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.
O grandpapa, pray tell us once again
The story of ’76, won’t you
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!
Septimia, George had no such dragons to
Frighten the colonies into—
Did he not, dear grandpapa, have dragons
Who breathed forth fire on Richmond and New York?
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!
See James, King George did have a dragon after all!
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!
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!
But were you scared, papa?
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.
What did ye do, papa?
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.
I knew papa could not be scared of any man
Or anything on earth—‘tis true, papa?
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.
And praised be God, to bless such humble steps!
To walk amongst such counselors, so many for whom
We’re named—o, what were they like, grandpapa?
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!
O no! Were you in danger then, papa?
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!
Papa, was Philadelphia besieged
That summer then?
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!
What did you do then, papa, when all
The hope of freedom rested ‘pon your quill?
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!
O, tell us what you wrote, papa!
“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
Hooray for Liberty!
And hooray ever more for grandpapa!
Hooray indeed! What happened next, papa?
Surely King George surrendered there and then?
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.
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?
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!”
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.
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!
O no! Can such a thing be true, papa?
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!
But surely all the other Founders saw
Such threats to all our hard won Liberties?
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.
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?
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!
Do finish first this story please, papa!
Surely shall we tell stories of her soon.
What prompted your return from France, papa?
Our dear republic, younger than you lot,
Was under such a threat that only I could stop!
Did mean King George return with his dragons?
Far worse than even dragons—Federalists!
O, tell us now what happened next, papa!
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!
O no! But what is such a beast? Could they
Be any worse than the dragons of King George?
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.
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.
My thanks, Colbert; return to Martha all
My assurance my grandchildren shall be
With her at once.
O, no papa! You must tell us
How you destroyed the leviathan next!
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!
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!
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?
We will papa!
We will do all we can
To keep our freedoms safe from Yankee greed!
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!
O, good night papa!
And sleep well, papa!
Good night, but remember, you promised you
Would tell another story at breakfast!
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.