Here at Lost and Founders, we’ve come to observe that when one wakes up on January 1st, very few recollections from the night before remain completely within our grasp. One tends to wake up thinking “Jeeze, I’m never drinking again” or “Heavens, how on earth did I end up in this bathtub?” before attempting to piece together a night involving too much champagne, uncharacteristic amounts of counting down, and one defining and pervasive tradition: The Ball Drop. This truly American custom is one firmly rooted in our nation’s founding and one that with time has evolved into something far different from what it originally was. Today, the ball we drop in Time Square is a 1,070 lb. colossus engineered of crystal, strobe lighting, and rhinestones. In 1907, it was nothing more than a simple orb of wood and Iron. In 1796, when the tradition was first put into practice at Monticello, it wasn’t a ball at all, in fact, it was actually a living mammal, specifically, a wolf.
First and foremost, it is necessary to illustrate the little known reality that Thomas Jefferson bred wolves. Evidence suggests that after Martha’s death in 1782, a devastated TJ went out in search of a canine companion. Naturally, Jefferson first bought a dog. Within a week he disposed of it, he decided that its domestic and docile nature reeked of old-world tyranny and famously cried: “Timid dogs prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty!!”. Still feeling lonely and now driven by an insatiable desire to find a truly republican pet, Jefferson hit the books. It wasn’t until he came across an image of the mythical founding of the Rome that he realized exactly what the perfect pet would be. He, like Romulus and Remus before him, would nourish republicanism with the teat of the Capitoline wolf.
Jefferson immediately set about breeding and raising wolves. He replaced his horses and attached wolves to his carriage (the Iditarod still honors this legacy), he replaced his dairy cows and pioneered the wolf-milking industry (one that did everything but prosper), and illogically convinced himself that wolves were vital to the development of republican virtue (“Just look at the way they taught honesty to the little boy who cried wolf!”). World renowned Jefferson scholars, including Shakira, have worked to bring Jefferson’s obsession to light with essays, books, and even hit singles like “There’s a She-Wolf in My Closet” (The story of Jefferson’s most prized she-wolf, Sally).
His fixation with wolves established, we can move on to the night of December 31st, 1796.
Knowing Jefferson’s character as we do, one is naturally inclined to imagine that New Years at Monticello was the Bomb.com. Well, it was. We have no way of knowing exactly what went on, but a drunk text (ok, it was a sloppily written letter) from Washington to the not-invited Alexander Hamilton offers a glimpse into what may have happened that New Year’s Eve: “yoo hammy what it do, my b fuhr real I told Jeffy you aight but he ain bout it”. This particular message actually reveals nothing. All we do know is that Abigail Adams (sober sister if you ever met one), wrote to a friend in Madrid the next day, she explained that as the clock struck midnight; Dolly Madison decided to scale to the top of the house’s domed roof and once there, punted a wolf into the midst of the party. As the falling wolf gave its last howl, the throng erupted into cheers and decided that from now on they’d always usher in the New Year by dropping a wolf from the roof. The Adamses never went back.
Skeptics bring up a letter written to John Holmes in 1820: “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go”. This quote, for centuries thought to be a metaphor describing America’s precarious situation with regards to the practice of slavery, seems to suggest that Jefferson would have been opposed to the dropping of a wolf from a roof-top. We cannot however forget just how big of a hypocrite TJ was. He abhorred the practice of slavery while holding slaves himself; he was a strict constructionist who annexed the Louisiana Purchase without any constitutional authority to do so, and he most certainly dropped wolves from the roof of his home while professing that he couldn’t possibly “let them go”.
With Jefferson’s death in 1826, Monticello was sold to pay for the insurmountable debt that was brought about by the wolves. The tradition died out until 1907, when Teddy Roosevelt, foreseeing his eventual placement on Mount Rushmore, decided he should form some type of relationship with the man with whom he'd be sharing a mountainside for all eternity. Roosevelt desperately sought out a Jeffersonian tradition to revive and finally came across one still practiced in Spain by the descendants of the Adamses’ correspondent in Madrid. Time and language however had had their way. “Wolf” was originally translated to “lobo” in Spanish which degenerated with time into “lóbulo” which when translated back to English became “lobe”. Roosevelt, more than just a little confused, looked up the word in the dictionary and found:
lobe (ləʊb) –n
1. Any rounded projection forming part of a larger structure
He hastily decided that Jefferson must have dropped some type of ball from the roof of Monticello and the tradition has been rooted into the very fabric of America ever since.
We at Lost and Founders wish you all the best for 2012, and hope your New Years Eve is as devoid of wolves as you want it to be. (Don’t get us wrong, if wolves are your thing then go for it, you must be pleased to find out that you share so much with the author of the Declaration and we completely support it).