The scene: Just before midnight, July 3, 1826, at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson is gravely ill after a series of strokes. The next day is the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and Jefferson is widely expected to make a public statement. His pro-slavery nephew Randolph has promised to pay off Jefferson’s debts and save Monticello if the ex-president will issue a statement saying that “all men are created equal” was never intended to include black people. His daughter Martha has asked a poor but brilliant student from the University of Virginia, Edgar Allan Poe, to help Jefferson compose a statement that will satisfy Randolph without betraying the Declaration’s principles. This excerpt comes near the end of the first act. Jefferson is treating himself to a last trip to his wine cellar, before working on his statement. Frederic, a slave, is also present.

Jefferson: To stay up late at night like this is very injurious to one’s health. I have written quite extensively on personal health, you know. To be up at midnight, reading some book of forgotten lore—No, no, I advise against it, normally. Early to bed, sir, but tonight, we have work to do.

Poe: Of course, I am in bed well before midnight—being a student, you know.

Jefferson: [Half to himself.] I fear that my nephew Randolph is deranged.

Poe: I picked up the draft of his—the one you tore up. Sir, he would have you disavow the Declaration.

Jefferson: Perhaps I did go too far in the Declaration? Did I, Mr. Poe?

Poe: About equality?

Jefferson: No, no—liberty. It was liberty that I misjudged. I thought, sir, that liberty, by itself, alone, would be enough to sustain us as a country in a common bond, but now when I look at Randolph, and his friends in the legislature, I see only the liberty of wild dogs.

Poe: Mr. President, you are not responsible for Randolph and—his colleagues.

Jefferson: I always thought that the Declaration—or at least the original, as I wrote it, sir, before they marred it with their foolish changes—could only bring about a better world, a better Atlantic world—perhaps even for our poor blacks—but now in my dying hour, as I spend these last moments in my wine cellar, I can see how it might be an instrument of oppression—especially for the blacks. We oppress them with our liberty. But Mr. Poe, you are not drinking.

Poe: No, sir, as you know, I do not drink.

Jefferson: No, no, Mr. Poe, here you must—your glass, which I just poured. It comes, yes, let’s see . . . from the Cask of Amontillado.

Poe: [Takes a deep breath.] Mr. President, I don’t—all right. To you, sir, and to the Fourth. [Sips nervously.]

Jefferson: Excellent—after all, you want to be a writer, don’t you?

Poe: Sir, I . . . all right, Mr. President, I will. [Drinks.]

Jefferson: You have your pen, sir?

Poe: [Fumbling.] Do I? Yes, yes, I do have a pen.

Jefferson: Here is what I declare about the Declaration, and I say this to posterity, and to Randolph, and there is the rest of my family, like my brother Peter, who would come here and spend too much time with . . . well, let us say “the staff.”

Frederic: [To Poe.] I think his mind is wandering.

Poe: Sir, as to the Declaration—

Jefferson: [Pouring.] Mr. Poe, let’s refill your glass—

Poe: I, I really can’t. That’s enough, right there. Mr. Jefferson, I really, before we start to write, may I ask just one thing, out of my own personal curiosity, since we young people never get to ask—

Jefferson: Ask!

Poe: Why, sir, did these men, your colleagues—some must have been like Randolph, from our own Virginia, or Georgia, even God help us, from South Carolina—declare that all men are created equal . . . when
. . . when—?

Liberty? Now when I look at Randolph, and his friends in the legislature, I see only the liberty of wild dogs.

Jefferson: [Finishing his question.] —when they beat their slaves?

Poe: Yes.

Jefferson: [Hesitant, after pause.] Sir, they were drunk; some had been drunk since the third week of May.

Poe: No—

Jefferson: Yes, and when I wrote those words, all men are created equal—and I did write them, for I was no mere scribe as the vicious Federalists used to say, well, all of us, Adams, Franklin—even as they conspired to mar my draft, we were a group—we were counting on them to be drunk. Indeed, sir, the great gamble we undertook was that when we introduced this document, they would still be able even to sign their names. Sir, I held the pens of some. Can you grasp the per capita gallon equivalent of the wood-alcohol strength of liquor that every woman and child in the fabled city of Philadelphia through that hot summer was consuming? Did I say children? Yes, I saw infants reeling at the breasts of their mothers. Do they now call it the Miracle at Philadelphia? I tell you, sir, what the miracle was.

