Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson by John Plumbe

Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson by John Plumbe, Jr. Petersburg, VA, ca. 1845.

The Delightful Recreation

More than any other president, Thomas Jefferson embraced what he called his "delightful recreation." He was a serious and competent violinist, owning several violins, and an avid collector of music, little of which survives today. At a time when a typical concert might include two symphonies, several vocal solos, a concerto, an instrumental sonata, and a vocal duet or two, Jefferson ardently attended performances. In the eighteenth century, when music constituted a crucial element in the family life of the Virginia gentry, Jefferson described it as "an enjoyment, the deprivation of which ... cannot be calculated."

"Memoirs of a Monticello Slave."

"Memoirs of a Monticello Slave." Autograph manuscript of the memoirs of Isaac Jefferson in the hand of Charles Campbell. Petersburg, VA., ca. 1847.

From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History

Around 1847, Isaac Jefferson, a former slave of Thomas Jefferson, dictated his memories of life at Monticello to Charles Campbell. Providing many small details about the character of the third president, Isaac recalled that "Mr. Jefferson was always singing when ridin(g) or walkin(g); hardly see him anywhar out doors but what he was a singin(g)." Thomas Jefferson "had a fine clear voice, ... sung minnits [minuets] & sich: fiddled in the parlor."

Notes on the State of Virginia

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. London: Printed for John Stockdale, 1787.

From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

This first London edition of Notes belonged to Jefferson, containing annotations and additions in his hand. Among the musical references, Jefferson describes the "banjer," an instrument brought to America by the slaves. Over time, the banjo would come to have tremendous impact on the development of American folk genres. Thomas Jefferson acknowledged the primacy of music in African-American folk culture, describing the slaves as "in music... more generally gifted than the whites, with accurate ears for tune and time."

Reproduction of a gourd banjo of ca. 1800.

Reproduction of a gourd banjo of ca. 1800. Reproduction by Pete Ross, Baltimore, MD, ca. 1997? 

On loan from Joseph W. Ayers

This reproduction shows a type of instrument which Jefferson refers to as "banjer" in Notes on the State of Virginia. As early as 1688, it was known to be in use by African slaves in the British colonies. Stringed instruments with skin-covered gourd bodies and long necks are common to many parts of Africa and the Middle East, but the modern banjo probably derives from a West-African source with similar characteristic short-thumb string. The rounded neck of the African instrument may have been replaced by a flat fingerboard after enslaved musicians became familiar with European plucked instruments, such as the English guitar.

"The Battle of the Kegs"

[Hopkinson, Francis]. "The Battle of the Kegs." In Songs. Philadelphia: Printed and sold by B. Towne, 1780.

From the Library of Thomas Jefferson

From Mr. Jefferson's personal library, "The Battle of the Kegs" stands as the classic satirical song by Francis Hopkinson, Jefferson's friend and co-signer of the Declaration of Independence. An attempt by colonists to blow up English battleships by sending explosive-filled kegs down the Delaware River backfired when the Redcoats sank or exploded them. Hopkinson's song turned the British triumph sour and became a favorite of the colonists.

Cosway, [Maria]. Songs and Duets.

Cosway, [Maria]. Songs and Duets. N.p.: n.p., [1786?].

Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Autograph letter by [Thomas Jefferson] to [Maria] Cosway

Letterpress copy of autograph letter by [Thomas Jefferson] to [Maria] Cosway. 19 November 1786.

From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History

Self-portrait of Mrs. [Maria] Cosway

Self-portrait of Mrs. [Maria] Cosway, engraved by V[alentine] Green. London: V. and R. Green, 1 September 1787.

The gifted musician Maria Cosway, wife of the British portrait painter Richard Cosway, composed, sang, and performed her own accompaniment on the piano or harp. For six weeks in Paris during 1786, she and Jefferson became constant companions, attending the Paris Opera, salon matinees, and concerts. During this time, Mrs. Cosway composed the cycle of Italian songs and duets, dedicating the music to Jefferson. At the end of their joint stay, Jefferson fractured his wrist, hampering his ability to play the violin from then on. Some accounts attribute this accident to a fall caused by the distress over the Cosways' impending return to England.