James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 10 December 1783

To Thomas Jefferson

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Cover missing. In the right margin of the second page, Jefferson wrote in ink, now much faded, what appears to have been “to dispute Buffon theory of temperature.” Upon recovering the letter many years later, JM docketed it by inserting “Decr. 10. 1783” between the two lines of Jefferson’s comment. Using the JM-Jefferson Code No. 2, JM encoded the words that are italicized in the first paragraph. Jefferson interlineated a decoding of the ciphers.

Orange Decemr. 10th. 1783.

Dear Sir

My journey from Annapolis was so much retarded by rains and their effect on the water courses that I did not complete it till the ninth day after I left you.1 I took Col. Mason in my way and had an evening’s conversation2 with him. I found him much less oppose[d] to the general impost3 than I had expected. Indeed he disclaimed all opposition to the measure itself but had taken up a vague apprehension that if adopted at this crisis it might embarras the defence of our trade against British machinations.4 He seemed upon the whole to acquiesce in the territoryal cession but dwelt much on the expediency of the guaranty.5 On the article of a convention for revising our form of government, he was sound and ripe and I think would6 not decline a participation in the work. His [he]terodoxy7 lay chiefly in being too little impressed with either the necessity or the proper means of preserving the confederacy.8

The situation of the commerce of this country9 as far as I can learn is even more deplorable than I had conceived. It can not pay less to Philada. & Baltimore if one may judge from a comparison of prices here & in Europe, than 30 or 40 Per Ct. on all the exports & imports, a tribute which if paid into the treasury of the State would yield a surplus above all its wants.10 If the Assembly should take any steps towards its emancipation you will no doubt be apprized of them as well as of their other proceedings from Richmond.11

I am not yet settled in the course of law reading with which I have tasked myself and find it will be impossible to guard it against frequent interruptions.12 I deputed one of my brothers13 to Monticello with the draught on your library, but Capt. Key was down at Richmond.14 As soon as he returns I propose to send again. My Trunk with Buffon &c. has come safe to Fredg. so that I shall be well furnished with materials for collateral reading.15 In conversing on this author’s Theory of Central heat I recollect that we touched upon, as the best means for trying its validity, the comparative distances from the Earth’s center of the summits of the highest mountains and their bases or the level of the sea.16 Does not the oblate figure of the earth present a much more extensive and perhaps adequate field for experiments? According to the calculations of Martin grounded on the data of Maupertius &c.17

The Equatorial diameter of the Earth is 7942.2. Eng: Miles
The polar diam: 7852.4. E.M.
difference between Eq: & pol: diameter 89.8 E.M.18

The difference then of the semidiameters is 44.9. E. Miles, that is 1/87.94 of the mean semidiameter.19 calling this difference in round numbers 45 Miles, and disregarding the small variations produced by the elliptical form of the Earth, the radii will be shortened ½ of a mile by each degree from the Equator to the poles.20 It would seem therefore that the difference of distance from the center at the Equator & at the highest latitude that may [be] visited must be sufficient to produce a discoverable difference in the degrees of any heat emitted equally in every direction from the center: and the experiments might be sufficiently diversified to guard against illusion from any difference which might be supposed in the intermediate density of different parts of the earth. The distance even between the Equator & the polar circle produces a difference of no less than 33 1/6 miles i.e. 1/119 of the mean distance from the center;21 so that if the curiosity of the two setts of French Philosophers employed in ascertaining the figure of the earth, had been directed to this question, a very little additional trouble & expence might perhaps have finally solved it.22 Nay the extent of the U.S. computing from the 31°. of lat: to the 45°. only makes a difference of 7 miles in the distance from the center of the Earth; a greater difference I suppose than is afforded by the highest mountains or the deepest mines or both put together.23

On my delivering you the draught on Mr. Ambler I remember you put into my hands a note which I never looked into, supposing it to relate to that circumstance. In examining my papers I perceive that I have lost it and mention it to put you on your guard in case the note sd. fall into bad hands & be capable of being abused.24 Present my respects to Mr. Mercer & the other gentlemen of the Delegation & be assured that I am Yrs sincerely

J. Madison Jr.

You will be so good as to give the inclosed a safe conveyance to Mrs. House.25

1JM and Jefferson left Philadelphia on 22 November and arrived in Annapolis three days later (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , VI, 355, and n., 359). How long JM tarried in Annapolis is uncertain. If he stayed there only two nights and one day (26 November), he must have reached Montpelier on 5 December. In his letter of 11 December to JM (q.v.), Jefferson remarked that JM left Annapolis in “fine weather” but “immediately” experienced a “tempestuous season.” This supports the conclusion that JM set out from Annapolis on 27 November, for on that date there was a violent storm of rain and wind which drove vessels ashore in Delaware Bay and New York Bay (Pa. Packet, 12 Dec. [extra issue], and 13 Dec. 1783).

