Thomas Jefferson Papers

Jonathan Williams to Thomas Jefferson, 17 September 1810

From Jonathan Williams

New York Sept. 17. 1810


I could not deny myself showing1 you another Instance of the usefulness of the thermometer in navigation:2 When science comes in aid of humanity it must be particularly pleasing to you.—

Having this occasion to write to you, I will take the liberty of intimating3 that a kind, although monitory Letter might be of service to young Randolph. He is a very fine youth, of very good natural talents,4 & amiable in his disposition, except, in a small degree, selfwilled and not ardent in study: There is not a young man in the whole of a better capacity, yet many get on much faster.5 I have had no occasion to give him a public reprimand, but have spoken to him in private6 & painted in affectionate terms the interest I took in him on acct of his connexion with you: To this he seems very sensible, & always conducts better afterwards, but he wants a higher stimulus. I make no other7 complaint, & should be sorry to be named in any other than a kind way in8 the exciting admonition you may9 think proper to give.10

I wish I could make your influence advantageous to the military academy: you planted it, but now it withers. One mistake was made in the original Law & this like a milstone will keep it down, & finally destroy it if not removed; that is confining the Institution irrevocably to West Point, by the very terms of the Law, when like all other military scites it should have been left to the Will of the Executive.

Experience has shown that in every point of view this place is an improper one. It wants even decent society in the hours of relaxation. It wants convenience of every kind, Buildings, the vicinity to a market & the means of obtaining any comfort except the coarse supplies of a contractor, & every article is bought at 20 perCt higher than in new York. There is not a horizontal Line of 400 yards to be found unimpeded by mountains; all practice in Gunnery is therefore impossible, except point blank practice with small pieces: We are so compleatly out of sight of Congress that one half of that Body do not know that we exist at all, & the other half are ignorant of our situation. In 1802 I applied for a Library & apparatus & have repeatedly applied since; Our Library consists of scarcely anything but a few schoolbooks & our apparatus is confined to a few Instruments for the practical use of the Engineers. We have it not in our power to show one experiment in the Laws of motion, in mechanics (except the experiment of the wedge when we split our fire wood) in Hydrostatics, in Hydraulics in Pneumatics, in electricity in Chymestry (except culinary chymestry) no not even in magnatism!! I have laboured 8 Years to produce a system of military Education which I wished to disseminate among all our Youth throughout the Union, and have barely produced a skeleton of the plan I had in view.—

In a republic we cannot, must not have a standing Army, yet our militia laws are neither energetic nor uniform; and if they were so, on paper, we cannot execute them—our people will not bear the necessary military restraint and among our independent states there is a great diversity of independent sentiments on this subject. The next best thing is to preserve the nucleus of an army. Let me have the 196 Cadets already provided by Law, Let me have as many more Men as will make a body of non commissioned officers, and they shall all be so instructed as to form this nucleus of an Army; this system might be branched out among the states; all the young Men who are hereafter to compose our military parades in our Cities & Towns would have passed through this education, and thus having the essence of an Army we should only want numbers, “a little leaven would leaven the whole Lump”—I beg your pardon for this intrusion on your retirement. I feel so warm and so sore whenever I touch this subject, that I can neither suppress my Zeal nor my regret—

I am with sentiments of the most respectfull regard Sir Your obed Servant

Jon Williams

RC (DLC); at foot of text:“Thomas Jefferson Esq”; endorsed by TJ as received 27 Sept. 1810 and so recorded in SJL. Dft (InU: Williams Papers); dated 15 Sept. 1810; endorsed by Williams.

Jonathan Williams (1750–1815), a native of Boston, went to London in 1770 to receive mercantile training under the guidance of his great-uncle Benjamin Franklin. From 1776 he was a merchant and American arms inspector in Nantes, returning to the United States with Franklin in 1785. Williams became a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1787, subsequently serving several terms as secretary and councillor and becoming a vice president just before his death. President John Adams appointed him a major in the 2d Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers in 1801, and later that year TJ appointed him superintendent of the military post at West Point. Williams was promoted to lieutenant colonel and became first superintendent of the new United States Military Academy in 1802, resigned a year later because of his lack of authority over nonengineering cadets and officers, and returned in 1805 when TJ offered him greater control over the entire academy. He rose to colonel in 1808 but resigned his position at West Point in 1812 and became a brigadier general in the New York militia. Williams had written TJ on the use of the barometer to measure Virginia elevations in 1796, and his scientific interests subsequently found an outlet in the United States Military Philosophical Society, which he founded in 1802 and to which TJ belonged. He won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1814 but died before taking office (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 32 vols. description ends , 27:839, 28:594–9; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 20 July 1787, 6 Jan. 1815 [MS in PPAmP]; Heitman, U.S. Army description begins Francis B. Heitman, comp., Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1903, 2 vols. description ends , 1:1041; Williams to TJ, 12 Dec. 1802, and TJ to Williams, 25 Dec. 1802 [DLC]; Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 20 May 1815).

