent it off to experts in Philadelphia and Delaware.28 What came back by return mail was not just another chorus of negative judgments, but the universal opinion that Jefferson's sheep were not Merinos at all but Churros, the Spanish equivalent of the "common country sheep" of Virginia.29

This disappointing news was accompanied by samples of wool from a dozen different "true" Merinos, Don Pedro among them.30 It was to aid this legendary ram's owners that Jefferson made his single public intervention in the Merino enterprise. Although he railed about the "parricides" and "unprincipled adventurers" who flouted the embargo laws, as President he could also authorize exemptions. In February, he gave permission to E. I. du Pont and Robert Livingston to import on the Mentor, the administration's dispatch vessel, "two parcels of Merino sheep from France, which they have procured there."31 The Du Ponts hoped that Jefferson would pose as the nominal owner of the sheep, in order to grease the wheels of French bureaucracy ("Mr. Jefferson's name would be very helpful in assuring their safety"). Mr. Jefferson declined this role, however, and, in any case, the French authorities refused to allow any of their Merinos to leave the country.

Two animals, the gift of the Marquis de Lafayette, did in fact take passage back on the Mentor and were soon herding sheep in Monticello's pastures. Jefferson had been interested in shepherd's dogs, which he described as "the most careful intelligent dogs in the world," long before he became a sheep breeder.32 "Their sagacity," he wrote, "is almost human, and qualifies them to be taught any thing you please."33 Since one of the dogs selected by Lafayette arrived fully trained, Jefferson could later boast that his sheep "have the benefit of fine pastures in which they could not run but for the facility she gives of keeping them from the grain in the same fields."34

In March 1809, when Jefferson handed over the reins of government to James Madison, his successor wore a suit of homespun for the ceremonies. George Washington had initiated the custom of inaugural clothing of native manufacture. For his own final state event, the President's House reception on the first day of 1809, Jefferson wished to be attired not just in American-made cloth, but in purebred Merino wool. David Humphreys responded to the President's "anxious wish to be supplied with sufficient Cloth for a Coat to wear on the approaching New Year's day, even if it should not be of the finest quality." To make his deadline, Jefferson had to settle for several yards of "superfine black cloth" made from the wool of "3/4 and 7/8" rather than of purebred Merinos.35

"[H]omespun is become the spirit of the times," Jefferson wrote when ordering his cloth. "I think it an useful one, & therefore that it is a duty to encourage it by example."36 The political overtones of clothing were echoed up and down the eastern seaboard. The following year, Republican Governor Edward Lloyd of Maryland took his oath of office in a full suit of green homespun, made from the wool of his own sheep of Don Pedro's lineage. And in 1811, Richard Peters of Philadelphia, champion of the Tunis breed of sheep, sent President Madison a sample of cloth of the ewe Selima's wool, manufactured not at a large mill but by a "common good" country weaver. In this way the operation was "domestic & countryfied." "Being a good Republican," Peters concluded, "I have a Coat made for my own wearing."37

The recent embargo acts had only heightened the intensity of a major article of faith for Jeffersonian Republicans, a belief in household industries and the independence they provided. Jefferson himself wrote that "the determination we have formed of emancipating ourselves from a dependance on foreign countries for manufactures which may be advantageously established among ourselves, has produced a very general desire to improve the quality of our wool by the introduction of the Merino race of sheep."38

Patriotism and public spirit were the passions of the day, and the profit motive was often cloaked in flag-waving terminology. What you ate, drank, and wore reflected the level of your commitment to the nation's welfare. (When sending his homemade wine to Robert Livingston, George Washington Parke Custis referred to the "delightful flavor of patriotism.") Giving the British wool trade a thumping was every American's greatest hope. Jefferson continued to believe that imports from England could be cut in half, and David Humphreys, sometime poet as well as diplomat and manufacturer, wrote:

See wool, the boast of Britain's proudest hour,

Is still the basis of her wealth and pow'r!

