Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Jefferson Monument at the University of Missouri

Boone County Historical Society collection.  Donated by William H. Taft.

William Peden [copyright]

On the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia stands a rough-hewn block of granite surmounted by a weather-beaten obelisk approximately six feet in height. This scarred and battered monument is the original tombstone that for half a century marked the grave of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Its history, including the details which culminated in its being presented as a gift to the University of Missouri in Boone County, Missouri, is a chequered one.

Shortly after Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, his descendants found among his personal effects the rough sketch of a tombstone and directions for its inscription. “Could the dead,” Jefferson had written on the back of a partially-mutilated envelope, “feel any interest in Monuments or other remembrances of them,” he would be gratified by a “plain die or cube . . . surmounted by an Obelisk” bearing the words:
“Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia.”

[Left click on the image below to enlarge it.]

He also requested that on the base should be carved the dates of his birth and death, recording his birth-date as “Apr. 2, 1743. O.S.,” the O.S. referring to the old style calendar in use when he was born. Jefferson further directed that these memorials be made from “the coarse stone of which my columns are made, that no one might be tempted hereafter to destroy it for the value of the materials.”

Jefferson was buried between the graves of his wife and their daughter Maria in the graveyard at Monticello.(#1) Within a month, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, his favorite grandchild and executor of the estate, attempted to follow his grandfather’s instructions, but the estate was so heavily encumbered with debts that Monticello could not remain in the family as Jefferson had intended. House, out-buildings and 552 acres of land were sold, successively, to James T. Barclay, a “local eccentric,” in 1831 and, five years later, o Lt. Uriah Levy, U.S.N., a Jefferson admirer from New York; the graveyard, however, “with free access,” was to be kept in the family.(#2)

The monument itself was not erected until seven years after Jefferson’s death, apparently because of his bankruptcy. It is possible that a small temporary marker may have been placed over the grave, but it seems certain that no monument was erected until 1833. [Year should be 1783 - Ed.] The monument followed Jefferson’s instructions to the letter, with on notable exception. Because of the coarseness of the specified granite, it was not possible to cut the inscriptions into the face of the obelisk; instead they were carved upon a marble plaque which was set into its face.

The graveyard, meanwhile, was in “neglected and wretched condition.” Souvenir hunters were undeterred by the iron gates and high brick wall which had replaced an earlier wall and pyracanthus hedge enclosing the burying place at the time of Jefferson’s death; splinters had been chipped from the monument itself; the white marble slabs over the graves of Jefferson’s wife and daughter had been “similarly desecrated:; the turf was “trodden up”; and the marble plaque, “loosened by . . . rude treatment,” was rescued from probable destruction by Lt. Levy.(#3)

In the following decades, particularly during the War Between the States when Jefferson’s name and fame were temporarily eclipsed, vandalism and decay increased rather than diminished.

When Levy, then a Commodore, died in 1862, he left instructions willing Monticello either to Virginia or to the nation, but the will was attacked by his heirs and became a subject of litigation, and Monticello was sold, finally, at auction in 1879, to his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy. During most of this seventeen-year period, the house was occupied by Levy’s tenant overseer. Bats, it ha been said, made their nests in the Dome Room where Jefferson’s favorite daughter had reared her children; livestock were bedded down in the spacious entry hall; Thomas Jefferson Randolph had had to force his way into the estate “to assert his ownership of the graveyard and his right of access to it.”

Such conditions gave credence to varied unsubstantiated reports that the Jefferson monument had been destroyed and replaced.(#4) As early as 1838, for example, a Washington publication had commented on a visitor’s report that he had found the grave of Jefferson in “forlorn condition,” a report vigorously denied in the Charlottesville Advocate. Forty years later, Harper’s Weekly commented that “three successive headstones have been quietly chipped away and now ornament many a mantle piece throughout the Country he loved so well. A fourth stone will soon be required.” In the same year, after a visit to Monticello, Congressman Augustus A. Hardenbergh of New Jersey stated (in the Congressional Record) that the “original monument . . . had been all chipped away; that a second one had also been chipped away; and a third is now undergoing the same process . . . . Last night a week ago during a heavy gale the lower part of the brick wall surrounding the tomb was blown down . . . . The inscription is gone; not a trace remains. An obelisk stands over the tomb, but the whole site bears the evidence of a nation’s neglect . . . . “

