Thomas Jefferson Papers

Peter S. Du Ponceau to Thomas Jefferson, 14 November 1815

From Peter S. Du Ponceau

Philadelphia, 14 Novr 1815


It is a duty no less pleasing than honorable to me, to address you on behalf of the Historical & literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society, in the Capacity of their Corresponding Secretary. You have, no doubt, been informed of the recent establishment of this Committee, & of the views & objects for which it has been instituted. If not, you will receive full information on the Subject from the printed notice which I have the honor to enclose, together with an official Copy of the Resolution pointing out the duty in the execution of which I am now for the first time engaged. To you, Sir, the first thoughts of a friend to American Science & literature are naturally turned, & independent of my individual feelings, I am Satisfied that I am acting in conformity with the wishes of the Committee by paying you this first tribute of respect.

You will See by the enclosed papers that one of the principal objects of the Committee is to rescue from oblivion a great multitude of interesting tracts of the early history of our Country, which at present lie scattered in private hands, trusted only to perishable memorials or to the more perishable memory of man. The Historical Societies of Massachusetts & New York have preserved many important facts & documents of this description, in their valuable collections which will be of great use to the future historians of their respective states; the American Philosophical Society, faithful to the original comprehensive design of their institution have not limited the researches of their Committee by State boundaries, but have left them free to avail themselves of the Communications of patriotic & literary characters in every part of the Union, among whom, Sir, the conspicuous place which you fill has induced the Committee to hope that you will not refuse them your powerful Co-operation, which I have been ordered particularly to Solicit in their name. It is not their wish to trespass more on your time & leisure than you will yourself find perfectly Convenient, yet they flatter themselves that you will occasionally draw in their favor from those stores of knowledge which you have acquired thro’ a long & active life, & that your influence on the literary Characters & well informed Citizens of the state in which you reside will be Sometimes exerted to procure for them & enable them to preserve a variety of interesting Historical & statistical facts & documents which would otherwise be lost to posterity. I need not point out to you the advantage which the future Historian of Virginia will derive from these records, & as there is not yet in that state any establishment or institution professing the same objects with those of the Committee, it is to be hoped that those who are possessed of interesting public papers or private letters calculated to throw light on the History of the Country, or whose knowledge of the localities of their district enables them to describe with accuracy, their past history or their present state, will be disposed to avail themselves of the opportunity which now offers of rendering the papers or knowledge which they possess permanently useful to Society.

Having Said thus much with respect to the general objects of the Committee, I beg leave to request, if in your power, Some information respecting an interesting manuscript which has lately fallen into their hands. It is an oblong Volume, which originally contained 219 pages of Small neat writing, the first 24 pages, & about a dozen more pages in the middle of the work have unfortunately been torn off; from the context it appears to be the Journal of certain Commissioners appointed by the Colony of Virginia to run together with other Commissioners appointed by North Carolina, the boundary line between the two Colonies. The Historians inform us that those Commissioners were appointed in the Year 1728. On the part of Virginia, they were Col. Bird, (I presume of Westover) Richard Fitzwilliam & Wm Dandridge—On the part of North Carolina, John Lovick, Christopher Gale, Edwd Moseley & William Little—The question is who wrote this Journal? All that appears from the manuscript is that it was not Fitzwilliam, as it is stated that he left the Commissioners before they had gone thro’ their operation. It is therefore either Col. Bird or Mr Dandridge—The style of the work is lively, fraught with a vein of humour, much like two letters of the same Commissioners printed at the end of Williamson’s history of North Carolina. If you can give any information to the Committee respecting who was the author of this Journal they will be peculiarly obliged to you for it. If you wish to read the work, it shall immediately be Sent to you, it will well repay the trouble of perusal. At least I can Say that I have gone thro’ it with very great interest & pleasure. It contains a lively picture of the manners & mode of life of the North Carolina borderers of that day

I have the honor to be with the greatest respect
Sir Your most obedient humble Servant

Peter S. Du Ponceau

RC (DLC); at head of text: “Thomas Jefferson, Esqr”; endorsed by TJ as received 15 Dec. 1815 and so recorded in SJL. FC (PPAmP: APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends Historical and Literary Committee Letterbook); endorsed as “read 21 novr.” Enclosure: “Literary Notice” dated Philadelphia, 14 Aug. 1815, and signed by William Tilghman, chairman, Du Ponceau, corresponding secretary, and John Vaughan, recording secretary, announcing that the American Philosophical Society has formed a “committee for history, moral science, and general literature”; soliciting donations or loans of documents related to United States or Pennsylvania history; proposing to publish these documents; and expressing a particular interest in information on American Indians, immigrants to and religious sects of Pennsylvania, and William Penn and his associates (MS in PPAmP: APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends Archives; printed in Port Folio, 3d ser., 6 [1815]: 295–6; reprinted in APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions of the Historical & Literary Committee 1 [1819]: viii–x). Other enclosure printed below.

Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (1760–1844), attorney and author, was a native of France. He studied for the priesthood before accompanying Baron von Steuben to the United States in 1777 as his secretary and, soon after, his aide-de-camp. Du Ponceau served both Steuben and Nathanael Greene as an aide while also studying law. After his military service ended he settled in Philadelphia, where he became a citizen in 1781, worked under Robert R. Livingston in the United States Department of Foreign Affairs, 1781–83, opened a legal practice, and became an authority on civil and foreign law. Du Ponceau was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1791 and served as a councillor, 1801–16, a vice president, 1816–28, and president of the organization from 1828 until his death. He was also a founding member of the Law Academy of Philadelphia in 1821, and he was president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania at the time of his death. Du Ponceau translated and authored works on law, history, and philology, achieving international recognition for his work on Native American languages. In 1808 and 1809 he wrote pamphlets that supported Edward Livingston’s legal right to the Batture Sainte Marie and undermined TJ’s contention that French law favored public ownership of that property. Du Ponceau and TJ corresponded frequently during TJ’s retirement on the subjects of history, American Indians, and American Philosophical Society business (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 ; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 15 July 1791, 2 Jan. 1801, 5 Jan. 1816, 4 Jan. 1828 [MS in PPAmP]; George Dargo, Jefferson’s Louisiana: Politics and the Clash of Legal Traditions [1975], 79–80, 83, 87, 91; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends nos. 3494, 3497, 3506; Philadelphia North American and Daily Advertiser, 2 Apr. 1844; Robley Dunglison, “Biographical Sketch of Peter S. Du Ponceau,” American Law Magazine 5 [Apr. 1845]: 1–33). Likenesses of Du Ponceau are reproduced elsewhere in this volume.

The Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society was founded as its seventh committee on 17 Mar. 1815 under the original name of Committee of History, Moral Science, and General Literature. Its goal was gathering, preserving, and publishing historic documents (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 17 Mar., 7 Apr., 21 July 1815 [MS in PPAmP]; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions of the Historical & Literary Committee 1 [1819]: v–xiii; Gilbert Chinard, “Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society,” APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings 87 [1943]: 269–71).

The American Philosophical Society had recently acquired a manuscript volume of “The History of the Dividing Line” by William Byrd (bird) (1674–1744), of Westover (Maude H. Woodfin, “Thomas Jefferson and William Byrd’s Manuscript Histories of the Dividing Line,” WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly, 1892–  description ends , 3d ser., 1 [1944]: 363–73; Kathleen L. Leonard, “Notes on the Text and Provenance of the Byrd Manuscripts,” in Louis B. Wright, ed., The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover: Narratives of a Colonial Virginian [1966], 417–23). two letters between the Virginia and North Carolina boundary commissioners can be found in Hugh Williamson, The History of North Carolina (Philadelphia, 1812), 2:234–6.

Index Entries

  • American Philosophical Society, Historical and Literary Committee; formation of search
  • American Philosophical Society, Historical and Literary Committee; identified search
  • American Philosophical Society, Historical and Literary Committee; members of search
  • American Philosophical Society; collections of search
  • American Philosophical Society; members of search
  • Byrd, William (1674–1744); as boundary commissioner search
  • Byrd, William (1674–1744); The History of the Dividing Line search
  • Dandridge, William; as boundary commissioner search
  • Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen; and Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society search
  • Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen; identified search
  • Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen; letters from search
  • Fitzwilliam, Richard; as boundary commissioner search
  • Gale, Christopher; as boundary commissioner search
  • Little, William (1692–1734); as boundary commissioner search
  • Lovick, John; as boundary commissioner search
  • Massachusetts Historical Society; collections of search
  • Moseley, Edward; as boundary commissioner search
  • New-York Historical Society; collections of search
  • North Carolina; boundary with Va. search
  • The History of North Carolina (H. Williamson) search
  • The History of the Dividing Line (W. Byrd [1674–1744]); manuscript of search
  • Tilghman, William; and American Philosophical Society search
  • Vaughan, John; and Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society search
  • Virginia; boundary of with N.C. search
  • Williamson, Hugh; The History of North Carolina search