... Shall we who dar'd assert the rights of man,

Become the vassals of her wiser plan?

Then, rous'd from lethargies—up! men! increase,

In every vale, on every hill, the fleece!

And see the fold, with thousands teeming, fills

With flocks the bleating vales and echoing hills.39

Jefferson's patriotism had no need of the stimulus of profit. As a creature of the Enlightenment, he had always considered his neighbors, his nation, and often the whole human race, in almost every action he took. He undoubtedly felt uncomfortable with the rising volume of patriotic rhetoric that accompanied the rising prices of Spanish Merino sheep. In May 1810, when he still had no Merinos of his own, his indignation reached its peak. Having just read of the sale of four Merinos at Washington for $6,000, he wrote Madison that "I have been so disgusted with the scandalous extortions lately practised in the sale of these animals, & with the ascription of patriotism & praise to the sellers, ... that I am disposed to consider, as right, whatever is the reverse of what they have done."40

His anger at "that kind of patriotism the strongest feature of which is to enrich the patriot himself" led him to develop, in some detail and complete with Jeffersonian calculations and diagrams, a benevolent plan to populate the entire state of Virginia with Merinos.41 By breeding the sheep he expected soon to receive, he would provide a purebred ram lamb to all one hundred counties in the state. "Merino mania," as the craze was called by its adherents as well as its detractors, inspired some of his strongest expressions of noblesse oblige. When inducting Madison into the ram donation project, Jefferson issued a characteristic rallying cry: "[N]o sentiment is more acknoleged in the family of Agricolists, than that the few who can afford it should incur the risk & expence of all new improvements, & give the benefit freely to the many of more restricted circumstances."42

Jefferson and Madison finally acquired their own Merinos because of the convulsions of international conflict. Napoleon's invasion of Spain, the Spanish rising against the French in May 1808, and the Peninsular campaign of the future Duke of Wellington, led to the break-up of the huge Merino flocks that had been so closely guarded by the Spanish elite. For centuries the Merinos, raised in western Spain along the border of Portugal, spent their summers in the mountains of León and wintered on the plains of Estremadura, several hundred miles to the south. After the pandemonium of war dislocated the seasonal patterns of their management, the new ruling juntas confiscated the great flocks and began to sell them off. One American was on the spot to provide a service to his nation. William Jarvis, American consul at Lisbon, "ever attentive to the interests and welfare of my country," bought almost four thousand of "the best blooded sheep in Spain." Eight of them he designated as gifts for the President and ex-President.43

Jefferson's and Madison's Merinos, accompanied by written certificates of their authenticity, finally arrived in the late summer and fall of 1810. Each received a ram and three ewes from two of the most famous Spanish flocks. Jefferson's ram was a Paular, "deemed the finest race in Spain for size and wool taken together."44 First impressions were another matter, however. The Merinos' advance reputation and the astronomical prices given for them created expectations that were universally disappointed. Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon, sent to retrieve Jefferson's sheep from Montpelier, recalled years later that "we were greatly disappointed. The sheep were little bits of things, and [Madison's overseer] said he would not give his riding whip for the whole lot."45 Even Jefferson admitted that "they are the smallest things I have ever seen in the form of sheep."46 They also infected the whole Monticello flock with scab. But – at last – the wool of one of his Merino ewes was judged the best ever seen in Washington.

The speculative bubble of "Merino mania" inevitably burst. The trickle of sheep into the United States that began when the Spanish opened their gates became a flood of twenty thousand Merinos over a two-year period. Prices plummeted and woolen mills failed. In the south, where its fine wool was inappropriate for the coarse cloth needed for enslaved laborers, the breed was spurned. "[T]he Merino fever is so entirely spent," Jefferson wrote in 1813, "that our country people will not even accept of them; preferring those breeds giving most wool to what gives the finest."47

