Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thomas Jefferson's Killer Sheep

Artist's rendition
For generations, Thomas Jefferson was one of our most revered presidents. He wrote the Declaration of Independence and invented stuff. He looms over us from atop Mount Rushmore. But Jefferson isn't quite as widely beloved anymore. People have started to care about things like his having owned slaves while simultaneously declaring that all men are created equal, and the recent Hamilton resurgence probably hasn't helped his image much (although he does know his way around a rap battle).

If hypocrisy and Hamilton-shaming aren't reasons enough to dislike Thomas Jefferson, perhaps his murderous sheep is. (Incidentally, if I ever own a racehorse, I'm naming it "Thomas Jefferson's Killer Sheep.")

Besides murder, Thomas Jefferson's history with sheep also involves international intrigue, smuggling, fraud, and market-cornering. If you spice it up a little (mmmm...spiced lamb...), it could almost make an interesting movie, if movies about sheep are your thing. You can read about it in detail here. (The article is very long but it contains some great gems, like the opening line: "In the summer of 1793, Thomas Jefferson was thinking about sheep." Later it discusses how "[h]e soothed the pain of disputes with Alexander Hamilton with the study of the new husbandry..." I love the visual of Jefferson sobbing over Hamilton's snubs while simultaneously thinking about sheep having sex. I don't know, maybe Jefferson's sheep actually make him more likable.)

But anyway, let's talk about one particular sheep of Jefferson's: the one that murdered someone while he (Jefferson, not the sheep) was president. This Shetland ram was territorial, ornery, and aggressive, kind of like James K. Polk. Let's assume the sheep's name was James. Jefferson was really excited about James, because he was sure that his (the sheep's, not Jefferson's) coveted Shetland wool would bring in a fortune. In between his duties running the country, Jefferson kept sending off samples of wool to confirm he had a fine specimen. Several experts analyzed the ram's wool and declared the quality "crap," possibly using different terms.

While producing inferior wool, James and the other sheep would graze on the square outside the White House. Back then there weren't fences and security zones around the president's home, so people could---and would---just meander through the grounds. No biggie, unless there happened to be a killer animal on the loose.

Like James Madison, James the Sheep was small but mighty. Unlike James Madison, who fled when people (*cough*TheBritish*cough*) approached the White House, James the Sheep stood his ground and attacked. Despite his diminutive size, he hurt one man so badly that it took six weeks for the man to recover. Yet that pales in comparison to the young boy who the sheep killed. There doesn't seem to be much information about the boy or the incident, but can you imagine what would happen these days if a president's animal attacked someone? Like if Socks the Cat contracted rabies and bit a kid during the White House Easter Egg Hunt? I mean, Teddy Roosevelt kept a freaking badger in the White House and the worst it did was nibble at people's ankles. Even John Quincy Adams' and Herbert Hoover's alligators managed not to kill anyone.

Of course, when Jefferson learned that his ram had killed a young child, he had the animal destroyed immediately. No, just kidding! It wasn't until later at Monticello, when the ram killed three valuable lambs---including its own offspring---that Jefferson finally had him put down. Priorities, you know.

So there you have the story of Thomas Jefferson's killer sheep. Make sure you work that into your Fourth of July banter this year!

Speaking of the Fourth of July, make sure to enter my Fourth of July Giveaway: A copy of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States autographed by Sarah Vowell.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, madam. This is possibly, simultaneously the best and the worst thing I've seen in days.