Francis D. Masson gave another instance of the usefulness of the thermometer in navigation in a 20 June 1810 letter to Williams from Clifton, England, reporting that on a recent transatlantic voyage he had successfully used changes in water temperature to predict the approach of icebergs (RC in NWM: Williams Papers; in French). Williams published translated extracts from this letter and its enclosed “Thermometrical Journal” with a brief covering letter of 3 Sept. 1810 to the editor of the New-York Gazette (reprinted in Philadelphia Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 14 Sept. 1810). He later republished Masson’s observations with further remarks of his own in an article entitled “On the Utility of Thermometrical Observations at Sea,” Archives of Useful Knowledge 1 (1811): 254–7 (Dfts of this article are in NWM: Williams Papers). Williams had proposed this method in Thermometrical Navigation, being a series of experiments and observations, tending to prove, that by ascertaining the relative heat of the sea-water from time to time, the passage of a ship through the Gulph Stream, and from deep water into soundings, may be discovered in time to avoid danger, although (owing to tempestuous weather,) it may be impossible to heave the lead or observe the heavenly bodies; extracted from the American philosophical transactions (Philadelphia, 1799; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 649). Thomas Beverly randolph was appointed a cadet at the United States Military Academy in 1808 and rose from second lieutenant to captain in the United States Army between 1812 and his resignation in 1815 (Heitman, U.S. Army description begins Francis B. Heitman, comp., Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1903, 2 vols. description ends , 1:815). TJ wrote him a letter of introduction to Williams on 23 Feb. 1809 (DLC), to which Williams’s missing letter to TJ of 6 Mar. 1809, recorded in SJL as received from Philadelphia on 8 Mar. 1809, may have been a response. The biblical reference, a little leaven would leaven the whole lump, is to 1 Corinthians 5.6.

1Dft: “the pleasure of showing.”

2Remainder of paragraph interlined in Dft.

3Dft: “expressing my opinion.”

4Dft substitutes “but he does not delight in study” for remainder of sentence.

5Sentence omitted in Dft.

6For remainder of this and the following sentence, Dft substitutes “more in the language of a parent than a Commandant, and he appears very sensible to this mode of treatment. Under Capt Partridge he has the means of becoming a good algebraist, Geometrician, & a practical, as well as theoretical military man; and Mr Masson (Brother to the professor who is gone to Europe) is perfectly capable of making him an elegant french scholar. nothing but a love of study is wanting.”

7Word omitted in Dft.

8Preceding seven words omitted in Dft.

9Dft: “you or his friends may.”

10Body of Dft concludes “I wish I could make use of your voice to excite our general Legislature to some attention to the military Academy. We want military talents more perhaps than any other description of talent among our nation; We must not have a standing Army; Our militia Laws cannot be made either energetic or uniform, owing to the great diversity in opinion upon this subject; and yet, strange to tell! We are cold, chilling cold, upon every subject relative to military Instruction. nine tenths of Congress seem to me not only cold, but blind, stone blind, to the true Interests of our nation on the score of its defense. I have been engaged 8 Years in the embryo of a military seminary, and have at last barely brought it into existence: It lives indeed; but in comparison to what it ought to be it is a puny riketty child.—
 I am tired, my dear sir, heartily tired, and although I never wished to terminate my Labours but with my life, I must in future be excused from meddling with the military academy, unless by some means or other, I can see a prospect of producing some benefit to my country, & (pardon my vanity) some honour to myself.”

Index Entries

  • American Philosophical Society; members of search
  • Archives of Useful Knowledge (Mease) search
  • Bible; 1 Corinthians referenced search
  • Congress, U.S.; and standing army search
  • Franklin, Benjamin; family of search
  • Masson, Francis De; on thermometrical navigation search
  • Mease, James; Archives of Useful Knowledge search
  • military; academy to train officers search
  • newspapers; Philadelphia Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser search
  • New York (city); Gazette search
  • New York (state); U.S. Military Academy (West Point) search
  • Partridge, Alden; and U.S. Military Academy search
  • Philadelphia; Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser search
  • Randolph, Thomas Beverly search
  • thermometers; used in navigation search
  • Thermometrical Navigation (Williams) search
  • United States Military Academy (West Point, N.Y.); J. Williams on search
  • United States Military Philosophical Society search
  • Williams, Jonathan; and American Philosophical Society search
  • Williams, Jonathan; identified search
  • Williams, Jonathan; letters from search
  • Williams, Jonathan; on U.S. Military Academy search
  • Williams, Jonathan; on water temperature and navigation search
  • Williams, Jonathan; Thermometrical Navigation search
  • “On the Utility of Thermometrical Observations at Sea” (Masson) search