Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Thornton, 8 June 1793

From William Thornton

June 8th: 1793.


In consequence of your Intimation respecting the Mace for Virginia I have drawn one which I submit to your superior Judgment.

The Rattle-snake, Crotalus horridus, is peculiar to America, and though one of the most terrible of his Tribe, is nevertheless endowed with Qualities which make it a striking Emblem of this Government: for, it is peaceable, and strikes only in necessity or self-defence. It does not, like other Animals, take Advantage; but gives due warning of Danger.

The Bald-Eagle I think is not peculiar to America, [for, if I am not mistaken it is found in Russia] and, if it were, there is nothing in its Appearance characteristic of either power or Dignity: Besides, by adopting it we imitate with servility the Devices of several Courts of Europe—they took it from the Romans, and the Romans most probably from the Persians, for, according to Xenophon, they used the Eagle.

The Rattle-snake entwined round one Staff I consider as a proper Mace for the Individual States; round many Staves, for the United States. The Staves being of polished Silver and the Snakes enamelled in proper Colours, would have a noble Appearance. They may be made light, and the Mace of the general Government contain as many Fasces or Staves as there are States in the Union. Plutarch says that Publicola took the Ax from among the Fasces, considering it rather as an Emblem of Terror than of Power.

I think in this Device you will find as much Simplicity yet significance as can be required, nor will a Motto be requisite. An Emblem that requires a Motto, is like a Fable that requires a Moral or Inference.

With this you will receive my Opusculum, entitled Cadmus, of which I request your acceptance. I am, Sir, with much respect and sincere attachment

William Thornton

RC (Vi: Executive Papers); brackets in original; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State of the United States”; endorsed by TJ as received 10 June 1793 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in DLC: Thornton Papers); lacks last sentence and part of complimentary close. Enclosure: William Thornton, Cadmus: or, a Treatise on the Elements of Written Language, Illustrating, by a philosophical division of Speech, the power of each character, thereby mutually fixing the Orthography and Orthoepy. … With an Essay on the mode of teaching the Surd or Deaf, and consequently Dumb, to Speak (Philadelphia, 1793); at head of title page: “Prize Dissertation, which was honored with the Magellanic Gold Medal, by the American Philosophical Society, January, 1793”; see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 1126. Other enclosure printed below. Enclosed in TJ to Henry Lee, 28 June 1793.

William Thornton (1759–1828), a native of the British Virgin Islands, was trained as a physician at Edinburgh and Aberdeen and came to the United States in 1786. Although he lacked formal training as an architect, his design for the United States Capitol was chosen earlier in 1793 in a competition sponsored by the federal government, and thereafter he made repeated and only partly successful efforts to force reluctant supervising architects to conform as far as possible to his design. He served as a commissioner of the Federal District from 1794 until the commission was abolished in 1802, at which point he was appointed clerk at the Department of State in charge of patents. An inventor himself and the first individual specifically chosen to superintend patents, Thornton ably filled this post until his death and is credited with saving the office’s records and models from destruction when the British burned Washington in 1814. He corresponded regularly with TJ during his presidency and retirement (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; TJ to George Washington, 17 July 1793, and note; Daniel Preston, “The Administration and Reform of the U.S. Patent Office, 1790–1836,” Journal of the Early Republic, v, [1985], 334–51).

TJ must have asked Thornton for ideas for a Mace for Virginia after 23 May 1793, when he received Governor Henry Lee’s letter on the subject (Lee to TJ, 16 May 1793). Xenophon described the gold eagle as a royal standard used in the army of the Persians in Anabasis, 1.10.10–18 (Carleton L. Brownson and others, eds. and trans., Xenophon, 7 vols. [Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1914–25; repr. 1968], iii, 99). The removal of the Ax from among the Fasces is described in Plutarch’s Publicola, 10.5–6 (Bernadotte Perrin, ed. and trans., Plutarch’s Lives, 11 vols. [London and New York, 1914–26], i, 529).

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