Bedtime at Monticello: One Act History Play

I love iambic pentameter and the history plays of William Shakespeare, and the manner in which Shakespeare draws out all of the meaning from a historical event and its significant for the people and nation of England. I would love to do something similar with American history, and wrote a short scene of what I can only imagine bedtime stories were like at Monticello. But, as you read the piece, am I praising or subtly making fun of Thomas Jefferson? What do you think? Please leave your comments below!

Act I, Scene i

The dining room of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, wherein Jefferson sits beside a roaring fire surrounded by four grandchildren: Benjamin Franklin Randolph, James Madison Randolph, Meriwether Lewis Randolph, and Septimia Randolph.

Benjamin Franklin:

O grandpapa, pray tell us once again

The story of ’76, won’t you

Please papa?

Septimia:

                           Yes, papa, pray tell us how

You fought those brutes from England and their king,

For surely you were scared of fighting such

A man, what with his iron fists and scores

Of scaly dragons he could fly upon!

James Madison:

Septimia, George had no such dragons to

Frighten the colonies into—

Septimia:

                                                         Did too!

Did he not, dear grandpapa, have dragons

Who breathed forth fire on Richmond and New York?

Thomas Jefferson:

Of course he did, but they were more savage

Than any dragon you have ever seen!

I myself saw one such monster crawling

Beside the river James and spewing fire

On Richmond’s streets, with scales all coated red

With blood and teeth so sharp I thought they’d pierce

The very sky above, if they had not

The farms of Virginia to feast upon!

Septimia:

See James, King George did have a dragon after all!

James Madison:

O fine, but still I want to hear papa

Recount the summer of ’76,

Do tell it now, papa!

Meriwether Lewis Jefferson:

                                            Yes, papa, please!

Jefferson:

Of course, dear children, for few things on earth

Now fill this fraying heart with greater joy

Than making you all smile, or thinking

O’ the summer we dare told King George that here

Upon Amer’ca’s shores his proud rule stops!

Benjamin Franklin:

But were you scared, papa?

Thomas Jefferson:

                                                         I was so young,

And frightened though I was to dare attempt

So noble a venture as casting out a king,

I knew that if I acted not, never

Could I forgive myself for consigning

The teeming mass of man to chains, or leaving

My family to bear the loathsome yoke

Of English tyranny.

Septimia:

                                         What did ye do, papa?

Jefferson:

From Williamsburg I made my way o’erland

To Philadelphia, wherein an ever-wise

And gracious Providence had assembled

The brightest minds our continent’s produced,

Inspir’ng every noble heart along

Th’Atlantic coast with freedom’s fiery winds!

Like siroccos which stir beyond Arabian shores

These winds have swept across Greece, Rome, Holland,

And with no strength abated crossed th’ocean

To temper my own trembling heart, as I

Arrived before that stately hall and took

My place within the fabled Congress there.

Benjamin Franklin:

I knew papa could not be scared of any man

Or anything on earth—‘tis true, papa?

Jefferson:

One should take care in attempting deeds

Of great import to cause and country both,

And so I sat, in silence mostly, and

Observed everyone else debate our course

Against the Crown, though I could plainly see

The hand of Fate already willed us free.

Septimia:

And praised be God, to bless such humble steps!

Benjamin Franklin:

To walk amongst such counselors, so many for whom

We’re named—o, what were they like, grandpapa?

Jefferson:

O, if we lived in days of ancient Rome,

Possessed a stripe of Tyrrhenian purple,

And sparred in discourse with Cato, Caesar,

Or Cicero inside the Forum or

The Senate house, e’en then would we not be

Surrounded by so many noble hearts

As took the floor and argued for the cause

Of freedom for our country and you children!

Both Sam and John Adams, Benjamin Rush,

Benjamin Franklin, and Roger Sherman

Were all as wise in counsel as Nestor himself,

And Washington, Scipio-like, guarded

Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor from

The many Hannibals among the British troops!

Septimia:

O no! Were you in danger then, papa?

Jefferson:

At every turn we knew that if we failed,

We would be treated just as traitors to

The Crown, and such a fate was made more real

By Britain’s Navy looming off our coast,

One army moving south from Canada,

And still another poised to seize New York!

Meriwether Lewis:

Papa, was Philadelphia besieged

That summer then?

Jefferson:

                                            Not yet, but still

I had to act before the English beast

At last devoured all our hope, and so

I took my pen, far mightier than any sword—

For while arms may win a battle, they

Could never win our Revolution, not

When only words could thwart that tyrant’s will 

And oust from out our land King George’s reign!

Septimia:

What did you do then, papa, when all

The hope of freedom rested ‘pon your quill?

Jefferson:

For days I chained my body to my desk,

Striving with all I had to channel every word

E’er spoken in the cause of Liberty,

Whether by Spartans at Thermopylae

Or Whigs in triumph over wicked kings, 

So as to proclaim this most-cherished truth,

That man is free and fit to rule himself,

Destined to live without the fear of kings

Plucking our coins from out our purse, taking

Our children for their wars, or casting such

A shadow from their thrones the common man

Should never see the light prepared for him!

Meriwether Lewis:

O, tell us what you wrote, papa!

Septimia:

                                                                 Yes please!

Jefferson:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:

All men are created equal, that they

Are endowed by their Creator with certain

Inalienable Rights, that among

These are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit

Of happiness!”

Meriwether Lewis:

                                  Hooray for Liberty!

Septimia:

And hooray ever more for grandpapa!

James Madison:

Hooray indeed! What happened next, papa?

Benjamin Franklin:

Surely King George surrendered there and then?

