Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to James Currie, 20 December 1788

To James Currie

Paris Dec. 20. 1788.

Dear Doctor

‘Procrastination is the thief of time.’ So sais Young, and so I find it. It is the only apology, and it is the true one for my having been so long without writing to you. In the mean time I shall overtake the present epistle, if it be as long getting to you as my letters are sometimes coming to me from America. I have asked of Congress a leave of 5. or 6. months absence the next year to carry my family back to America, and hope to obtain it in time to sail in April from Havre for James river directly. In this case I shall have the pleasure of seeing you at Richmond and Eppington for a few days.—This country is seriously meditating the establishment of a constitution, and the distress of the court for money, with the real good intentions of the king, will produce their concurrence in it. All the world is occupied at present in framing, every one his own plan of a bill of rights. The States general will meet probably in March (the day not being yet known). They will probably establish their own periodical meetings, their right to participate of the legislation, their sole right to tax. So far the court will not oppose. Some will endeavor to procure at the same [time] a habeas corpus law and free press. I doubt if the latter can be obtained yet, and as for the former I hardly think the nation itself ripe to accept of it. Tho they see the evil of lettres de cachet, they believe they do more good on the whole. They will think better in time. The right of taxation includes the idea of fixing a civil list for the king, and of equalizing the taxes on the Clergy and Nobility as well as the commons. The two former orders do not pay one third of the proportion ad valorem, which the last pay. This will be a great addition to their revenues. While engaged so much internally you may be assured they wish for external peace. The insanity of the K. of England will much befriend their desires in this respect. Regencies are generally peaceable. The war in the North appeared at one time likely to be quieted, but new dissensions in Poland now threaten to embroil Russia and Prussia. In this case, Russia will previously make her peace with the Turks by ceding the Crimea to them. So much for Political news. In the literary way we are like, after a very long dearth of good publications, to have some things worth reading. The works of the late K. of Prussia in 16. vols. 8vo. appear now. They contain new and curious historical matter. A work on Grecian antiquities by the Abbé Barthelemi, of great classical learning, the produce of 20 years labor is now in the press, about 8. vols. 8vo. A single small volume on government by the Marquis de Condorcet is struggling to get abroad in spite of the prohibition it is under. You have heard of the new chemical nomenclature endeavoured to be introduced by Lavoisier, Fourcroy &c. Other chemists of this country, of equal note, reject it, and prove, in my opinion, that it is premature, insufficient, and false. These latter are joined by the British chemists; and upon the whole I think the new Nomenclature will be rejected after doing more harm than good. There are some good publications in it, which must be translated into the ordinary chemical language before they will be useful. A person lately discovered here a very simple method of bleaching yellow paper, or stained paper (provided there be no grease in the stain) by the fumes of the muriatic acid poured on Manganesia. He shewed it to me two or three days after the discovery. On mentioning it to M. Bertholet we found that a process on the same principles had, for a year or two past, been adopted successfully for the bleaching linen. This is now effected in, from 8. hours to 2. or 3. days, without requiring the great bleaching feilds which the antient method does; and they say that the linen is less injured. There are two large bleacheries established in this country on this principle, and I beleive they are beginning to try it in England. There is a vast improvement in the composition of gunpower not yet communicated to the public.—We are now at the 29th. livraison of the Encyclopedie. I shall bring to Mr. Hay what he has not yet received, and have then the pleasure of assuring you in person of the sentiments of sincere esteem with which I am Dr. Sir your friend & servt.,

Th: Jefferson

P.S. Remember me affectionately to Colo. and Mrs. Randolph of Tuckahoe. I have not heard from young Mr. R. for more than a year which makes me suppose him returned to America.


