Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Peter Wilson, 20 January 1816

To Peter Wilson

Monticello Jan. 20. 16.


Of the last five months I have been absent four from home which must apologise for so very late an acknolegement of your favor of Nov. 22. and I wish the delay could be compensated by the matter of the answer. but an unfortunate accident puts that out of my power. during the course of my public life, and from a very early period of it, I omitted no opportunity of procuring vocabularies of the Indian languages; and for that purpose formed a model expressing such objects in nature as must be familiar to every people savage or civilized. this being made the standard to which all were brought, would exhibit readily whatever affinities of language there might be between the several tribes. it was my intention, on retiring from public business, to have digested these into some order, so as to shew, not only what relations of language existed among our own aborigines, but, by a collation with the great Russian Vocabulary1 of the languages of Europe and Asia, whether there were any between them and the other nations of the continent. on my removal from Washington the package, in which this collection was coming by water, was stolen & destroyed. it consisted of between 30. and 40. vocabularies, of which I can, from memory, say nothing particular; but that I am certain more than half of them differred as radically, each from every other, as the Greek, the Latin & Islandic. and even of those which seemed to be derived from the same Radix, the departure was such that the tribes speaking them could not probably understand one another. single words, or two or three together, might perhaps be understood: but not a whole sentence of any extent of construction. I think therefore the pious missionaries, who shall go to the several tribes to instruct them in the Christian religion, will have to learn a language for every tribe they go to; nay more, that they will have to create a new language for every one, that is to say, to add to theirs new words for the new ideas they will have to communicate. law, medecine, chemistry, mathematics, every science has a language of it’s own, and Divinity not less than others. their barren vocabularies cannot be vehicles for ideas of the fall of man, his redemption, the triune composition of the god head, and other mystical doctrines, considered by most Christians of the present date as essential elements of faith. the enterprize is therefore arduous, but the more inviting perhaps to missionary zeal, in proportion as the merit of surmounting it will be greater. Again repeating my regrets that I am able to give so little satisfaction on the subject of your enquiry, I pray you to accept the assurance of my great consideration and esteem.

Th: Jefferson

PoC (DLC); at foot of first page: “Dr Peter Wilson, Professor of languages. Columbia college. N. York.”

Peter Wilson (1746–1825), educator, classicist, and public official, was born in Ordiquhill, Banffshire, Scotland, and studied at the University of Aberdeen. After moving to New York City in 1763, he worked as a teacher and then as principal of the Hackensack Academy before becoming professor of Greek and Latin at Columbia College (later Columbia University), 1789–92 and 1797–1820. During the latter stint he was also professor of Grecian and Roman antiquities. Wilson’s service at Columbia was interrupted by a principalship at Erasmus Hall Academy in Flatbush, New York. He received honorary degrees of A.M. from the College of Rhode Island (later Brown University) in 1786 and LL.D. from Union College in 1798. Wilson represented Bergen County in the New Jersey General Assembly, 1778–81 and 1787. In 1783 he helped prepare a revision and codification of the laws of the state. Wilson’s other publications included textbooks and edited volumes of classical works (DAB; Ward W. Briggs Jr., ed., Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists [1994], 715–6; NjHi: Wilson Papers; Milton Halsey Thomas, Columbia University Officers and Alumni 1754–1857 [1936], 92; Historical Catalogue of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1764–1894 [1895], 334; John P. Dullard, comp., Manual of the Legislature of New Jersey [1921], 175; Willis Boughton and Eugene W. Harter, Chronicles of Erasmus Hall [1906], 52–4; Boston Columbian Centinel, 6 Aug. 1825).

Only the address cover of Wilson’s favor of nov. 22. has been found (RC in MHi; with PoC of postscript of TJ to Nathaniel Macon, 22 Jan. 1816, on verso; addressed: “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson Esqr Monticello Virginia”; franked; postmarked New York, 22 Nov.; recorded in SJL as received 15 Dec. 1815 from New York). For TJ’s collection of vocabularies of the indian languages, see TJ to Benjamin Smith Barton, 21 Sept. 1809, and note.

Catherine the Great initiated a linguistic project to compile a comparative vocabulary of two hundred languages. Her research was published as Linguarum Totius Orbis Vocabularia comparativa, ed. Peter Simon Pallas, 2 vols. (Saint Petersburg, 1786–89; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4736). With assistance from Lafayette, Catherine obtained American Indian vocabularies from George Washington (Mary Ritchie Key, Catherine the Great’s Linguistic Contribution [1980], esp. 47, 49; Washington, Papers, Confederation Ser., 3:555, 6:30, 31).

1Word interlined in place of “catalogue.”

Index Entries

  • Catherine II (“the Great”), empress of Russia; as linguist search
  • Indians, American; languages search
  • Indians, American; TJ’s vocabularies of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; languages search
  • Lafayette, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de; and Indian vocabularies search
  • language; Indian (American) search
  • language; TJ on study of search
  • Linguarum Totius Orbis Vocabularia comparativa (ed. P. S. Pallas) search
  • Pallas, Peter Simon; editsLinguarum Totius Orbis Vocabularia comparativa search
  • Washington, George; and Indian vocabularies search
  • Wilson, Peter; identified search
  • Wilson, Peter; letter from accounted for search
  • Wilson, Peter; letter to search
  • Wilson, Peter; linguistic studies of search