Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to ——, 26 July 1764

To ——

Wmsburgh July 26th 1764

I like your proposal of keeping up an epistolary correspondence on subjects of some importance. I do not at present recollect any difficult question in natural philosophy, but shall be glad to have your opinion on a subject much more interesting. What that is I will tell you. In perusing a magazine some time ago I met with an account of a person who had been drowned. He had continued under water 24 hours, and upon being properly treated when taken out he was restored to life. The fact is undoubted, and upon enquiry I have found that there have been many other instances of the same kind. Physicians say that when the parts of the body1 are restrained from performing their functions by any gentle cause which does not in any manner maim or injure any particular part, that to restore life in such a case nothing is requisite but to give the vital warmth2 to the whole body by gentle degrees, and to put the blood in motion by inflating the lungs. But the doubts which arose in my mind on reading the story were of another nature. We are generally taught that the soul leaves the body at the instant of death, that is, at the instant in which the organs of the body cease totally to perform their functions. But does not this story contradict this opinion? When then does the soul take it’s departure? Let me have your opinion candidly and at length3 on this subject. And as these are doubts which, were they to come to light, might do injustice to a man’s moral principles in the eyes of persons of narrow and confined views it will be proper to take great care of our letters. I propose as one mean of doing it to put no name or place4 to the top or bottom of the letter, and to inclose it in a false cover which may be burned as soon as opened. No news in town only that Sir John Cockler has given Knox £450 for his house and lots here. Orion is 3 Hours—40’ west of the sun and of consequence goes down and rises that much before him. So you must rise early in the morning to see him. The upper star in his belt is exactly in the Æquinoctial.

RC (Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit NNP); unsigned, but apparently complete.

This manuscript, only recently come to light, is said to have “descended in a family with connections to the Pages of Virginia” (Sotheby’s, Catalogue No. 6553,3 May 1994, Lot 60). The possibility exists that the recipient was John Page, a lifelong friend who preserved the bulk of TJ’s surviving correspondence for the early 1760s. Although they had discussed ways of shielding their correspondence six months before (TJ to Page, 23 Jan. 1764), neither internal evidence nor the sparseness of TJ’s papers for this period allows more confident speculation. The letter itself reflects the period in TJ’s life when, as he later informed a correspondent who had raised another question about the soul, he was “fond of the speculations which seemed to promise some insight” into the “country of spirits” (TJ to Isaac Story, 5 Dec. 1801). It is also symptomatic of the rational investigation of traditional Christian doctrine that he carried out during the same period (Extracts, ed. Adams, 5–7; LCB, description begins Douglas L. Wilson, ed., Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book, Princeton, 1989, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends ed. Wilson, 8, 214).

1Preceding five words interlined in place of “none of the parts of the body are injured, but.”

2Preceding two words written over “whole body.”

3Preceding three words interlined.

4Preceding two words interlined.

Index Entries