Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Davis, 31 August 1801

From John Davis

Colchester,1 Virginia, August 31, 1801.


Having lately visited that Scene which you have pronounced one of the most stupendous in Nature, & purposing to return to Philadelphia in a Month, where I shall publish my Travels under the title of A Journey from New York to the Passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge Mountains,—I take the liberty to entreat permission to dedicate my Work to you. If Gadienus travelled from the remote parts of Spain to behold the Historian of Rome, I can affirm from the very bottom of my heart that I would have gone much further to see the Author of the Notes on Virginia,—the first & greatest Work that ever taught me to reflect; but the etiquette of a refined Age would not allow me this honor at Washington; and I can now only hope for your sanction to my literary undertakings by epistolary intercourse.

Chastellux is, perhaps, the most interesting Traveller through the United States. His volumes enlivened with anecdote, & abounding with remark, seldom fail to hold the mind in pleasing captivity. Indeed from so great a personage much was expected. He was a Member of the French Academy, the Correspondent of Voltaire, the Companion of Princes, & a General officer in the French Army. On military subjects he could not be otherwise than au fait; and he stalks over the field of battle with the grace & dignity of a soldier.

Hic Dolopum manus: hic soevics tendebat Achilles:

Classibus hic locus: hic acies certare solebant.

I have rather made Chastellux than Brissot the model of my Tour. The narrative of the one yields flowers & fragrance, transporting the reader on fairy ground; while that of the other inspires no emotion of pleasure, but casts a gloom over every scene.

I have, perhaps, Sir, the honor of being slightly known to you. You may possibly have seen a Translation of General Buonaparte’s Campaign in Italy; and Mr Gallatin informed me at Washington that he had presented you, pursuant to my entreaty, with a small Collection of my Lyric Poems. A mistake of Mr Burr, to whom I have the honor of being personally known, was the occasion of my coming to Virginia; but having been a Traveller from my childhood, having visited China, & resided both on the Coast of Malabar & Coromandel, I rather rejoice at, than deplore an event, that has caused me to gratify my disposition for roving

I conclude with repeating my entreaty that you will allow me the honor of inscribing to you my Journey; or at least flatter myself you will not withold an answer from me studiis florentem ignobilis otii; an Otium which would be rendered Nobile by your condescension.

I am, Sir, Your most obedient, humble Servant,

John Davis.

RC (DLC); addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr. President of the United States, Monticello”; franked; postmarked 1 Sep.; endorsed by TJ as received 3 Sep. and so recorded in SJL.

John Davis (1774–1854) was a British seaman and man of letters whose translation of the Campaign of General Buonaparte in Italy (New York, 1798) brought him to the attention of Aaron Burr, who suggested that Davis study law with him. Davis traveled extensively in the South, thereafter became a tutor to the children of Daniel Ludlow, and published two books, Poems Written at Coosohatchie, in South-Carolina in Charleston in 1799, and The Farmer of New Jersey; or, A Picture of Domestic Life in New York in 1800 (Kline, Burr description begins Mary-Jo Kline, ed., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Princeton, 1983, 2 vols. description ends , 1:592–3).

That scene: a reference to the Natural Bridge, which TJ described as “the most sublime of Nature’s works” in Notes on the State of Virginia (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , 24).

Davis did not publish his travels until 1803 from London, under the title, Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America; During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Dedicated to the third president, Davis’s work included his recollections of the inauguration and also the text of the first inaugural address.

Historian of rome: probably the Roman historian Livy (59 B.C.-17 A.D.). According to Pliny the Younger, a citizen from Cadiz (“the Spaniard from Gades”) came all the way to Rome from “his far corner of the earth to have “one look” at the famous man and then went home again (Epistles, 2:3).

Hic Dolopum manus: Davis here quotes Virgil, which translates as: “Here the Dolopian bands encamped, here cruel Achilles; here lay the fleet; here they used to meet us in battle” (Aeneid, 2.29–30).

A mistake of Mr Burr: Davis went to Washington thinking that Burr had recommended him to the Treasury secretary for a government position. Apparently Burr failed to make clear to Gallatin that this Davis was a British man with literary pursuits, not a member of the large New York family of the same name (Gallatin, Papers description begins Carl E. Prince and Helene E. Fineman, eds., The Papers of Albert Gallatin, microfilm edition in 46 reels, Philadelphia, 1969, and Supplement, Barbara B. Oberg, ed., reels 47–51, Wilmington, Del., 1985 description ends , 5:114, 268; Kline, Burr description begins Mary-Jo Kline, ed., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Princeton, 1983, 2 vols. description ends , 1:592–3).

Studiis florentem ignobilis otii: “and rejoiced in the arts of inglorious ease,” Virgil, Georgics, 4.564.

Otium: “leisure.”

1In front of preceding word Davis canceled “(Occoquan Mills, Two Miles from).”

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