AUTHOR'S NOTE: Here is the third and final installment of my article on bird-hunting presidents. The first two installments on George Washington and John Adams were previously published on Upland Equations.
A PRESIDENTIAL PURSUIT, PART THREE:
By Andrew M. Wayment
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson is not considered as much of a hunter by most historians. For example, on September 11, 1892, in an article entitled, “Presidents as Sportsmen,” The New York Times reported: “To go back to the early Presidents, we find them not given to sports, as a general thing. Thomas Jefferson was too busy until he became too old. In his young days, of course, he hunted, for to this day, there is very good shooting at Monticello . . . .” In a more recent, article in February 1984 issue of Sports Afield Magazine, entitled, “Our Hunting Presidents” by Grits Gresham, Jefferson barely made the list of hunting presidents with a very cursory reference that Jefferson was “a hunter and fisherman,” but there is no reference as to what he hunted or fished.
|Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, was a bird hunter.|
However, there is significant evidence to show that Jefferson truly enjoyed hunting. For example, in 1785 Jefferson wrote to his fifteen-year-old nephew, Peter Carr, regarding his thoughts on the best form of exercise: “I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks." Likewise, on July 20, 1822, towards the end of his life, Jefferson wrote to Peter Minor: “I am a great friend to the manly and healthy exercises of the gun.”
On April 25, 1812, Jefferson wrote to James Maury: "All of my old friends are nearly gone . . . . We would beguile our lingering hours with talking over our youthful exploits, our hunts on Peter's mountain." This statement shows that from his youth, Jefferson had a proclivity to hunt and he reflected on this often in his later years.
There is considerable evidence that much of Jefferson’s hunting was for birds. For example, in his Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, Isaac Jefferson, a former slave at Monticello, gives a description of Thomas Jefferson as a hunter. He recalled that Jefferson hunted "squirrels and partridges; kept five or six guns.” As for Jefferson’s personal sporting ethic, Isaac Jefferson stated: “Old Master wouldn't shoot partridges settin'. Said 'he wouldn't take advantage of 'em' - would give 'em a chance for thar life. Wouldn't shoot a hare settin', nuther; skeer him up fust." Interestingly, Jefferson would not pot a bird on the ground, but insisted on taking them on the wing, which is an ethic that most upland game hunters espouse today. Thus, for Jefferson, hunting was not just about getting meat for the table, but took on the nature of sport.
In a letter to Frances Wayles Eppis, dated September 6, 1811, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "[Thomas Jefferson Randolph] & myself intend you a visit in November, and it will then be a question for the consideration of your papa and yourself whether you shall not return with us & visit your cousins. This will be acceptable to us all, and only deprecated by the partridges & snowbirds against which you may commence hostilities.” From this statement, one gets a sense of Jefferson’s excitement for the upcoming bird hunt with family and friends.
As for the birds that Jefferson hunted, in his book, Spook, the late Dave Henderson of Charlotte, North Carolina, sheds some light on the identity of the bird Jefferson referred to as a “partridge”:
A footnote should explain that “quail” superceded “partridge,” or more phonetically “pat’ridge” or “podditch,” on the tongues of southerners in the twenties or thirties. . . . Old men spoke of partridges when I was growing up in the post-World War I era. There was no misindentification—grouse simply were unknown except in the mountains, so oldsters were talking about the small brown bombers that coveys up for the convenience of pointing dogs and smoothbore gunners.
|Jefferson's "Patridge": the Bobwhite Quail|
Thus, the “partridge” Isaac Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson himself referred to is most likely the bobwhite quail. Jefferson’s mention of “snowbirds” could be a reference to the ruffed grouse because of its tendency to burrow into the snow as a survival technique during a blizzard. Perhaps Jefferson hunted the wily ruffed grouse when he went with his youthful friends to Peter’s Mountain.
Unlike Washington, Jefferson did not hunt with dogs. Although he brought back a few shepherds dogs from France, he was generally not a lover of dogs. In fact, in a letter to Peter Minor dated September 24, 1811, he wrote:
I participate in all your hostility to dogs, and would readily join in any plan of exterminating the whole race. I consider them as the most afflicting for all the follies for which men tax themselves. But as total extermination cannot be hoped for let it be partial . . . . should we not add a provision for making the owner of a dog liable for all the mischief done by him, and requiring that every dog shall wear a collar with the name of the person inscribed who shall be security for his honest demeanor?
Obviously, Jefferson had no experience or appreciation for hunting dogs or he may have thought differently. Notwithstanding, as the foregoing evidence shows, Jefferson remained a fan of wingshooting throughout his life.
In the United States, many now consider hunting as archaic, barbaric or politically incorrect. With this hostility toward shooting sports, it is important to know and understand that three of the most influential founders of our Nation, who later became our first three presidents, all were hunters and most likely, to some degree, wingshooters. Also, it should be noted that they were not just pursuing the game for food, but also for pleasure.
Notably, two of these men, Jefferson and Adams, were signers of the Declaration of Independence and one was the general who later led the Continental Army to victory. Undoubtedly, these men were all instrumental in obtaining the freedoms that we enjoy. In “Our Hunting Presidents,” Grits Gresham wrote that while George Washington became one of the greatest of the Founders of our nation, the true desires of his heart “were his horses and his hounds and to note in his diary that he’d ‘gone a hunting.’” With this in mind, one can’t help but wonder when the framers wrote, “Life, liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, if maybe, in some small degree, this included the hunting that they loved. Indeed, hunting is a presidential pursuit.
|The Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumball|