Thomas Jefferson Papers

William Thornton to Thomas Jefferson, 8 May 1812

From William Thornton

City of Washington 8th May 1812—

Dear Sir

I had the honor of receiving your Letter concerning the Spinning Machine, & am sorry that I did not know sooner your Inclination to have one of them, and that Mr Barrett should have hesitated a moment in sending you one.—He purchased some property of me, and not having made sales of his Machine sufficient to pay me, he gave me a power of attorney to sell his rights in Virginia and to pay myself, but I have not sold one yet. I shall mention to him your opinion of the Sales of County-rights; for I think with you that the high price he asks will delay the Sales.—

I waited on Judge Cranch several times without seeing him, or I should have answered your letter sooner. I wished to know on what Terms I could purchase a Machine that Mr Barrett left here & which the Judge had bought for Mr Greenleaf of twelve Spindles. I have waited with the promise of an Answer to day to give you the result, and shall keep my letter open till I can hear.—

I could not really forbear laughing at the solicitude expressed by the Boys of your neighbourhood, respecting an Invasion of their rights & privileges by Mr Whitlow, & their Caveat shews a proper sense of their value of natural rights. Such Boys will make very good republicans, & they please me: but I was as jealous of their rights in issuing a Patent, for the products of this Plant & application thereof, as they could be; and required to be convinced of the novelty of the Discovery, before I thought it proper to issue the Patent, & I am really convinced of it. It is a Nettle, (Urtica) of a peculiar kind, & non-descript. The revd Dr Muhlenburg of Pennsylvania called it after Mr Whitlow, & gave a Description accordg to the Linnæan System.—I send you a Specimen which Mr Whitlow left with me, and which by rubbing between the fingers shews a fineness of texture which the Indian Hemp does not possess.—This has not been rotted, and it is the produce of a single Stem.—It was at first longer, but Individuals have taken off pieces as Specimens.—I think very highly of this Discovery.—It is not the Inn Hemp.

I enclose a note from Judge Cranch relative to the Machine, and shall attend particularly to your wishes on this Subject.—

I have been for six months past much affected by symptoms of palsy: at one time nearly speechless, and almost comatose; several times since exceedgly affected, & scarcely able to move my hands, & now my feet begin to be affected also. I am electrified & rubbed with vitriolic Ether1 almost daily, & am under a Course of Medicines, but I begin almost to despair of recovery, unless I can change my situation; for my severe Duties confine me very much. The Patents have increased exceedingly, and produce now nearly $7000 per Annum, though when I entered on the Duties not more than $1400 were produced. My Salary was raised to two thousand Dollars by the present Presidt before he left the Secy of State’s Office, but his Successor not asking for a sufficient Appropriation I was only occasionally paid at that rate, & lately by taking into the Secy’s Office more Clerks, they have absorbed the provision from which I was paid, & Congress have not yet made any Appropriation for the Deficiency & have only provided a continuance of $1400.2 Mr Burwell & some other of my Friends, Members of the Comme of Ways & Means, to whom this is referred, I believe are favourable, but I doubt whether the house will be found so. If not I mean to solicit (but it may be in vain)3 the Appointment of Consul to London, which I believe is yet unfilled.—I have not seen any of my relatives for more than 20 years, & the change of Climate might aid my recovery, if it should please the Almighty to grant me a respite from pain, which is now become almost constant.—

I am, dear Sir, very sincerely & with the highest respect & considn Yrs &c

William Thornton—

RC (MHi); at foot of text: “Honorable Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 22 May 1812 and so recorded in SJL.

Henry Muhlenberg (muhlenburg) described “whitlow grass” as a member of the genus Draba in his Catalogus Plantarum Americæ Septentrionalis … or, A Catalogue of the Hitherto Known Native and Naturalized Plants of North America, Arranged According to the Sexual System of Linnæus (Lancaster, Pa., 1813; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 1088), 60. electrified: for the use of electric shocks as therapy for palsy, see T. Gale, Electricity, or Ethereal Fire, considered (Troy, N.Y., 1802), 156. vitriolic ether, or dulcified spirit of vitriol, was taken internally and applied to the skin as an antispasmodic (Anthony F. M. Willich, The Domestic Encyclopædia; or, a Dictionary of Facts, and Useful Knowledge [London, 1802], 2:235). On 20 Apr. 1812 Thomas Gholson presented a petition on behalf of Thornton in the United States House of Representatives, asking that “a deficiency which has taken place in his compensation may be made good, and that his salary may be increased,” that a doorkeeper be provided for the patent office, and that Thornton be allowed to frank official letters. The House referred Thornton’s salary to the Ways and Means Committee, which took no further action. His annual salary never returned to $2,000, peaking thereafter at $1,500 (Petition from William Thornton, 14 Apr. 1812 [DNA: RG 233, House Records, 12th Cong., 1st sess.]; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States description ends , 8:294–5, 9:61–2 [20 Apr. 1812, 3 July 1813]; Thornton to TJ, 2 Aug. 1814; Kenneth W. Dobyns, A History of the Early Patent Offices: The Patent Office Pony [1997], 62, 79).

1Preceding five words interlined.

2Preceding eight words interlined.

3Parenthetical phrase interlined.

Index Entries

  • Barrett, Oliver; spinning machine of search
  • Burwell, William Armistead; in U.S. House of Representatives search
  • Catalogus Plantarum Americæ Septentrionalis (H. Muhlenberg) search
  • Cranch, William; buys spinning machine search
  • crops; hemp search
  • flax; substitutes for search
  • Gholson, Thomas, Jr. search
  • Greenleaf, James; and spinning machine search
  • hemp; Indian search
  • House of Representatives, U.S.; Ways and Means Committee search
  • Indian hemp search
  • medicine; electric shock therapy search
  • medicine; vitriolic ether search
  • Muhlenberg, Henry (Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst); Catalogus Plantarum Americæ Septentrionalis search
  • nettle, wood search
  • patents; of C. Whitlow search
  • spinning machines; W. Cranch buys search
  • Thornton, William; and C. Whitlow’s botanical discoveries search
  • Thornton, William; and spinning machines search
  • Thornton, William; as agent for O. Barrett search
  • Thornton, William; as patent office superintendent search
  • Thornton, William; health of search
  • Thornton, William; letters from search
  • Whitlow, Charles; and Urtica Whitlowi (wood nettle) search
  • Whitlow, Charles; patents substitute for flax and hemp search