Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Tatham, 1 July 1802

From William Tatham

London July 1st. 1802.


By inclosing to you authentic documents concerning the late inestimable discovery of the Life-Boat, which has been introduced into full practice, in saving the crews of vessels wrecked amidst the most tremendous Breakers of this coast, I acquit myself of a duty to my fellow Citizens and to my country. I flatter myself this contrivance will be found of great use on the Jersey coast, such places as the Hatteras shoals &c; and I can have no doubt of its general utility in venturing out upon the Lakes, where a fixed point of land, resisting every wind that agitates a circumscribed surface of water, must necessarily raise the waves to a most aweful surge.

Knowing, Sir, as You do for many years, the nature of my objects and perseverance, I beg leave to refer you to Doctr. Dangerfield: from whom, I trust, you will learn that my integrity is yet unshaken by the contemptible smiles or frowns of foreign intrigue; and that I shall, ultimately, prove to you something more than an unprofitable servant of society.

I have the honor to be, with due consideration, & sincere regard, Your obt H St

Wm Tatham.

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America &c. &c. &c.”; endorsed by TJ as received 31 Oct. and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures: see below.

William Tatham, a topographer and writer who was once shipwrecked on the coast of New Jersey, had last corresponded with TJ in 1791, since which time he had pursued his varied interests in Virginia, Tennessee, Spain, and England. He returned to the United States for good in 1805 (G. Melvin Herndon, William Tatham and the Culture of Tobacco [Coral Gables, Fla., 1969]; WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly, 1892– description ends , 2d ser., 16 [1936], 162–3; Vol. 22:xxxviii, 44, 79–85).

The AUTHENTIC DOCUMENTS derived from the report by a special committee of the British House of Commons tasked with determining the relative success of a lifeboat designed by the English shipbuilder Henry Greathead. In June 1802, Parliament awarded Greathead £1200 for his invention. TJ forwarded the documents, which eventually were deposited at the State Department, to Samuel Harrison Smith, who printed the first paragraph of Tatham’s letter and an abridged version of the report in the National Intelligencer on 26 and 29 Nov. 1802 (DNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, In Association with The British Academy, From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, Oxford, 2004, 60 vols. description ends ; TJ to Smith, 16 Nov. 1802).

FOREIGN INTRIGUE: during his time in Tennessee Tatham had come into contact with individuals connected to the conspiracy of William Blount. He later offered intelligence related to the conspiracy to Rufus King, then the American minister in London (William Tatham to Rufus King, 20 June and 30 Aug. 1797, both RCs in DNA: RG 59, MLR; William H. Masterson, William Blount [Baton Rouge, 1954], 302–10, 318; Vol. 29:472–4n).

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