Poe: Yes. [Putting down glass.] I can see. How it can lead to equality . . .

Jefferson: But to a writer it was a gift—it meant that I could write any kind of Declaration that I pleased. I could say if I pleased that all men were created equal—and so I did.

Poe: The country was fortunate. But what did you mean? You must tell me—and posterity. This is the chance to write down what you meant.

Jefferson: Now it’s all gotten confused—it’s become a kind of religious sentiment. Does anyone read the Declaration? I did not say we believe all men are created equal—I did not put it forward as a belief, but as a self-evident fact. It is self-evident, a scientific fact, and now what I intended to be a scientific truth is being embraced, foolishly, by people of good will, as a kind of religion.

Poe: Can you slow up? I am trying to write this down.

Jefferson: And so to my horror, I have set up a kind of church, a religious establishment, when I was trying to disestablish. Well, I am frustrated. Now I have a question for you: Have you read the Declaration?

Poe: [Hesitant.] Of course—like every American, I . . .

Jefferson: I knew it. Then tell me what is says.

Poe: What does it say? I . . . I can’t remember . . . right now . . . I’ve never had alcohol, and I’m . . . I’m . . . sir, I’m having trouble focusing.

Jefferson: [Coaching.] And there is a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

Poe: Absolutely.

Jefferson: And we are endowed with them like a dowry—but by who? Can you name who?

Poe: Who? By you, of course. I mean by the Declaration—

Jefferson: The Creator, Mr. Poe, the Creator.

Poe: You just said this was not religious.

Jefferson: It’s not. The Creator created Newton, and self-evident facts. The Creator created calculus, sir, in front of our eyes, though it took us centuries to see it. But the Creator, or the Declaration, did not stop at three. The Creator tossed in another right, the one that no one will dare to whisper in the centuries ahead.

Poe: There is another right? Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness . . . there is another one?

Jefferson: This is ridiculous! It is the most important one—

Poe: Then I’m sure I read it—

Jefferson: No, it doesn’t even register. I could bring up one student after another and get the same response: “Oh, there is another one?”

Poe: [Looking at his glass.] I’m sure I could have remembered if—what is it, sir?

Jefferson: Ah! It is a right that dare not speak its name—but I did speak it, sir. I wrote it. It is the thing that underpins the whole Declaration!

Poe: I—I can’t imagine . . .

Jefferson: It is the right to throw off the government—it is our right to change our form of government, at any time, by a simple majority, in any way we please—it is our right to cast off this deplorable Constitution, which is clamped down on us like a prison to cut off all escape. Do you say Randolph un-declares the Declaration? The Constitution un-declares. It un-declares the very purpose of the republic. Write that down, if you dare. Try—but they will not hear me say it even from the grave. The Constitution exists to nullify the Declaration. We the People hereby give up our right to rule. That’s the truth of our history. They did it in Philadelphia, you know, in 1787, knowing that I, Thomas Jefferson, was away—and by then, sir, they were not drinking. They were frightened—of farmers with pitchforks. And so, they clamped down on us a Constitution, a kind of prison that we prisoners cannot escape. Do you know, Mr. Poe, what it is like to be in a prison, sir? We the People—we are. And now and forever we will have a permanent pact with the privileged, a pact that they will never let We the People break—we have given up the very right that effectuates every other—the right to change not just the government but our very form of government. Now, it will never change; it is impossible to change. I was in for two terms and tried to destroy the thing, to give the country back to the people, to get us out of the prison. I simply added land—I only let us pace sea to sea in a more spacious cell!

Poe: Sir, are you . . . is that a tear?

Jefferson: [Gulping the wine now.] Overthrow it now—before it is too late. Or in two hundred years, in this country, we will not be created equal. There will be but two races—not black and white, but rich and poor, yes, with different physiognomies. You will be able to mark them on the street. [Pause.] That’s why I added the West, you see? I thought if I could bring in more states . . . But by adding states I made it worse. It makes it even harder to overthrow our form of government. For now you need even more of them to agree—yes,
Mr. Poe, I made it even worse than before—there’s no way out! No way out!—

Poe: Sir, you are grasping my coat—

Jefferson collapses and dies the next day. And while there is one brief return to consciousness in the second act, there is no statement on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration.

Thomas Geoghegan is a Chicago lawyer whose latest book is Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.

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