Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States

By Joseph McMillan
Illustrations by the author.
This article appeared in The American Herald, No. 3 (2008)

The Arms of Thomas Jefferson

The Arms of Thomas Jefferson

Arms: Azure a fret and on a chief Gules three leopards’ faces Argent. 

Crest: A lion’s head erased Or.

Motto: Ab eo libertas a quo spiritus (The one who gives life gives liberty)

The Intermittent Armiger: The Inquiry of 1771

What did Thomas Jefferson, the great philosopher of liberty and equality, think about people who used coats of arms? Hunters through his collected quotations might conclude that he was pretty scornful. After all, didn’t Jefferson once write that “a coat of arms may be purchased as cheap as any other coat?” Surely a man of Jefferson’s strict egalitarian principles, who had expressed himself so dismissively about heraldry, wouldn’t actually use a coat of arms himself…would he? 

Yes, as a matter of fact, he would, and did. It seems that Jefferson’s attitude toward heraldry, at least during certain periods of his life, was not quite as disdainful as this selective quotation might suggest.

The famous passage quoted above is an extract from a February 20, 1771, letter to Jefferson’s friend, the merchant Thomas Adams, who was about to leave for London. After listing a number of other favors and commissions Jefferson wanted Adams to carry out while in London, Jefferson added:

One farther favor and I am done; to search the Herald’s office for the arms of my family. I have what I have been told were the family arms, but on what authority I know not. It is possible there may be none. If so, I would with your assistance become a purchaser, having Sterne’s word for it that a coat of arms may be purchased as cheap as any other coat. 

Many of Jefferson’s biographers, starting from the premise that an interest in family heraldry must be an indicator of snobbery, have been at great pains to explain away this request, so apparently unworthy of the future Sage of Monticello. He was young, they say (but actually not all that young, 35). His political views were not yet fully formed. He was in love and hoping to impress his prospective bride with the eminence of his family. Whatever the motivation, however, it is clear that Jefferson was serious about verifying the arms of his family and, failing that, was prepared to spend the £40 (considerably more than the price of a regular coat!) necessary to obtain a grant from the College of Arms. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the time; it is exactly what English norms expected of a gentleman of Jefferson’s standing. If anything, he was being more punctilious than many of his contemporaries, such as George Washington, who freely used the arms they had been told were theirs without bothering to validate the claim.

The Seal of 1786

Unfortunately, it seems that Thomas Adams neither found evidence to verify the coat of arms already in Jefferson’s possession nor pursued the alternative of applying for a grant on his behalf. In fact, the College of Arms has never been able to find any record that the issue was ever brought up there, according to Dumas Malone’s definitive 1948 biography of Jefferson as well as research conducted in 1964 for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

But that was not the end of Jefferson’s interest in his coat of arms. Fifteen years later, when he was presumably no longer a callow youth, when his political views had matured enough for him to have written the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and four years after the death of the wife he had been courting in 1771, Jefferson paid a London engraver £3 7s for a seal of his arms. It is from this seal that we know the basic design of the arms that Jefferson used:  A fret and on a chief three leopards’ faces. In plain English, this is a shield with a fret—a heraldic device consisting of two diagonal bands interlaced with an open diamond—with a chief (a band across the top edge of the field) charged with three leopard’s faces. The crest appears to be a lion’s head.

The tinctures used on this design are less certain. Heraldic engravers, whether making seals, engraved plates for printing, or incising armorial designs into silver and similar materials, signify the colors on a coat of arms with a system of fine lines and dots, known as Pietrasancta hatching after the heraldic writer who originally popularized the system. In this system, red (Gules) is signified by vertical lines, blue (Azure), by horizontal lines, gold (Or) by dots, and so on. Unfortunately, the images we have been able to find of Jefferson’s 1786 seal are not large and sharp enough to determine the tinctures indicated, if any. 