TJ subscribed for three copies of the Works of the Late K. of Prussia Oeuvres posthumes de Frédéric II, roi de Prusse, Berlin, 1788—but probably did not take any (see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1955, 4 vols. description ends No. 270; also, TJ to Joseph Willard, 24 Mch. 1789; Würtz to TJ, 21 Jan. 1789; TJ to Würtz, 23 Jan. 1789). The edition that he kept was one purchased from Goldsmith in Paris, June 1790, through William Short. The work by the Abbe Barthelemi was Jean Jacques Berthélemy’s Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce, Paris, 1789 (Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1955, 4 vols. description ends No. 41). Condorcet’s Single small volume was probably his Essai sur la constitution [Paris], 1788 (Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1955, 4 vols. description ends No. 2441). Lavoisier published his Traité élémentaire de chimie, présenté dans un ordre nouveau et d’après les découvertes modernes in Paris, 1789; TJ had already expressed a depreciatory view of his New chemical nomenclature (see TJ to Madison, 19 July 1788; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1955, 4 vols. description ends No. 830).

The reference in the present letter to TJ’s future son-in-law, Young Mr. R[andolph] seems to serve as a corrective to an assumption made by Tucker, Randall, Randolph and others. As Sarah N. Randolph expressed it in 1871: “Young [Thomas Mann] Randolph had visited Paris in 1788, and spent a portion of the summer there after the completion of his education at the University of Edinburgh, and we may suppose that the first love-passages which resulted in their marriage took place between the young people at that time” (Randolph, Domestic Life description begins Sarah N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, Compiled from Family Letters and Reminiscences by His Great-Granddaughter, Cambridge Mass., 1939 description ends , p. 172). But this assumption rests apparently on no other evidence than the letter from his father to TJ of 19 Nov. 1787, in which he said that he had advised his son to “Repair immediately to Paris,” and when there to follow implicitly TJ’s proposed plan of education. On 28 Feb. 1788 TJ wrote to young Randolph that he had not heard from Colonel Randolph, and said: “I am apprehensive you may have changed your plan.” An entry in SJL Index records a letter from young Randolph of 20 Mch. 1788 that presumably was an answer to the foregoing, but whether it announced a return to America or an intention of visiting Paris in the coming summer cannot be ascertained, since it is missing. TJ’s remark to Dr. Currie in the present letter, however, can be explained only on the ground that (1) he erred in making the entry for this missing letter by substituting the name of the son for the father; (2) that he had indeed received a letter from young Randolph but had forgotten it; or (3) that the letter in question arrived after 20 Dec. 1788. The last seems the more probable, particularly since there is positive evidence that Randolph had indeed returned directly to America in the summer of 1788: on 1 May 1788 Randolph wrote from Edinburgh to his mother, Anne Cary Randolph, saying that he had given up his plans for going to France and had decided to return to Virginia (Tr in NcU: Trist Papers). A few days after this Randolph’s Scottish friend and tutor, John Leslie, wrote to him at Edinburgh urging him to stay on in Europe to complete his education; late in June Leslie wrote again repeating this plea and addressing the letter to Glasgow; and still later that summer he wrote Randolph at “James River, Virginia” (Leslie to Randolph, 12 May, 22 June, and 2 Aug. 1788; ViU: McGregor Library, Carr-Cary Papers). The conclusion is inescapable that Randolph had returned directly to America in mid-summer of 1788 and that, at the time of writing the present letter, TJ had not been informed of that fact. The best evidence that the romance between Randolph and Martha began in America rather than in Paris is to be found in a contemporaneous letter by TJ: “My daughter, on her arrival in Virginia, received the addresses of a young Mr. Randolph, the son of a bosom friend of mine. Tho’ his talents, dispositions, connections and fortune were such as would have made him my own first choice, yet according to the usage of my country, I scrupulously suppressed my wishes, that my daughter might indulge her own sentiments freely.” This explanation, made to Madame de Corny, was addressed to one who would have required no such statement if Randolph had in fact gone to Paris in 1788, for in that case he would certainly have become known to the circle that included the De Cornys (TJ to Madame de Corny, 2 Apr. 1790).

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