Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Charles Brockden Brown, 25 December [1799]

From Charles Brockden Brown

December 25. 1798 [i.e., 1799]


After some hesitation, a stranger to the person, though not to the character of Thomas Jefferson, ventures to intreat his acceptance of the volume by which this is accompanied. He is unacquainted with the degree in which your time & attention is engrossed by your public office: he knows not in what way your studious hours are distributed, & whether mere works of imagination & invention are not excluded from your notice. He is even doubtful whether this letter will be opened or read, or, if read, whether its contents will not be instantly dismissed from your memory; so much a stranger is he, though a citizen of the United States, to the private occupations & modes of judging of the most illustrious of his fellow Citizens.

To request your perusal of a work, which at the same time, is confessed to be unworthy of perusal, would be an uncommon proof of absurdity. In thus transmitting my book to you, I tacitly acknowledge my belief that it is capable of affording you pleasure & of entitling the writer to some portion of your good opinion. If I had not this belief, I should unavoidably be silent.

I am conscious, however, that this form of composition may be regarded by you with indifference or contempt; that social & intellectual theories, that the history of facts in the processes of nature & the operations of government may appear to you the only laudable pursuits; that fictitious narratives, in their own nature, or, in the manner in which they have been hitherto conducted, may be thought not to deserve notice, & that, consequently, whatever may be the merit of my book as a fiction, yet it is to be condemned because it is a fiction.

I need not say that my opinions are different, & am therefore obliged to hope that an artful display of incidents, the powerful delineation of characters & the train of eloquent & judicious reasoning which may be combined in a fictitious work will be regarded by Thomas Jefferson with as much respect as they are regarded by me.

No man holds a performance which he has deliberately offered to the world in contempt; but, if he be a man of candour & discernment, his favourable judgement of his own work, will always be attended by diffidence & fluctuation. I confess, I foster the hope that Mr. Jefferson will be induced to open the book that is here offered him; that when he has begun it, he will find himself prompted to continue, & that he will not think the time employed upon it, tediously or uselessly consumed.

With more than this I dare not flatter myself. That he will be pleased in any uncommon degree, & that, by his recommendation, he will contribute to diffuse the knowledge of its authour, & facilitate a favourable reception to future performances, is a benefit far beyond the expectations, though, certainly, the object of the fondest wishes of

Charles B. Brown.

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “No: 45. Pine Street, New York”; endorsed by TJ as received 30 Dec. 1799 and so recorded in SJL with the notation, “author of Wieland.”

After apprenticing in a law office for six years, Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810), a native of Philadelphia, determined in 1793 to become a professional writer. Influenced by the work of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, in New York from 1798 to 1801 he wrote a half-dozen novels, beginning in 1798 with Wieland; or, The Transformation and then Ormond; or, The Secret Witness the following year. The novels reflected political, economic, and cultural currents of the time and are the works for which Brown is best known. If the volume the author sent with the above letter was Wieland, as TJ’s entry in SJL would seem to indicate, TJ did not list the work in his library catalogue. He was, however, a subscriber to the Weekly Magazine of 1798, in which some of Brown’s work appeared, and to the Monthly Magazine, and American Review, a short-lived publication that Brown edited, 1799–1800. In 1801 Brown returned to Philadelphia and became a merchant, but continued to write, mostly for periodicals, and edited serial publications. He also wrote and published anonymously several political tracts that were sharply critical of policies of TJ’s presidency: An Address to the Government of the United States, on the Cession of Louisiana to the French and Monroe’s Embassy, both published in 1803; The British Treaty, in 1807; and an 1809 attack on the embargo, An Address to the Congress of the United States, on the Utility and Justice of Restrictions upon Foreign Commerce. TJ received a copy of the last pamphlet from George Logan. TJ and Brown did not, according to SJL, correspond after TJ’s letter of 15 Jan. 1800, although Brown did send TJ a one-sentence note from Charleston, South Carolina, on 5 Mch. 1806 to accompany one or more issues of the Monthly Register, and Review of the United States. The writer died of tuberculosis in Philadelphia in February 1810 (Charles E. Bennett, “Charles Brockden Brown: Man of Letters,” in Bernard Rosenthal, ed., Critical Essays on Charles Brockden Brown [Boston, 1981], 214–18; Alan Axelrod, Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale [Austin, 1983], 70, 174–5; ANB; description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends Nos. 3375, 3464, 4897, 4898).

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