The seal was first employed to authenticate Jefferson’s signature on a series of treaties he signed in April 1786 as one of the U.S. commissioners in Britain. In addition to subsequent use on treaties and other diplomatic documents, it also appears, according to Malone, on a January 1787 letter to the Dutch scientist Jan Ingenhousz, the original of which is in the collection of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

Why would Jefferson have gone ahead and used these arms in 1786 when he had been prepared to defer to the English heralds in 1771? Two reasons suggest themselves. First, as a diplomat, Jefferson was expected to have a seal of his arms for use in signing diplomatic agreements. The protocol was that the plenipotentiaries would seal their signatures with their personal seals, and then their country’s great seal would be applied when the treaty was ratified by the head of state. Secondly, Jefferson may have reasoned that, as a subject of the King in 1771, he was bound to conform to the English law of arms, but that as the citizen of a free and independent republic in 1786, he was under no such obligation.

In any case, the design of the arms on the seal is interesting in its own right. According to a Monticello Research Report on the Jefferson arms, the College of Arms stated in 1964 that no such arms appear in its records until 1839. In that year, a slightly different form of these arms was granted to Christopher Jeaffreson of Dullingham, Cambridgeshire. The differences were that the 1839 grant had the chief dancetty, i.e., with a zig-zag lower edge, the head in the crest is a talbot (a type of large hound), and it is charged with five black ermine spots. The colors, moreover, are prescribed in the grant: the field is Azure, the fret and chief Argent (silver), and the leopards’ faces Gules. The talbot in the crest is silver with red ears.

Arms of Jeaffreson of Pettistree

Arms of Jeaffreson of Pettistree

Yet despite the lack of any record at the College of Arms until the early 19th century, there is very clear evidence that the basic arms that appear on Thomas Jefferson’s seal were in use by Christoper Jeaffreson’s ancestors much earlier than that. Most notably, and most importantly for examining Thomas Jefferson’s claim to them, they appear on a map of an estate on the Caribbean island of St Kitts that was acquired by an earlier Christopher Jeaffreson in 1682. The blazon of the arms was also published in an 1830 heraldry book, Robson’s The British Herald, nine years before the College of Arms says it had ever heard of them. These arms, which can be taken as the basic form of the bearings, are blazoned as Azure a fret and on a chief Argent three leopards’ faces Gules, the same as in the 1839 grant but with the line dividing the chief from the field straight instead of indented. The crest is a talbot’s head erased Argent eared Gules, again the same as in the 1839 grant except for the omission of the ermine spot. If depicted as a black and white line drawing without the tinctures indicated, the shield on the map would be identical to that on the 1786 seal. 

Jefferson, in his old age, set down what he knew of his ancestry, including the oral tradition that the family’s roots were in Wales, but modern scholars tend to be skeptical. Instead, they have set forth several alternative theories, most of them leading back to a family of yeomen farmers from Pettistree, Suffolk, who were on the cusp of rising into the gentry around the turn of the 17th century. Two members of this family, John Jeaffreson and his nephew Samuel, became early participants in England’s building of empire in the western hemisphere, first on the Caribbean island of St. Christopher (St. Kitts) and then, over a period of several generations, expanding to Antigua, other islands in the Lesser Antilles, and perhaps to Virginia. After making his fortune in the West Indies, John Jeaffreson returned to England and purchased the Dullingham estate in Cambridgeshire. The Christopher Jeaffreson who put his arms on the map of his property in 1682 was the son of this John Jeaffreson. For his part, Samuel remained in the islands, where his descendants enjoyed considerable wealth and influence before they, too, eventually returned to England. 

One version of Thomas Jefferson’s ancestry contends that the President’s great-grandfather, also named Thomas, was a son of John Jeaffreson and thus a brother of the Christopher Jeaffreson who used the same arms as the President on his map. Another theory identifies the President’s ancestor as John’s nephew Samuel, who is known to have had a son named Thomas of about the right age to have been the President’s great-grandfather.

Although many people believe that the motto is just as integral a part of a coat of arms as the shield and the crest, in fact, in most heraldic traditions, each bearer of the arms is free to choose whatever motto he likes. As his motto, Thomas Jefferson chose Ab eo libertas a quo spiritus (Liberty comes from him from whom life comes). The phrase is found in section 33 of Algernon Sydney’s 1698 Discourses Concerning Government:

Tertullian speaking of the emperors says, ab eo imperium a quo spiritus [dominion comes from him from whom life comes]; and we taking man in his first condition may justly say, ab eo libertas a quo spiritus; for no man can owe more than he has received. The creature having nothing, and being nothing but what the creator makes him, must owe all to him, and nothing to anyone from whom he has received nothing. Man therefore must be naturally free, unless he be created by another power than we have yet heard of. 

