Thomas Jefferson Papers

Charles Caldwell to Thomas Jefferson, 25 April 1814

From Charles Caldwell

Philada April 25th 1814


Although personally unknown to you, at least, I fear, unrecollected, I address you frankly as a man of letters, in relation to and in behalf of the literature of our country. Amidst other numerous and to me more important engagements, I have allowed myself to be prevailed on lately to take charge of the editorial department of the Port Folio, a monthly Journal with the reputation of which you are not, probably, altogether1 unacquainted. For many years past, this work has been devoted almost2 exclusively to American literature. Its numbers have rarely contained3 more than a very few pages of foreign or extracted matter. It has been kept, moreover, perfectly free from party politics, polemical theology, and every other topic calculated to enkindle the passions and to inveterate prejudices, rather than to improve the intellect or ameliorate the heart. Nor is it my intention to suffer, in these respects, any change to occur in it while under my direction. But for information touching the general character and bearing of the Journal, permit me to solicit your attention to the editorial address, a copy of which accompanies this letter.

You will perceive that American biography is intended hereafter to constitute4 a prominent department5 in the pages of the Port Folio. It is not possible, however, that materials for filling up this in a manner creditable either to the work, the country, or the personages whose names may be introduced, can be in the possession of any individual. In relation to this point the joint contribution of numbers, and those widely scattered throughout the country, will be essential.

To you it would be worse than superfluous to speak of the importance of American biography. Fortunately the period has arrived when our fellow citizens at large have become sensible of its utility. They are delighted, moreover, with the variety of character and incident which it contains. It seems, in fact, essential to the popularity and, therefore, to the usefulness of a periodical work.

Virginia abounds and has long abounded in characters whose virtues and talents, learning and achievements are worthy to be recorded, as well in honour of the individuals6 themselves, as for the good of7 others. The names and merits of our revolution[ary] worthies, in particular, should never be forgotten. Yet forgotten they will be, and that at no very distant period, unless handed down by some more permanent vehicle than mere traditionary story:

I have no doubt, sir, but by this time you fathom my meaning, should I even decline being more explicit. I have read and am delighted with your biographical notice of the late Governor Lewis, prefixed to the account of his expedition to the Pacific Ocean.8 Something of the kind from your pen, in relation to Patrick Henry, the Lees, the Randolphs or any of the other distinguished Virginians, with whom you have acted and been intimate, would be recieved as a favour of the highest order. I say from your own pen, in preference to any other. Should this, however be more than I am entitled to expect, or than your more important engagements will allow; perhaps you can inform me to what sources I may apply with a prospect of success—Possibly it might be practicable, by means of your personal influence with some of your literary friends, to induce them to embark in the undertaking. If under any and all of these shapes I ask too much, let my apology be the object I have in view—to rescue from oblivion American characters, to awaken in the minds of our youth those elevated and ennobling sentiments for which well written biography is so eminently calculated, and to subserve the cause of letters in our country.

The character of Patrick Henry would be peculiarly acceptable to me—so indeed would any one from your pen or through your influence.

Communications for the Port Folio are usually addressed to Bradford and Inskeep, Booksellers, Philadelphia. Any note you may have the goodness to forward in answer to this will bear my own address—viz Dr Charles Caldwell, Philadelphia.

Should you have in possession any original articles other than biographical, suitable for a monthly miscellany, I need not express to you with what pleasure I would receive them.

I have the honour to be, with the highest consideration,

Your obedient and Very Humble servant

Ch: Caldwell

RC (DLC); chipped; at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr”; endorsed by TJ as received 7 May 1814 and so recorded in SJL, which describes it as a letter from Dr. John Caldwell.

Charles Caldwell (1772–1853), physician, author, editor, and medical educator, was a native North Carolinian. After serving as a schoolmaster in that state, in 1792 he moved to Philadelphia, where he studied under Benjamin Rush and received a medical degree in 1796 from the University of Pennsylvania. In the latter year he was elected to the American Philosophical Society. After establishing a practice in Philadelphia, Caldwell joined the Academy of Medicine, the Philadelphia Medical Society, and the city board of health. He delivered medical lectures at the Philadelphia Almshouse, 1805–11, and served as a professor of geology and the philosophy of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania, 1816–19. Initiating a long career as a translator and author of medical works by 1795, Caldwell also wrote widely on biographical, literary, political, and scientific topics. He contributed to the Port Folio by 1809 and edited the journal from 1814 until 1816. Caldwell moved in 1819 to Lexington, Kentucky, to accept a faculty position in the new medical department at Transylvania University. In 1837 he became the first professor of the Louisville Medical Institute (later the University of Louisville), remaining in this position until 1849. Caldwell played a leading role at both of these trans-Appalachian medical schools. In 1825 he visited TJ at Monticello (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 ; Harriot W. Warner, ed., Autobiography of Charles Caldwell, M.D. [1855; repr. 1968 with introduction by Lloyd G. Stevenson], esp. p. 346; Albert H. Smyth, The Philadelphia Magazines and Their Contributors: 1741–1850 [1892], 142–5; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 21 Oct. 1796 [MS in PPAmP]; William Wirt to TJ, 11 June 1825; Lunsford P. Yandell, “A Memoir of Dr. Charles Caldwell,” Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery 12 [1853]: 101–16).

inveterate: “to root or implant deeply” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ). In an editorial address dated 11 Apr. 1814 and appearing in the following month’s issue, the new editor of the Port Folio expressed his intention to continue promoting American literature and solicited contributions, particularly examples of American biography (Port Folio 3 [1814]: 383–98; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 14 [no. 921]). For TJ’s biography of Meriwether lewis see TJ to Paul Allen, 18 Aug. 1813, printed at that date as the first in a group of documents on TJ’s Biography of Meriwether Lewis.

1Manuscript: “alogether.”

2Word interlined.

3Word interlined.

4Manuscript: “contitute.”

5Word interlined in place of “article.”

6Manuscript: “indiduals.”

7Caldwell here canceled “posterity.”

8Word interlined.

Index Entries

  • biography; Port Folioto publish search
  • Bradford & Inskeep (Philadelphia firm); and Port Folio search
  • Caldwell, Charles; and Port Folio search
  • Caldwell, Charles; identified search
  • Caldwell, Charles; letters from search
  • Caldwell, Charles; visits Monticello search
  • Henry, Patrick; projected biography for Port Folio search
  • historiography; of U.S. search
  • Lee family; and Port Folio search
  • Lewis, Meriwether; TJ’s biography of search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); Visitors to; Caldwell, Charles search
  • Port Folio; C. Caldwell as editor of search
  • Port Folio; TJ asked to write for search
  • Randolph family; biographies solicited for Port Folio search
  • United States; historiography of search