Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to James Wood, 31 March 1797

To James Wood

Monticello Mar. 31. 97.


Your letter of the 3d. inst. did not get to Philadelphia till I had left it, and therefore came to hand here only this day week. I have bestowed on it’s subject the earliest attention I could. When on a former occasion the Executive were pleased to apply to me (being then in France) for a plan of a Capitol, they at the same time desired one of a prison. An architect of Lyons had in 17611 proposed the idea of solitary confinement, and presented to that government an engraved plan for a prison on that idea. This was, as far as I know, the first proposition for this kind of punishment. It was afterwards as I believe, that a particular society adopted it in England. Pennsylvania is the 2d.2 and ourselves the 3d.3 instance of adoption. I recieved from the architect of Lyons (M. Bugniet) a copy of his plan, and sent it to our executive with the plans and models of the Capitol; and to adapt it to the smaller scale which suited us, I sketched a plan of a prison for us with solitary cells. These draughts probably still exist among the papers of the council. However lest they should not, as I retain the general idea in my mind, I have sketched it on paper and now inclose the sketch. But to accomodate 200. persons on this plan will cost 37,000 Doll. and 7000. D. more if it be surrounded by a fossé which I think very important for securing against escapes. I have drawn the plan however on this scale, but have added an estimate of the same plan reduced to 144. cells, which brings it to about 27,000. Doll. and to inclose it with a fossé would add about 5000 Doll. more. Cheap accomodations for 56. persons more might be provided in the two houses making part of the plan, and in barracks within the Area. I presume others have been invited to propose plans, and have no doubt some will chance to hit on something better. If not, and this should be adopted, I would wish to be advised of it, in order to propose some details for giving to the building a plain, decent appearance, and preventing an affectation of ornament which would be entirely misplaced on a building of this character. I have the honor to be with great respect, Sir, Your most obedt. & most humble servt

Th: Jefferson

RC (Vi: Executive Papers); addressed: “The Governor of Virginia Richmond”; franked; with emendations, only the most important being noted below; endorsed by Wood. PrC (DLC); endorsed on verso in ink by TJ. Enclosed plan not found; other enclosures printed below.

For the former occasion on which TJ supplied plans for public buildings in Richmond, including one for a prison based on the plan of Pierre Gabriel Bugniet, see his letter to James Buchanan and William Hay, 26 Jan. 1786.

The genealogy of solitary confinement, considered at the time to be a progressive reform, was not quite as direct as TJ understood it to be. The plan he saw in France was not the first proposition of the idea, which had been suggested as early as 1701–02 in England and elsewhere, and in 1703 the Vatican had built a prison based on the concept. By the 1770s the notion was strongly advocated by reformers in England (Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850 [New York, 1978], 53–4, 65–6). Pennsylvania in 1790 authorized construction, at the Walnut Street prison in Philadelphia, of cells designed for solitary confinement, and in 1796 New York, New Jersey, and Virginia all followed that state in reducing the number of capital offenses in their criminal codes and authorizing new penitentiaries. New York preceded Virginia in actual construction, but solitary confinement was not a primary feature of the New York facility. The Virginia act required inmates to spend a portion of their terms in solitude, so as TJ envisioned his design, Virginia could indeed claim to be the next instance of adoption after Pennsylvania (Adam Jay Hirsch, The Rise of the Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America [New Haven, 1992], 59–60; Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South [New York, 1984], 38; Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, eds., The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society [New York, 1995], 114–15; W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796–1848 [Ithaca, N.Y., 1965], 30–1).

A 3 Apr. letter from Wood to TJ and one from TJ to him of 30 Apr., both noted in SJL, have not been found.

1Preceding word and date interlined in place of “just then.”

2Digit reworked from “3.”

3Reworked from “4th.”

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