Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Ebenezer Burling, 11 January 1801

To Ebenezer Burling

Jan. 11. 1801. Washington.


I should with great delight deliver myself up to the investigation of the subject proposed in your letter of Dec. 28. had I a right to my own time. but that belongs to the public and is fully engaged in objects far less agreeable to me than those I am obliged to abandon. you seem however so well acquainted with the object on which you are engaged that I dare say you will attain it without difficulty. as to the method I proposed for establishing a standard of weights, measures & coins, by a reference to the pendulum, it has been taught in the schools for a century, with very general approbation so that I did not propose it as a thought of my own, but as the best of those which had been proposed within my knowledge. I still prefer it to a portion of a great circle of the earth, which the French have adopted. I am however candidly open to any other new proposition, and shall be greatly gratified if you should devise something more certain and convenient than has hitherto been thought of. I am Sir

Your very humble servt

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of text: “Mr. Ebenezer Burling. Peekskill”; endorsed by TJ in ink on verso.

Taught in the schools for a century: TJ and others looked to Isaac Newton’s Principia as the starting point for the use of a pendulum to define a unit of measure (Vol. 16:510, 542–3, 567–70, 602, 652, 669–70n).

For the decision by the French to base their system upon actual measurement of a portion of the earth’s circumference, see Vol. 27:818–19, 822n.

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