Jefferson:

We struck a mighty blow against that beast,

Whose awful pride could bear it not we so

Rejected all his claims, but when we fixed

Our names upon the sacred parchment of

The Declaration of Independence,

I stood and looked about, as if a storm

Had gathered overhead and barred the light

From view so knew not I what lay ahead.

Benjamin Franklin:

How could that be, dear grandpapa, when even

A man so stuffed with pride as foul King George

Would never persist in fighting a nation born

From such immortal words as those you formed?

Jefferson:

O, dear child, must I quote from him of whom

I took your name, wise Benjamin Franklin?

The moment he left Independence Hall,

After the years of labor drafting our

Constitution, was asked, “What kind of state

Have you just given us?” To which he quipped,

“A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it!”

James Madison:

What did Benjamin Franklin mean, papa?

For surely republics can keep themselves,

As they’re the highest form of government

Ever designed by man and given so by God.

Jefferson:

Dear child, republics are indeed a form

Of government unsurpassed by the mind

Of man, ever since the day that Brutus himself

Cast out the Tarquin kings and then pronounced

One man alone should never rule in Rome—

But even then, that noble republic

Was constantly upon the watch for threats

Against their Liberty, from neighb’ring tribes,

Carthage, or Macedon, but even more

So from within the republic itself!

Septimia:

O no! Can such a thing be true, papa?

Jefferson:

Indeed, the Roman army crowned as kings

In all but name the most successful of their kind,

But far more threats to Liberty came from

The wealthiest aristocrats of Rome.

They used the people’s debts like clubs to beat

Them into service for their homes or mining salt,

Or dying ‘pon an endless battlefield!

O no, ‘tis not Liberty if ye must

Pay homage t’anyone, even if they’re not a king!

James Madison:

But surely all the other Founders saw

Such threats to all our hard won Liberties?

Jefferson:

I am afraid that I alone descried

Such threats upon our sacred freedoms, even as

I served our country as a diplomat

In Paris with your dear mother at my side,

Whose name and presence then, as now, reminds

My heart of my beloved wife, my Patty, and 

Instilled my feeble frame with comforts great

Whilst I was grieving still our family’s loss. 

Septimia:

O, grandma Patty! Only have I seen

A likeness of her face and know so little of her—

Pray, would you tell us stories of her next?

Jefferson:

Indeed I would, for she possessed a grace

That only may descend to her children

If we would speak of her deeds of kindness or

Her wit, equipped she was to bear with me!   

James Madison:

Do finish first this story please, papa!

Jefferson:

Surely shall we tell stories of her soon.

Meriwether:

What prompted your return from France, papa?

Jefferson:

Our dear republic, younger than you lot,

Was under such a threat that only I could stop!

Septimia:

Did mean King George return with his dragons?

Jefferson:

Far worse than even dragons—Federalists!

Meriwether:

O, tell us now what happened next, papa!

Jefferson:

So there upon my return from Europe,

Bearing within me winds of freedom fresh

From France, no strength of mind or counsel wise

Could I exert on Washington himself

Nor able to extract his soul from out

The pit of snakes that were the Federalists,

So ensnared was even the father of our country by

Alexander Hamilton, prince of thieves,

And Hamilton’s designs to collect all

The debt incurred throughout our noble war

With England in the Treasury, as if

It were his private bank, for so he hoped

To grow the central government to such

A size and strength it’d rival the Leviathan!

Septimia:

O no! But what is such a beast? Could they

Be any worse than the dragons of King George?

Jefferson:

Much worse, indeed, for dragons only eat

A sheep or two and sleep on piles of

Treasure and gold, but leviathans feed

On Liberty, and in their lair, they lie

Upon the tortured backs of men supine

And snarl should man attempt to once again

Be free, as we were all created to be!

Enter Burwell Colbert, Jefferson’s most trusted slave.

Burwell Colbert:

Dear Master Jefferson, Lady Martha

Sends word her children are to come to bed,

Whilst anymore stories of the Revolution

Should wait until tomorrow at breakfast.

Jefferson:

My thanks, Colbert; return to Martha all

My assurance my grandchildren shall be

With her at once.

Exit Colbert.

Septimia:

O, no papa! You must tell us

How you destroyed the leviathan next!

Jefferson:

Another day, but know for now that in

This very room I fought with Hamilton

‘Til he agreed the capital of Washington

Would be upon our cherished Potomac,

On southern shores and near Virginia’s heart,

So from my mountaintop I could observe

That serpent Hamilton and put a stop

To any plot to seize our republic,

As so I vowed, until my dying breath!

Septimia:

If Amer’ca’s so blessed to have a father such

As you, how blessed are we to have you for

Our grandfather! O please, one story more!

Jefferson:

I love you so my dear, but not tonight,

For you must sleep and dream of Liberty,

For freedom you must give your heart, your soul,

And all your strength in her defense, for one

Day I’ll be gone—and who will then uphold

The noble cause for which I gave my life?

Septimia:

We will papa!

James Madison:

                                    We will do all we can

To keep our freedoms safe from Yankee greed!

Jefferson:

I feel assured you will, as now I see

The flames of freedom kindling so your eyes,

You’ll need no candles to find your way to bed!

Benjamin:

O, good night papa!

James Madison:

And sleep well, papa!

Septimia:

Good night, but remember, you promised you

Would tell another story at breakfast!

Jefferson:

I promise, but for now fill up your dreams

With heroes fighting for the noblest themes;

And if you count me with this chosen few,

Remember all I dared, I did for you.

Exeunt all, as Jefferson leads his grandchildren to a staircase and extinguishes a candelabrum, leaving the room in darkness.

If you liked this piece, please check “The Virginia” on Amazon. It is a 5 Act history play, centered on the Battle of Hampton Roads.

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