What is Douglas Jefferson Day?
During the autumn of 1804, an itinerant young drifter named Douglas Jefferson entered Rhodes Tavern at the corner of 15th and F streets northwest, claiming to all who would listen to be a distant cousin of the President. The gentlemen assembled that night were wary of the man with his tattered frock coat and wild, unkempt hair, but they were soon won over by his offer of free drinks to all who would sit with him. As the evening progressed, a small circle gathered round the stone fireplace with their newfound friend, who captivated them with unbelievable tales of his travels and exploits well into the night.
Long after the street lamps had been extinguished and the tavern was nearing the end of its liquor reserves, Douglas Jefferson rose up, and by the glow of the hearth raised his glass to deliver the following toast:
“Friends of merit, friends in spirit, I know not who or where… These drinks for thee, I give for free, for lending me an ear. The only thing I ask of you, as I take my leave this night… is to open your coffer for a stranger and proffer the gift of a brandy or beer.”
With that a grand “huzzah!” was shouted and the men threw back the last drops of their drinks. Douglas Jefferson shook their hands, and made his way out into the dark October night. The jovial atmosphere was cut short, however, as the men in the tavern were jolted to sobriety by a loud crunching noise from the street. Rushing outside, they could see by the light of the moon that Douglas Jefferson had been crushed by a passing vegetable cart.
The morose assemblage shuffled back inside, and decided then and there to pay tribute to Douglas Jefferson in some small way. It’s from these humble beginnings that Douglas Jefferson Day was born. Beginning in 1805, the first Saturday of every October was known as “Douglas Jefferson Day” in Washington DC, a tradition that carried on until the burning of the city in 1814.
In the nine years it was celebrated, the Holiday evolved. Jefferson’s request to buy a drink for a stranger remained at the core of the holiday, and a giving of gifts was also added. The main focus of Douglas Jefferson Day was to celebrate friendship, as the men agreed after much discussion on that fateful night that while many Holidays celebrated the bonds of family or country, there were none that celebrated the powerful bond of good friends over good drinks.
Now, 200 years after the Holiday was lost to the filing cabinets of time, we call for a resurrection of sorts. To bring back the tradition of Douglas Jefferson Day to DC, and to celebrate as Douglas Jefferson* would have wanted. We’ll look forward to sharing a drink with you.
*A minor historical correction: after his death, “Douglas Jefferson’s” person was searched, and several conflicting items were found in his pockets. From the police record, what we know now is that his real name was ‘Peter Silbaton,’ and he was most certainly not related to the President. This mattered not to the men who had met him that night, and he was forever remembered by all in Rhodes Tavern as ‘Douglas Jefferson.’