Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Isaac Briggs, 24 January 1801

From Isaac Briggs

Sharon, 24th. of the 1st. Month 1801.

Respected Friend,

As a member of the American Philosophical Society I take the liberty of addressing its President. Although I feel much diffidence when, from an obscure and private station, I look up to that eminence upon which abilities and honors have placed thee; yet when I consider thee as the known friend and patron of useful Arts and Science, I am encouraged to solicit thy attention to some hints on a plan for the improvement of Agriculture in the United States.

It is my opinion that the real prosperity of our common Country is virtually founded upon Agriculture, and I feel a strong persuasion that any subject of such a nature and tendency will not, by thee, be treated with indifference. For a considerable time, I have believed that were details of the practice of individuals collected from different parts, or districts, of the United States; thrown into a general digest; and this again diffused to the extremities; it would, probably, more than any other means, tend to the improvement of Agriculture: This noble Art would derive almost as great advantages from such a circulation of knowledge, as the Animal System does from the circulation of the blood.

Such a method would, I conceive, have a powerful tendency to excite a spirit of laudable emulation—to dissipate inveterate prejudice—to give a spur to industry— to increase domestic economy—and consequently to promote sound morality. Perhaps th[ere] would be scarcely an individual who would not see himself surpassed by others in some point, wherein his interest might obviously consist in adopting the improvement:—“Il faut gagner les cœurs, et faire trouver aux hommes leur avantage dans les choses, où l’on veut se servir de leur industrie.”

My idea is, to form, in each State, a society of the best Farmers, Planters and Graziers; to such an association let each member report his practice and the state of his farm, or plantations; let these Statesocieties communicate with each other by means of a Convention, of delegates from each, to meet annually at the City of Washington. The State-societies might report to the Convention the information collected from individuals; and the Convention might form these reports into a general digest, for publication. Occasional recommendations and advice from the Convention to the state-societies might also be very useful.

Having now offered but a crude sketch—an imperfect outline—of my favorite plan, I hope that the eminent abilities of the personage I am addressing will deign to give it the finishing hand—make it such as will be most agreeable to himself, and beneficial to his country—and support it with his influence.

Permit me to add, in the words of the great Linnœus, by way of excuse for my ambition in casting in my mite;—“Multum adhuc restat operis, multumque restabit, nec ulli nato post mille secula precludetur occasio aliquid adjiciendi.”

I am, with profound respect For thy Virtues and For thy Talents, Thy fellow-citizen,

Isaac Briggs

RC (DLC); torn; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson City of Washington”; endorsed by TJ as received 1 Feb. and so recorded in SJL.

Isaac Briggs (1763–1825) grew up in a Quaker household in Haverford, Pennsylvania, where he worked in the shop of his father, Samuel Briggs, who invented and later patented a machine for making nails. In 1783 Isaac Briggs received an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree three years later from the University of Pennsylvania. He edited and published Isaac Briggs’s Almanac; for the Year of our Lord,—1799 (Baltimore, 1798; see Evans, description begins Charles Evans, Clifford K. Shipton, and Roger P. Bristol, comps., American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of all Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America from … 1639 … to … 1820, Chicago and Worcester, Mass., 1903–59, 14 vols. description ends No. 33454) and made astronomical calculations for many other almanacs. In 1803 TJ appointed Briggs surveyor of the lands south of Tennessee. At the time TJ praised Briggs, noting that “in astronomy, geometry & mathematics he stands in a line with mr Ellicott, & second to no man in the US.” In 1804 the president asked Briggs to lay out a post road from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. For that work TJ personally paid Briggs $400 because Congress refused to reimburse the surveyor for his expenses, arguing that it had not authorized the survey. Finally in 1818 Briggs received some compensation from Congress. Briggs worked as chief engineer on the section of the Erie Canal from Rome to Utica, New York, which was finished in 1819, and he completed the James River and Kanawha Canal in 1823. He also supported domestic manufactures, sending a statement on agriculture, manufactures, and commerce to Congress in 1816. The next year his address before the Oneida Society for the Promotion of American Manufactures was published (Ella Kent Barnard, “Isaac Briggs, A.M., F.A.P.S.,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 7 [1912], 409–19; Isaac Briggs, An Address Delivered before the Oneida Society for the Promotion of American Manufactures in Their Annual Meeting in Whitesboro on the 21st of October, 1817 [Utica, N.Y., 1817]; MB description begins James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, Princeton, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 2:1130, 1205–6; TJ to William C. C. Claiborne, 24 May 1803). For a critical assessment of Briggs’s work as land office surveyor for the district south of Tennessee, see Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789–1837 (New York, 1968), 35–7, 253–4.

Briggs was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1796 (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 236). Plan for the improvement of agriculture: the American Board of Agriculture, designed to gather and disseminate information, was established early in 1803. In February, James Madison was elected president and Briggs secretary of the board (Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser., 4:343, 462–3; TJ to John Sinclair, 30 June 1803).

Il faut gagner les cœurs … industrie: “It is necessary to gain hearts, and to find in men their advantage in things, through which one seeks to avail oneself of their industry,” a quotation from François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque, book 3. For TJ’s inquiry about a two-volume English translation of this work, see Vol. 30:83n.

Multum adhuc restat operis … adjiciendi: that is, “Much still remains to do, and much will always remain, and he who shall be born a thousand ages hence will not be barred from his opportunity of adding something further,” a quotation from Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, trans. Richard M. Gummere, 3 vols. (New York, 1917), 1:440–1.

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