Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Literature, Poetry, and Books

Letter from Stratford-upon-Avon


May 1, 2009

Old Friend,

If you've visited Jefferson's Monticello lately, you might see displayed there a small chip of wood, with this humorous note from Jefferson:

A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespeare's house at Stratford on Avon said to be the identical chair in which he usually sat. If true like the relics of the saints it must miraculously reproduce itself.
That TJ--no monkish superstition or irrational pieties for him. His little note contains the essential ingredients of countless Mark Twain gags. As the "Shakespeare and the Presidents" NYT piece you sent me mentions (thanks for that), Jefferson visited Stratford-upon-Avon with John Adams in the spring of 1786, while their countrymen back home were heading toward constitutional crisis. The only contemporary record he left of the visit was hardly sentimental: he jotted down the price of admission to Shakespeare's birthplace and tomb! But Abigail Adams many years later adds color to the picture. In an 1815 letter, she writes that when Jefferson got to Stratford, he kissed the ground. (I don't have access to the letter here.) I fall innocently a little in love with Abigail for that charming gesture, even more so if she is just teasing. As a young bride, remember, she used to quote Shakespeare quite a bit in her letters to John as he was off putting his life on the line for the Revolution. At some point, in those dangerous days, she took to signing herself Portia, making it hard not to fall a little more in love with her. She was just seventeen to John's twenty-six when they began courting--speaking of young hearts. Adams left a more engaging account of the Stratford visit in his diary. I quote it below for three of its attractions: it invites you to dwell on the magic of the English names and the thought of traveling those dirt roads in a carriage pulled by horses; it shows you what a crusty freedom fighter Adams was (Worcester was the site of Cromwell's victory in the last battle of the English Civil War); and it describes the Stratford visit, including some wood-chipping.
Mr. Jefferson and myself, went in a Post Chaise to Woburn Farm, Caversham, Wotton, Stowe, Edghill, Stratford upon Avon, Birmingham, the Leasowes, Hagley, Stourbridge, Worcester, Woodstock, Blenheim, Oxford, High Wycomb, and back to Grosvenor Square.

Edgehill and Worcester were curious and interesting to us, as [scenes] where Freemen had fought for their Rights. The People in the Neighbourhood, appeared so ignorant and careless at Worcester that I was provoked and asked, "And do Englishmen so soon forget the Ground where Liberty was fought for? Tell your Neighbours and your Children that this is holy Ground, much holier than that on which your Churches stand. All England should come in Pilgrimage to this Hill, once a Year." This animated them, and they seemed . . . much pleased with it. . . .

Stratford upon Avon is interesting as it is the [scene] of the Birth, Death and Sepulture of Shakespear. Three Doors from the Inn, is the House where he was born, as small and mean, as you can conceive. They shew Us an old Wooden Chair in the Chimney Corner, where He sat. We cutt off a Chip according to the Custom. A Mulberry Tree that he planted has been cutt down, and is carefully preserved for Sale. The House where he died has been taken down and the Spot is now only Yard or Garden. . . . There is nothing preserved of this great Genius which is worth knowing -- nothing which might inform Us what Education, what Company, what Accident turned his Mind to Letters and the Drama. His name is not even on his Grave Stone. An ill sculptured Head is sett up by his Wife, by the Side of his Grave in the Church. But paintings and Sculpture would be thrown away upon his Fame. His Wit, and Fancy, his Taste and Judgment, His Knowledge of Nature, of Life and Character, are immortal.

You can read Adams's diary (and see the images of his written manuscript) at the electronic archive: Adams Electronic Archive



Discussions - 3 Comments

It is good to know that others have fallen hard for Abigail Adams. To read her letters is to fall in love with her. My daughter and her husband had the good sense -- unbidden by me -- to name Number One granddaughter Abigail.

I like Abigail Adams, too, despite having read the criticisms of Garry Wills and others of her as relentless improver of children. As a young mother, when I read her letters after having read about her I tried to pattern my mothering on hers, which I still think is no bad thing.

These letters are a pleasure to read. Thank you, both of you gentlemen, the one for writing and the other for sharing.

I live in Stratford upon avon and love it – it’s like being on holiday all year long becuase there are so many vistors – all very welcome. There’s some good info if you’re travelling at: it’s really worth staying a couple of nights and visiting the Cotswolds next – hire a car if you can and visit the villages with roads to small for the tour buses to pass!

Nice article, Jones

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