Fifty-Six Signatures but Mine Ain’t One: 1776

“Get your dirty little behind in here before I beat the dust off of it like a rug, you good for nothing little cuss.”
Her chastising eyes glared at me as she held the squeaky door open for me to walk through. My feet shuffled past her but her big, rough hands stalled their stride and whipped me around.
“Elijah, you know your place here at Monticello, and it’s not frolicking and galavanting around, now how many times must I remind you?”
I gulped and managed to squeeze out a few words,
“B. . . But Mrs. Betsy, I. . . I”
“No buts Elijah, and you better tuck that stutter in before Master Jefferson hears you. Now go clean yourself up, we have a mansion to maintain.”
She was about to add more when a shout from across the mansion came bursting through the halls, drawing us from the kitchen.
“Martha, Martha! Martha come quick!!!”
Master Jefferson jumped for joy.
“Martha you’ll never believe it!”
We could barely keep him in sight as he frantically searched for his wife.
“What Tom? What is it?” Her gentle voice asked.
He reached her and let them come, the words, falling bombastically from his mouth as if he couldn’t get them out fast enough.
“Martha, this letter. . .oh my. . .they’ve chosen me, they’ve chosen me!”
He waved the letter in the air and ran a hand through his hair.
“Me of all the other good and potential men in this country. . . Me can you believe it?”
With his mouth agape, he began laughing again.
“Can you believe it? People all over the country will have nothing better to gossip about. They’ll be discussing it more than that silly old medal congress authorized for George Washington. Oh Martha can you believe it?”
Mistress Jefferson placed a steady hand on his shoulder and ask,
“My dear Tom whatever did they choose you for?”
He grabbed her shoulders and drew her into a hug, then without answering he looked in our direction.
“Elijah, Elijah is that you? Come here.”
As if on cue, Mrs. Betsy pushed me out further into the hallway and I hurriedly retreated to his side. Releasing his hands from his wife’s shoulders he moved them to mine and pulled me in front of him.
“Elijah, pack your bags! We are headed to Philadelphia . . . ”
With the sound of the word, his fingers tighten on my shoulders as if they too were excited.
Then he straighten his composure, looked at his wife, and in a brazen tone added,
“To draft the Declaration of Independence!”
I didn’t fathom exactly what Master Jefferson meant when he said we were drafting the Declaration of Independence but I was bursting at the seams to travel with him to Philadelphia, that is until we spent days in his stagecoach, rattling like a teacup on a saucer. Digging my fingers into the seat cushion steadying myself as my nose was greeted with the musty smells of alley ways and the chatter of people shouting.
To satisfy my curiosity I poked my head out the coach window, and all of a sudden life became vibrant. People could be seen every way one turned and I found my nose trying to follow the sweet smell of pastries and pies. My ears rang with the amplified sounds of horse hooves clomping and striking the cobble street below.
My ignorant knowledge of the outside world made Master Jefferson laugh until a sharp order followed.
“Elijah, come back into the coach!”
It wasn’t until I had followed his orders that I noticed the angry and prejudiced looks coming from the people on the cobble streets. Confused, I sank back into the soft leather of my seat and looked up at Master Jefferson for answers. His stitch brow ceased as he smiled and said,
“Not all people admire and see your worth as I do!”
* * *
The small one-man room we found ourselves in was not what I expected. How was any man suppose to draft something so important in such a crammed and confined space? It didn’t make sense to me, but I guess that’s what one would expect from a little slave boy who could never hope to read or write. My troubled thoughts didn’t reflect on Master Jefferson’s face because he sat right on down and began his work.
Seventeen days we were stuck in this old and dusty room and over those seventeen days I sat as my master “labored at that document” discussing and arguing with what seemed like voices in his head (Thomas). The fire roared and devoured the logs and I made sure that the flames never went hungry. In the background Master Jefferson muttered to himself.
“No no, ugh. . .that’s no good. That won’t do. It has to be grand. Yes, yes more grand than Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.”
Crumpled pieces of paper littered the floor and occasionally the request for more paper came.
“Elijah, Elijah come here. I need your opinion on something.”
Of all people why would he considered asking a fifteen year old slave boy his opinion? Besides, he could really do without my opinion with “his keen interests in books” (Thomas). Without question I came to his side.
“Y. . .yes master?”
“Elijah, you think I should mention God in here?”
“God sir?”
He looked up from his paper.
“Yes Elijah, God?”
Empathy formed in his eyes when he saw my blank expression.
“Elijah, don’t you know who God is?”
“N. . . No sir.”
A smile formed on his face.
“Elijah. . . Sit here.”
I followed the motion of his hand and took a seat on his lap.
“Elijah, do you remember your father?”
“Why yes sir, isn’t he you?”
He chuckled and shook his head with a smile plastered to his face.
“Well, yes, in a sense Elijah, but I’m talking about before I was your father?”
I pondered the question and again shook my head.
“Elijah,” he turned serious, “before I was your father, did you know you had another one?”
“No sir!”
