To Madame de Tessé
Paris Aug. 27. 1789.
On my return from Versailles, Madam, the other evening I was struck with the appearance of a magnificent pedestal erected in our hall during my absence. I found on it my name indeed, but nothing else which belonged to me. I am never so conscious of my littleness as when praises are bestowed on me which I do not merit. I have then the feelings of a thief, running away with the property of others. My conscience binds me, Madam, to an honest restitution. A small change in the inscription does it.
Summo rerum moderatori
cui tandem libertas Americae Septentrionalis
cui in posterum curae erit
D.D.D. de Noailles, comitissa de Tessé.
While the world will see in this a monument of your devotion to Liberty, the Patriot’s god, to me it will still be a remembrance of your friendship and partiality to him who in the sincerity of his heart offers you the homage of his thanks for this and all other the proofs of your kindness to him, and of those sentiments of respect & esteem with which he has the honor to be, Madam, your most obedient and most humble servant,
The marble pedestal that Madame de Tessé presented to TJ in surprise has not survived. But its inscription, fortunately, is known, and something of the history of the pedestal has been preserved. TJ left the pedestal in Paris in 1789, but it came to America with the remainder of his furniture and plate. Perhaps the first description of it was one that came, appropriately, from a French traveller, Baron de Montlezun, who in 1816 visited Monticello and saw “In the vestibule… the colossal bust of Mr. Jefferson by [Ceracchi]… supported on a broken column, the pedestal of which has for ornament the representation of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve signs of the zodiac” (trans. by J. M. Carriere and L. G. Moffatt from Voyage fait dans les années 1816 et 1817 de New Yorck à la Nouvelle-Orléans, in Papers of the Albemarle County Historical Society, iv , 49–50). In 1830 an unknown traveller saw the pedestal (and the Ceracchi bust superimposed) and described the bust as resting on “a fluted column of dark variegated marble which is supported by a pedestal of snow white marble. The upper part of the pedestal is ornamented by twelve signs of the Zodiac, in bas-relief—and underneath is encircled by infant genii, representing mirth and sorrow, alternately by smiles and tears, emblematical of the vicissitudes of life. I observed an inscription of the artist on the rear of the pedestal… thus—
‘Summo rerum moderatori’
Libertas Americae Septentrionalis
Cui in Posterum curae erit
nomen Thomae Jefferson.”
This bust stood alone in the large Hall, where its prototype had so often greeted the coming guests with a warm welcome. The paintings and other busts which formerly decorated this and the adjoining rooms have been removed to our Northern cities, I was informed, for the purpose of being sold” (Virginia Advocate, 28 May 1830). The pedestal and the bust later were transferred to the capitol in Washington, and Robert Mills, in his Guide to the Capitol of the United States, Washington, 1834, p. 51–2, provided the following description: “On each side of the door leading out into the balcony, are two beautiful marble busts; the one on the right is of Thomas Jefferson, by the celebrated Cerrachi; the proud rival of Canova. It is a splendid work; the bust is elevated upon the frustum of a fluted black marble column, based upon a circular pedestal, which is ornamented at the top by a continuous series of cherubs’ heads, under a broad band encircling the pedestal, on which is sculptured the twelve signs of the zodiac… . The pedestal, which was presented to Mr. Jefferson, contains the following inscription… . During the whole time that this bust was in the possession of Mr. Jefferson, this inscription was not to be seen, even his own family did not know of its existence.” The fact that Montlezun discovered the inscription “on the rear of the pedestal” testifies to the fact that TJ modestly displayed the gift of Madame de Tessé with its glowing tribute, even if he did not conceal it from his family.
Both the Ceracchi bust and the pedestal that was not intended to support it perished, evidently, in the fire in the capitol in 1851. The following free translation of Madame de Tessé’s inscription is to be found in the 1854 edition of Mill’s Guide to the Capitol: “To the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, under whose watchful care the liberties of N. America were finally achieved, and under whose tutelage the name of Thomas Jefferson will descend forever blessed to posterity.”—D.D.D.: Dat, donat, dedicat.