By this time, Jefferson’s descendants, public officials, the press, and some private individuals had made various unsuccessful attempts to remedy the situation. An 1878 Resolution of Congress appropriating five thousand dollars for a replacement bogged down, but four years later the Congress appropriated twice that sum to repair the graveyard and erect a new shaft commemorating the memory of the man who had been Governor of Virginia, American Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President. A colonel in the Corps of Engineers was ordered to “report to the Secretary of State for duty in connection with the erection of a monument over the grave of Thomas Jefferson,” designs were submitted and approved, contracts awarded, and by mid-April, 1883, the monument arrived at Monticello: the “weight was about 16,000 pounds and it required ten horses to draw it.”(#5)

Prior to proposed ceremonies to dedicate the new monument, Jefferson’s descendants had received numerous requests fo the tombstone. One such request came from the University of Missouri. As the first state university in the Louisiana Purchase Territory which Jefferson had had been instrumental in acquiring during his first administration as President, the University of Missouri presented an appealing claim. The claim, or rather supplication, was strengthened because of Jefferson’s life-long labors I behalf of state-supported education (Jefferson, in effect, originated the concept of the state university, and Missouri’s university had projected a curriculum and a concept of higher education similar to those which Jefferson had put into practice some years before at the university of Virginia), and because of his faith in the western portions of the nation.

Even more relevant, probably, many first and second generations residents of Columbia and Boone County were originally from Virginia and could claim “cousinship” of one kind or other with Mr. Jefferson; Thomas Jefferson Randolph himself had at one time considered emigrating to Missouri; and the sponsors of the University of Missouri’s efforts to obtain the monument were Virginians, including President Samuel Spahr Laws who had been confined to several Union prisons because of his outspoken sympathy for the cause of the Confederacy (and who apparently paid personally the expenses attendant on moving the monument form Monticello to the Columbia campus), and Professor of Greek Alexander Frederick Fleet, a graduate of the University of Virginia who had been a member of the 26th Virginia Regiment from the beginning of the War until General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and who seems to have originated the quest to acquire the monument.(#6)

At any rate and whatever the reasons, the monument and the marble plaque inscribed with Jefferson’s epitaph were finally given to the University of Missouri. Professor Fleet journeyed to Virginia to attend proj3ected but never-performed dedicatory ceremonies at Monticello;(#7) under his supervision the old base, obelisk, and plaque were shipped frm Monticello to Columbia, whereupon the Curators praised President Laws and Dr. Fleet fo their “unsolicited, timely and active agency in not only originating the purpose to procure the monument of Jefferson for the University, but for prosecuting that purpose in the midst of the difficulties to success: and expressed their gratitude in a formal statement, “printed on white satin, thanking certain great-grandchildren of Mr. Jefferson for giving to the University of Missouri . . . this most gracious . . . gift.”

Mrs. Ellen Wayles Harrison, Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s daughter, responded even more graciously, in a letter to Professor Fleet, concluding:

“We gladly accorded our assent to the proposition that they [the representatives of the University of Missouri] should become the possessors of what we venerated so highly. We have never regretted the gift, and feel that in no other state of the union would its poor, battered, weatherworn front have met with such a welcome. Our admiration for the State of Missouri could not have been heightened, but she has won our lasting gratitude by the veneration she has shown and honor she has done Mr. Jefferson.”

The “sacred relic” was placed to the right of the entrance to Academic Hall, the main building of the University at that time, where it was unveiled on July 4, 1885, the final day of commencement exercises, in a ceremony, said to have been the most elaborate in the history of the University, which include addresses by Missouri Senator George E. Vest, Thomas F. Bayard, national Secretary of State, and Captain James B. Eads, noted Missouri engineer.

The marble plaque was subsequently mounted on the obelisk, but was removed some time thereafter, for safekeeping, to Academic Hall. Ironically enough, when this building was destroyed by fire on January 9, 1892, the shaft was unmarred but the plaque was “cracked and burned.” Since then the restored tablet is kept in a vault in the University’s administration building, Jesse Hall, where it remains tody except for the annual celebration of Jefferson’s birthday at which times it is customarily displayed.

The monument itself was frequently moved from one campus site to another, virtually ignored(#8) and without a marker—although certain individuals and patriotic societies occasionally placed a wreath upon it on Jefferson’s birthday—until 1931. In that year, Jefferson’s birthday was declared a state holiday by the General Assembly of the state of Missouri.