“Well, this father, he was, let’s just say he was hard to see, but you knew he was there because you could feel him right here.”
He placed a hand on my heart.
“Elijah you see your father loves you more than anything and everyone calls him God.”
I took in what he said, not fully comprehending what he was getting at.
“So Master Jefferson, what you’re telling me is that you want to mention my father in the paper you have to write?”
A smile tugged at his face and he said,
“Why yes Elijah, and I was just wondering if that was okay with you if I do so?”
“Why sir, isn’t that pretty brave of you! Aren’t there lots of people out there who don’t like God?”
“Why Elijah, I believe that everyone should love the name of God!”
“The name? Y. . .you mean people only love the n. . .name? But why?”
Master Jefferson paused for a long while and contemplated my question. When he spoke again his words carried energy that I hadn’t heard from him in a few days.
“Elijah, can you write?”
I felt the hope inside me snap, as if the sudden realization of all my dreams came true. No, I couldn’t write. The look on my face must have betrayed my thoughts because Master Jefferson handed me the writing utensil he was holding a few seconds ago.
“Here take this.”
His big hands covered my fingers and curled around the quill. Then ever so slowly he helped guid it across the paper. The word wasn’t very long and I didn’t know what it said, but when I looked up at him I could see the proud smile he wore and the hope that faded within me began to grow once again. My heart beat rose and I looked back down at the squiggly imperfect lines sprawled on the page before me.
“That’s your name Elijah!”
I let the words sink in and then it struck me. I wrote. Granted Master Jefferson did most of the work, but what lay under my eyes was my name.
“I want you to listen very carefully Elijah! This is your name and you are free to do with it what you will. Just know that with the power inside you, you can do amazing things. You have the choice of what you put behind it and its only you who can write it, so don’t let any one else try to write your name for you do you hear?”
I nodded my head even though I didn’t quite understand everything he was trying to tell me. All I could do was stare at the man whom I had come to admire so much. He lifted me off his lap with one fluid motion and set me down beside him. Then he said,
“It’s late, lad, you better get to bed, we have a big day tomorrow.”
He winked at me and I turned towards the bed. Something stopped me from going. This father Master Jefferson talked about, he really put me in a state of perplexity. If he really was alive, then maybe, just maybe I could talk to him. I turned back towards Master Jefferson and asked,
“S. . .sir?”
“Yes Elijah?”
“This father? Would it be okay with you if I. . .if I. . . If I talked to him.”
The small smile that graced his face grew as he whispered,
“Certainly Elijah, he’s been waiting for you to.
I crawled in bed and could still see master Jefferson hunched over his desk shaking his head and sagging his shoulders in defeat. And in a moment of mere curiosity I whispered into the silence of the room to this mysterious father.
“Father, I don’t really know who you are but I know you were my father, at least that’s what Master Jefferson says, but since you aren’t anymore, I thought maybe I could ask you for a request.”
I paused, letting the silence of the room wash over me, as if I was waiting for a response. But none came, so I urged onwards.
“Father, I just wondered if maybe you could help master Jefferson with the thing he’s writing. I don’t know what it is, I just know that it’s important to him and if it’s important to him than maybe you could help? I’m going to go to sleep now so I guess I’ll talk to you later? Maybe tomorrow. But I don’t know for sure, we have big plans tomorrow. Um, goodnight.”
Within minutes I was enveloped in a world of sleep.
Ding, Dong. Towering over the city, the Liberty Bell’s melodious ring echoed throughout Philadelphia. While it’s voice rang in my ears I tuned it out and turned all my attention to Master Jefferson’s shining face. He had done it, and for reasons I didn’t understand I could see how happy he was, and if he was happy then I would be too.
He seemed to have aged within the last months and I hadn’t seen him this happy since he signed the paper he wrote on August 2. A rich voice sounded across the city exclaiming,
“The Declaration of Independence . . .”
A hush fell over the crowd and the voice continued.
“When in the course of human events. . .”
The words faded into the background, but they took me back to when I stood by Master Jefferson in his proudest moment. His face glossed with contentment as he guided the quill across the paper, and in that moment I knew he had put a great power behind his name.
Deep down I felt this urge to sign mine, but I knew I would never in my life have the opportunity to sign something of equal importance but, hope had assured me that some day, someday maybe I too could sign my name somewhere, but only when I was ready.
Works Cited

Dierksheide, Christa. “Thomas Jefferson and Slavery.” monticello. n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.
McCullough, David G. 1776. Large Print Press, 2006. Print.
“Thomas Jefferson.” Presidential Administration Profiles for Students, edited by Kelle S. Sisung
and Gerda-Ann Raffaelle, Gale, 2003. Print.

“Declaration of Independence.” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: War, Gale. 2009. Print.
Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.” The American Revolution, Primary Source Media, 1999. American Journey. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.