Flyting in the Declaration of Independence and the Vision of Judgment

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Though they both lived through the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and the birth of a new form of English verse, Thomas Jefferson and Lord Byron took little notice of one another. Not much has been written about their relationship, for academic disciplines, departments of literature and political science, conspire to keep them apart. In part, this is justified. In his correspondence and poetry, Byron mentions Jefferson only once, though Jefferson presided over a country that clearly interested him. 'He must have meant to quiz the three presidents or at least two - Jefferson & Madison', Byron wrote of Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York. 'One of them had a wooden leg like Peter Stuyvesant.'1 This fragment of a letter to John Murray, possibly written in 1821, is hardly a promising observation by Byron: it was Governor Morris, not Jefferson or Madison, who used a wooden leg. Unlike Thomas Moore, who wrote about Jefferson and the United States disparagingly, however, Byron admired the country that had produced George Washington, Daniel Boone and Washington Irving. 'Whenever an American requests to see me - (which is not unfrequently) I comply', Byron wrote. '1stly. Because I respect a people who acquired their freedom by firmness without excess - and 2dly. Because these transatlantic visits "few and far between" make me feel as if talking with Posterity from the other side of the Styx.'2

Jefferson had one of the most wide-ranging book collections in the United States, numbering roughly 6,487, but not a single volume by Byron. Jefferson's lack of interest in Byron between 1800 and 1808 is somewhat understandable, for Fugitive Pieces (1806), Hours of Idleness (1807) and English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) were not widely quoted in American newspapers during the years when Jefferson, as America's third president, clipped verse from the papers for his poetry scrapbooks. But Jefferson also ignored Byron after the poet awoke to find himself famous with the publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Apparently, Byron's fame had not reached Monticello.

Jefferson, like Byron, preferred poets such as Moore, Campbell and Rogers (not to mention Scott and Burns) to Wordsworth and Coleridge.3 For his poetry scrapbooks, compiled between 1801 and 1809, for example, Jefferson clipped Thomas Moore's 'Song', 'Rondeau', 'Stanzas', 'A Ballad', 'Love and Reason', 'The Lake of the Dismal Swamp', 'translations' from Anacreon and selections from his Irish Melodies. With the exception of John Wolcot (Peter Pindar), who has seventeen entries, Moore is the poet most often represented in Jefferson's poetry scrapbooks, with over ten poems. Jefferson also clipped Rogers' 'A Sketch of the Alps at Day-Break' and 'Farewell' and Campbell's 'To The Evening Star', 'To Caroline', 'Hohen Linden' and 'Exile of Erin'. Though they agreed about Moore, Campbell, Rogers and Scott, they disagreed about Robert Southey. Jefferson admired Southey's shorter poems, clipping no fewer than six of them: 'Oak of Our Fathers', 'Hymn to Content', 'The Death of W. Wallace', 'The Old Man's Comforts' and 'The Widow'.4

The possibility of a literary reckoning between Byron and Jefferson is brought tantalisingly close by the 24-year-old Thomas Moore's visit to Washington DC in 1803. According to one account, Moore was 'the first British traveler to mention Jefferson in print'.5 Moore stayed with the British Ambassador, Anthony Merry, who felt slighted by the republican President when Jefferson failed to greet him in full diplomatic dress.6 'The Merry's have been treated with the most pointed incivility by the present democratic president', Thomas Moore dutifully reported to his mother.7 Moore was received 'in the same homely costume, comprising slippers and Connemara stockings in which Mr. Merry had been received by him, much to that formal Minister's horror'.8 After staying with Merry and his wife, Moore then visited the Federalist editor of the Port Folio, Joseph Dennie (later jailed for sedition), who further poisoned his mind against Jefferson. …