Now that his benevolent donation scheme was unnecessary, Jefferson continued to breed Merinos in a more relaxed manner, exchanging lambs for ewes brought to his rams and occasionally giving purebred lambs to his friends. His "principal flock," he said, was the Tunis, its delicious meat a necessity for the Monticello table.48 The Churro-Shenandoah Valley cross-breeds, relocated to Poplar Forest, spread through that neighborhood at prices fifty percent higher than the local sheep. After all his experimentation with exotic breeds, Jefferson gave these home-grown sheep his highest praise. They were large and "finely formed," unusually hardy, and "fully fleeced," with "fine quality" wool. In fact, they were "the finest race of sheep ever known in this country."49

Jefferson continued to steadily pursue "the business of homespun" and said he would "never give it up."50 His textile factory at Monticello, with a hundred spindles whirling on several spinning jennies, produced two thousand yards of cloth a year, giving him some measure of the liberation he sought from British merchants. He was probably amused if he read an essay crediting someone he detested as the source of American commercial independence. William Cobbett, writing in 1811 from his cell in Newgate prison, pronounced that it was Napoleon who had unintentionally "scattered the inestimable flocks of Spain over the face of the earth. ... And, I think, it must be peculiarly gratifying to the American farmer, to see raised in his own fields and fashioned under his own happy roof, that coat, by his former mode of obtaining which he used to enrich and abet" Spanish aristocrats and English manufacturers.51

Four years later, advertisements of "Merino mutton" for sale, unimaginable in 1809 and 1810, appeared in American newspapers. Also in 1815, Jefferson and some of his family members were clad in cloth manufactured from his own wool, in his own state, at a mill in Front Royal. His grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph recited his marriage vows in a coat of "wool that grew on the back of his grandfather's sheep," and a visiting Bostonian described the appearance of his host. Jefferson wore "corduroy small clothes, blue waistcoat and coat, of stiff thick cloth made of the wool of his own merinoes and badly manufactured."52

- Lucia Stanton, 2000. Originally published as "Sheep for the President," in Fall Dinner at Monticello, November 3, 2000, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, Va.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 2000): 1-16.

Primary Source References

1793 June 28. (Jefferson to George Washington). "I had never before considered with due attention the profit from [sheep]."53

1807 November 24. (Jefferson to his overseer, Edmund Bacon). "I hope my sheep are driven up every night & carefully attended to."54

1809 February 24. (Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette). "[To] reduce our future demands on England fully one half, we are all eager to get into the Merino race of sheep."55

1809 March 2. (Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours). "[B]ring a couple of pair of true-bred Shepherd’s dogs. you will add a valuable possession to a country now beginning to pay great attention to the raising sheep."56

1809 May 27. (Jefferson to former servant Joseph Dougherty). "I am very much pleased indeed that you are likely to get so cleverly into the way of raising the Merino sheep. I am sure it will be a very easy business & of great profit."57

1809 October 11. (Jefferson to William Thornton). "I return you a thousand thanks for the fine pair of sheep you have sent me. they arrived in perfect health & so continue and will I trust enable me to get into that breed entirely."58

1810 May 10. (Jefferson to James H. Hooe). "I shall consider the acquisition of this race of sheep as for the public benefit, not my own personal one, & fulfill that end in the best way I can."59

1810 May 13. (Jefferson to James Madison). "[W]e may sell the male lambs of every year for such reasonable price as, in addition to the wool, will pay for the maintenance of the flock."60

1810 [June] 27. (Jefferson to William Thornton). "I have reserved the pair of [shepherd's] dogs for yourself .... besides their wonderful sagacity & never ceasing attention to what they are taught to do ... they make the best farm dogs or house dogs I have ever seen."61

1812 January 21. (Jefferson to John Adams). "[W]e consider a sheep for every person in the family as sufficient to clothe it."62

1815 January 6. (Jefferson to his overseer, Jeremiah Goodman). "[I]t is indispensably necessary that you take as much care of the lambs & sheep as if they were children."63

Further Sources

Related Links:
Monticello Plantation Model
Historic Landscape Institute
Jefferson: the Scientist and Gardener


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