Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Ogilvie, [before 3 July 1795]

From James Ogilvie

Fredericksburg Academy [before 3 July 1795]


I consider it as one of the characteristic blessings of Republicanism that it disentangles man from that labyrinth of ceremonial and those entrenchments of rank that inoculate and dissever society in countrys where monarchy prevails and opens a free channel to that stream of intercourse and communion from which so much of the improvement and felicity of mankind springs: Tis on this account that tho’ personally unknown to you and without introduction I feel little of that embarassment which I should painfully feel in addressing myself in similar circumstances to a person bearing the same rank in Europe. Without farther preamble I am Proffessor of Humanity and the Belles Lettrs in the Fredericksburg Academy and have occupy’d this department nearly two years. Education from my childhood hath formed a fav’rite subject of my meditation and research, and since my residence here hath wholly engrossed my attention. I had long suspected that whilst Religion Philosophy and the fine Arts were so deeply infected with the maladys which the injustice and oppression of Europe diffused so widely, education could hardly be so fortunate as to have escaped untainted. My suspicions have now grown into convictions. Many capital defects in the Prescriptive system of education as well with regard to the manner of instructing as to the matter of instruction have suggested themselves to my mind and I have adventured some very material and fundamental alterations. Considering experiment as the basis of all sound science, except that which flows from intuition I have instituted a regular course of experiments upon the minds of my pupils, by the result of which I have authenticated and adjusted my deviations whether of practice or opinion from the established modes and sources [of]1 instruction. Two public examinations have already been held when the proficiency of the youth under my care offerd I believe very general satisfaction nor were my deviations from the usual modes regarded with disapprobation. These deviations are daily growing more numerous and important and on a subject of such general and momentous concern I can by no means be persuaded to rest satisfied with my own judgment. That the community may be enabled to approbate the merits of my plan and that I may enjoy the benefits of advice from my enlightened fellow citizens I have determined to hold annually two examinations and to imp[ress] in occasional addresses and observations during these examinations the reasons that have induced me to deviate from the established modes. Our next public examination will take place on the first week of August and will continue throughout the week. On that occasion the higher classes will be examined in Government Morals Logic Rhetoric Criticism Elocution; Philology English Grammar Natural History, Latin and Greek. A more minute detail of particulars will appear in the Fredericksburg print previous to the examination. On the importance of Education ’twere impertinent to descant. The present imperfection is the theme of universal lamentation a lamentation in which the Philosopher and Philanthropist are the deepest mourners. From whom can we expect the amendment and reformation of education? This I imagine can only be expected from the exertions of individuals justly and generally encouraged and diffused. From what class of individuals from Theoretical and merely speculative Philosophers? This may well be doubted when we recollect the unsuccessful attempts of three illustrious minds Locke Helvetius and Rousseau. From prescriptive and Technical Teachers, from men whose minds are philtered by the Classic charm and darkened by the dogmas of Antiquity. For such in my mind is the condition of the most approved and celebrated teachers of modern times. Alas—could reformation come from this quarter education had been long since reformed. But there is sufficient reason to believe that from such men we can only expect new reinforcement to ancient errour. Deeply impressed with these convictions I have endeavored to blend Theory and Practice speculation and experiment and utterly incompetent as I am to complete the reformation of education I flatter myself that I am in the right road. I have made some progress and having determined to dedicate the greater part of my life to the prosecution of this design I entertain hopes of rendering my future exertions of some utility to my country and therefore of proportional felicity to myself. The design I am prosecuting is not so much a matter of private as of public concern and I look for the countenance and cooperation of my enlightend and patriotic fellow-citizens. Tis my most earnest desire to submit the plan I am pursuing to the scrutiny of those to whom their country looks up for judgment and decision on matters of general moment. Such Sir being my views the public voice admonishes me to turn to you and in compliance with this admonition I take the liberty to solicit the honour of your presence during our next examination. A stranger as I am to your person and acquaintance it would ill become me to solicit without introduction or recommendation A private favour, and altho the request I now make is addressed rather to your patriotism and Philanthropy than to your friendship and politeness yet I hope I may be permitted to add without impropriety that your compliance will confer distinguished honour on this Academy, gratify the wishes of the Trustees and afford unfeigned delight to Sir Your most obedient & respectful humble

James Ogilvie

RC (DLC: TJ Papers, 99: 17001–2);undated, but assigned on the basis of Mann Page to TJ, 3 July 1795; torn in part; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr”; above address in Mann Page’s hand: “This Letter was written previous to the Publication, which accounts for the difference in the Time of Exn.” (see below); endorsed by TJ as a letter of “probably 95” received 14 July 1795 and recorded under that date in SJL. Enclosed in Mann Page to TJ, 3 July 1795.

When he wrote this letter, James Ogilvie (ca. 1775–1820), a teacher originally from Scotland, was beginning a controversial career as a promoter of oratory. Subsequent to his work at Fredericksburg Academy he went on to teach at various locales in Virginia, and from 1805 to 1807 he directed an academy at Milton. His pedagogical philosophy emphasized elocution and semiannual public examinations, and he favored the opinions of the radical British writer William Godwin, decried by some Federalist critics as permissive and skeptical. Although Ogilvie influenced such writers and speakers as Francis Walker Gilmer, William Cabell Rives, and William Wirt, he did so as a teacher and literary or oratorical model rather than as an original thinker. His orations were largely derivative, but delivered with impressive flair. A satirical attack in 1809 alluded to his affinity for laudanum, and he later admitted his “excessive use of opium.” TJ nevertheless developed a cordial relationship with him. While at Milton, Ogilvie taught TJ’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. TJ also praised lectures Ogilvie delivered at Charlottesville, gave him a set of Cicero’s works, granted him access to the library at Monticello, and entrusted the schoolmaster with a highly confidential letter to Thomas Mann Randolph. In 1808 Ogilvie began tours of American cities to lecture and promote a system of instruction in rhetoric. Despite some initial acclaim, he failed to establish himself as a philosopher, returned to Great Britain in 1816 or 1817, and died by his own hand in Scotland (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Richard Beale Davis, Intellectual Life in Jefferson’s Virginia [Chapel Hill, 1964], 40–2, 281–2, 368–70; Richard Beale Davis, “James Ogilvie and Washington Irving,” Americana, xxxv [1941], 435–48; Burton R. Pollin, “Godwin’s Letter to Ogilvie, Friend of Jefferson, and the Federalist Propaganda,” Journal of the History of Ideas, xxviii [1967], 432–44; James Ogilvie, Philosophical Essays; to Which are Subjoined, Copious Notes, Critical and Explanatory, and a Supplementary Narrative; with an Appendix [Philadelphia, 1816], “Supplementary Narrative,” i-x; TJ to Ogilvie, 31 Jan., 23 June 1806; Ogilvie to TJ, 12 Aug. 1807; TJ to John Glendy, 21 June 1808).

First week of August: as indicated above by the note Mann Page added to this letter, by the time published notice appeared the examination had been moved to the second week of August. For the notice in the Fredericksburg print, see Enclosure No. 2 to Mann Page to TJ, 3 July 1795.

1Word supplied.

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