This passage obviously made a great impression on Jefferson, for not only did he choose it as his motto, but included a freer translation in his 1774 essay, “The Rights of British America”: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”

The Leguay Coffee Urn

Coffee Urn by J.-L.-A. Leguay, 1789  Courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc./ Monticello

Coffee Urn by J.-L.-A. Leguay, 1789 
Courtesy Thomas Jefferson
Foundation, Inc./ Monticello

Unlike many of his armigerous contemporaries, Jefferson made little or no known use of his arms other than on his seal. The one possible exception is a coffee urn now at Monticello, bought by Jefferson in Paris toward the end of his term as minister to France. The urn is engraved with a typically 18th century emblazonment of the same arms that appeared on Jefferson’s seal. Monticello’s curators believe the arms were added to the urn well after Jefferson’s death. But the circumstances in which it was purchased suggest a different possibility. 

The urn, made by the silversmith Jacques-Louis-Auguste Leguay, was purchased by Jefferson in February 1789 as a gift to the French architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau, who had helped Jefferson with his design for the Virginia State Capitol. Jefferson had originally intended to give Clérisseau a silver reproduction of an ancient Roman askos, a type of pouring vessel. However, the model from which he intended to have the reproduction made never arrived, so Jefferson bought the urn instead. But before he could present it, Jefferson learned that it might yet be possible to get the model of the askos in time to have it copied before his departure from France, so he apparently decided at that point to keep the urn for himself.

Still the model of the askos failed to arrive, so with his June 1789 departure impending, Jefferson commissioned a copy of the first coffee urn, and made that copy his gift to Clérisseau. The first urn returned to America as part of Jefferson’s household goods shipment and appears on several inventories conducted during his lifetime and by his heirs after his death. It continued to be passed down through his daughter Martha’s family until it was bought by the then-owner of Monticello, Jefferson M. Levy, in the late 19th century. It is at this point that the Monticello curators believe the arms were engraved on the urn.

Detail of Jefferson Arms on Leguay Urn Courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc./ Monticello

Detail of Jefferson Arms on Leguay Urn
Courtesy Thomas Jefferson
Foundation, Inc./ Monticello

The odd thing about this story is this: why would Jefferson commission a second urn to give Clérisseau instead of just handing over the one he had already bought for that purpose? It seems unlikely that in the space of a few months he had grown so attached to the object that he simply could not bring himself to part with it. Doesn’t it seem more likely that, when he thought he could get the askos after all, he went ahead and had the first urn engraved with his coat of arms, thus making it then unsuitable as a presentation piece? The papers produced by Monticello describing the Leguay urn give no reasons for the belief that it was not engraved during Jefferson’s lifetime; it would be interesting to know what they might be.

One further point should be made about the engraving on the urn. In addition to showing the crest as a lion rather than a talbot, the hatching lines in the field of the shield indicate a silver fret on blue, as we would expect from other evidence about the Jeaffreson/Jefferson arms. But those on the chief indicate silver leopards’ faces on red rather than the other way around. In the absence of a clear image of the hatching on the 1786 seal, this would seem to be the best available evidence of the intended tinctures of Jefferson’s arms, and we have therefore followed the engraving on the urn for the colors of the illustration at the top of the page.

Jefferson the Heraldic Researcher

Drawing of Italian Arms of Taliaferro by Thomas Jefferson, 1786  Source: Library of Congress

Drawing of Italian Arms of Taliaferro
by Thomas Jefferson, 1786 
Source: Library of Congress

During the same period that he was using his armorial seal and buying silver coffee pots, Jefferson undertook further heraldic researches in Europe, not on his own family but on the in-laws of his old law professor and fellow patriot, George Wythe. On January 10, 1786, Wythe wrote to Jefferson in London: “I wish to get the arms of Taliaferro, which, from information, I believe to have been a Tuscan family, engraven on a copper plate, with this motto ΟΥ ΔΟΚΕΙΝ ΑΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΑΛΛ΄ ΕΙΝΑΙ [Not to seem, but to be the best], and the name Richard Taliaferro. But I would not have this done, if it can not be without giving you trouble, nor unless you will order to whom here I shall repay the cost.”