Following this action of the Missouri legislature, University of Missouri President Walter Williams and Representative Joseph b. Shannon of Kansas City were active in renewing interest in Thomas Jefferson at the University. On April 13, 1932, ceremonies were conducted at the tombstone which included unveiling a new marker for the monument and addresses by President Williams and Mr. Shannon who had been influential in obtaining funds for the marker and for the passage of the bill making Jefferson’s birthday a state holiday.

In America’s bicentennial year the monument was again moved, to a site adjacent to the Chancellor’s Residence and alongside a much-frequented walk on Francis Quadrangle. It was rededicated the day after Mr. Jefferson’s birthday, as a part of the University’s bicentennial observances, and aided by a gift from the class of 1926. In its impressive new setting, atop an 18-inch concrete block surrounded by a brick-paved courtyard and evergreen plantings, it was estimated that in three days more students saw the monument than had been even aware of its existence during the preceding year. Chancellor Herbert Schooling, in his dedicatory comments, observed that the monument would be a continuing reminder that Mr. Jefferson considered his founding of the University of Virginia to be one of his major accomplishments and that “the establishment of the University of Missouri in the territory Jefferson had acquired will continue to be a most important accomplishment” in Missouri.

Such annual ceremonies signify a continuing awareness of a great American whose faith in education and in the American people is best summarized in his own words:

“Educate and inform the who mass of the people . . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”


1. According to family tradition, Jefferson and Dabney Carr, his boyhood friend, William and Mary classmate, and husband of his sister Martha, had promised each other that the survivor would see that the other was buried at the foot of a favorite oak tree at Monticello. A week after Carr’s death on May 16, 1773, Jefferson had men at work preparing a burial place.

2. Levy bought the property, reduced to 218 acres, for $2,700; Barclay had paid $7,000 for the original purchase.

3. When Levy, who stayed at Monticello primarily during the summers, stopped using Monticello as a “vacation resort,” he gave the plaque to Thomas Jefferson Randolph. It remained at the Randolph family place, Edgehill, until 1883 when it was given, with the monument itself, to the University of Missouri.

4. For full discussion, see Kean, “History of the Graveyard at Monticello.”

5. The new obelisk was twice the size of Mr. Jefferson’s original, the result, perhaps, of bureaucratic love of bigness-as-such.

6. The fact that the Missouri capital, Jefferson City, was named after Mr. Jefferson probably further strengthened the appeal of Missouri’s request.

7. “Let us hang our heads in shame,” a writer lamented in the Charlottesville Jeffersonian, for this “exhibition of the great want of public spirit which characterizes our people.”

8. Except in 1904 when it was lent to the St. Louis World’s Fair. When asked to repeat the favor at the Jamestown Exposition a few years later, the apprehensive Curators declined “for fear that if it were ever taken into . . . Virginia” it might never be returned.


For detailed information concerning the early years of he graveyard and monument, Robert H. Kean’s “history of the Graveyard at Monticello,” The Collected Papers of the Monticello Association, George Green Shackleford, ed., Princeton university Press, 1965, is invaluable, as is the letter from Ellen Waynes Harrison, undated but written in 1885, to Professor A.F. Fleet, included in The Annual report of the Monticello Association, 1956, pp. 19-21. Interesting material is in William H. Gaines, “From Desolation to Restoration: the Story of Monticello Since Jefferson,” Virginia Cavalcade, I, 4, Spring, 1952; and John Hammond Moore, Albermarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727-1976, University Press of Virginia, 1976.

I am indebted, too, to various individuals: Mrs. Virginia Botts, Columbia, Missouri; Dr. Richard Brownlee and Dr. James W. Goodrich, Director and Assistant Director of the State Historical Society of Missouri; President Emeritus Elmer Ellis, Office of Publication Information Director Mr. Robert Kren, and Chancellor Herbert Schooling of the University of Missouri; Mr. Robert H. Kean of Alexandria, Virginia; Mr. Edward King, Director of he University of Missouri Press; Mr. Sheridan A. Logan of St. Joseph, Missouri; Miss Olivia Taylor of Charlottesville, Virginia; and the late John Cook Wyllie, Librarian of the University of Virginia Library.

© Copyright by William Peden undated but ca 1980

Peden's booklet is used with permission of William Peden's wife, Margaret Sayers Peden.  The undated monograph was probably written in the 1980s.   The text is fully reproduced here but certain photographs were omitted.

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