The problem was that Wythe evidently did not know what the Taliaferros’ arms were, and a month later he sent Jefferson directions on how to find their supposed ancestral home near Florence so that the correct design of the arms could be determined. 

In response, Jefferson wrote to Jean Fabbroni, a contact of his in Florence, who reported back a few months later on the history of the Tagliaferro family, including a sketch of the arms:  Azure a fess Argent between three estoiles Or. On August 13, Jefferson relayed the results back to Wythe, including a sketch of the arms reported by Fabbroni. He promised to get the plate engraved with the arms as requested, noting only that he intended to omit the word ΑΡΙΣΤΟΣ from the motto, “because I think the beauty of a motto is, to condense such matter in as few a words as possible.” The motto thus became “Not to seem, but to be.”

It is worth noting that at no point in this exchange, or at any other place in his writings, did Jefferson criticize the bearing of arms as undemocratic or snobbish. He was not generally a man shy of expressing his views, and even of rupturing old friendships over points of principle. The way he handled the Taliaferro researches may therefore be evidence, albeit indirect, that his views on heraldry were not what many assume them to have been.

The Last Seal

Seal adopted by Thomas Jefferson, 1790  Source: Lossing's Field Book of the Revolution

Seal adopted by Thomas Jefferson, 1790 
Source: Lossing’s Field Book of the Revolution

On the other hand, Jefferson himself does not seem to have been particularly attached to his armorial bearings. Almost immediately upon his return from France, he had a new seal cut, with his initials in script and the motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” This seal first appears on a letter to Dr. Richard Gem of April 4, 1790, and he apparently used it for most purposes until his death in 1826. The motto was one that Benjamin Franklin had originally proposed during the deliberations of the first committee on the design of the U.S. great seal in 1776. 

As President of the United States, from 1801 to 1809, Jefferson also used a design similar to that on this seal on his White House china. Like the seal, the motif on the china centered on the script initials TJ, in this case in the form of a gold monogram placed on a blue-outlined white shield topped by a closed helmet. 

There is, in Jefferson’s voluminous papers, no explanation for switching from the armorial seal to the new one. It may be reasonable to speculate that, as he contemplated entering elective politics on the national level, he felt some of the same pressures from the radical wing of his Democratic-Republican Party that led the newly elected President John Adams to have the coat of arms on his wife’s carriage painted over in 1797. Or it could be that Jefferson’s true views on the propriety of heraldry had changed. We will never know for sure. But it is worth noting that he apparently did not abandon the coat of arms altogether; an invitation to dinner at the White House was recently offered at auction, with the remains of a wax impression described in terms that can only refer to the armorial seal of 1786. Perhaps, like John Quincy Adams, he felt that personal heraldry was all right for some purposes but not for others.

Copy of arms from Jefferson's seal on the cover of a 1901 biography

Copy of arms from Jefferson’s seal
on the cover of a 1901 biography

Either way, those who followed Jefferson quickly made widespread use of the coat of arms with the fret and leopards to symbolize the third president. It appeared on the cover of a collection of Jefferson’s writings as early as 1832, only six years after his death, as well as in many other biographies and collections over the years. When an iron fence was built around Jefferson’s tomb at Monticello, the arms were worked into one of the entry gates and the TJ seal of 1790 into another. Gradually, however, collective memory of the existence of the arms seems almost to have been repressed. Despite the existence of impressions of the armorial seal and the engraving on the coffee urn–far better proof of their use than can be found for many purported American arms from this period–the various collections of arms assembled by such American heraldists as Edgar de V. Vermont, William Crozier, John Matthews, and Charles Bolton all omit any mention of the Jefferson arms.


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