2George Mason of Gunston Hall in Fairfax County, Va.

3That is, the imposts requested by Congress in the plan for restoring public credit (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 311–12; 350–51; 417; Beckley to Randolph, 20 June 1783).

4Mason’s “apprehension” appears to reflect his belief that flexible rather than specifically defined imposts would have been preferable for retaliating against present and probably future restrictions by the British upon American commerce. See JM to Randolph, 13 Sept., n. 6; Delegates to Harrison, 4 Oct., and n. 10; Harrison to Delegates, 18 Oct. 1783, and n. 2.

6Although the cipher for “would” is 527, JM wrote 537 meaning “pacification.”

7JM inadvertently omitted the cipher 247 for “he” in encoding “heterodoxy.”

8After enciphering “the,” JM spelled out the same word. JM’s juxtaposition of “revising our form of government” and “preserving the confederacy” mingles two separate subjects. George Mason was obviously much of the opinion held by his nephew Stevens Thomson Mason to “new model” the Virginia constitution, a matter close to Jefferson’s heart (Jefferson to JM, 7 May 1783, and nn. 11–12), but the older Mason’s view in respect to strengthening the powers of Congress, as reported by JM, appears to foreshadow his opposition to the ratification of the Federal Constitution in 1787 and 1788 (Kate M. Rowland, Life of George Mason, II, 97–98, chaps. 4–8, passim). See also Jefferson to JM, 17 June, and n. 6; JM to Jefferson, 17 July 1783.


10JM meant that by controlling so much of the commerce of Virginia, the merchants of Baltimore and Philadelphia were realizing huge profits and thereby diverting them both from the treasury of that state and from the pockets of its citizens.

11Although the Virginia General Assembly during the session of October 1783 adopted no legislation specifically designed to effect an “emancipation,” it ratified the schedule of impost duties requested by Congress. If the other states also ratified, the resulting uniformity of rates on many commodities of foreign origin might benefit Virginia’s commerce more than Maryland’s and Pennsylvania’s (Jones to JM, 30 Oct. 1783, n. 10).

12Soon after beginning “to read Law” in 1773, JM called it a “coarse and dry study”—evidently much less to his taste than belles lettres or participation in the public affairs of Virginia (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , I, 70–71; 100–101; 105). During his first three years of service in Congress, a few of his papers refer to international law but give no warrant for inferring that either that or any other area of law especially attracted him (ibid., III, 271–72; IV, 10–11; 16, n. 23; 241; 242, n. 3; 314; V, 436; 437, n. 2). In January 1783, however, he included the works of outstanding legists in his proposed list of books for a congressional library (ibid., VI, 66–68; 90–92). For his “law reading” during the winter of 1783–1784, see JM to Jefferson, 11 Feb.; 17 Feb. 1784.

13Probably William Madison, then twenty-one years of age (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , I, 76, n. 3; II, 295, n. 9).

14As late as 16 March 1784, JM had not sent again to Monticello for books (JM to Jefferson, 16 Mar. 1784, LC: Madison Papers). John Key III, in Albemarle County court records usually designated as “Jr.” in order to distinguish him from a living namesake uncle, had been born about 1752 (Virginia Genealogist, VIII [Jan.–Mar. 1964], 179) and was Jefferson’s steward at Monticello from 1782 to 1784 (Edwin Morris Betts, ed., Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, with Commentary and Relevant Extracts from Other Writings [Princeton, N.J., 1953], p. 149). From the rank of sergeant in the 8th Virginia Regiment, continental line, he rose to that of ensign before resigning his commission in 1778 (Heitman, Historical Register Continental description begins F. B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution (Washington, 1914). description ends , p. 330). Thereafter he served in the Albemarle militia, as captain at the time of the present letter, and subsequently as major (Albemarle County Personal Property-Tax Book, 1810, MS in Va. State Library). In March 1797 he appeared as a witness in a court action against Jefferson, for which appearance the plaintiff was directed to pay Key one dollar (Albemarle County Court Records, Order Book, 1795–1798, p. 252, microfilm in Va. State Library). The disappearance of his name from Albemarle County records after 1811 suggests either that he died intestate or moved from the county. If not Key, at least his “family” is thought to have emigrated to Kentucky or Tennessee (Edgar Woods, Albemarle County in Virginia [Charlottesville, 1901], pp. 245–46, 368, 376, 379; Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , VI, 354, 358, 567; Gwathmey, Historical Register of Virginians description begins John H. Gwathmey, Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution: Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, 1775–1783 (Richmond, 1938). description ends , p. 444; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XI, 842–43; Cal. of Va. State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , II, 350).

15The delivery to Montpelier of the trunk which JM had shipped from Philadelphia, probably to the care of James Maury at Fredericksburg, was delayed until March 1784 (JM to Jefferson, 11 Feb.; also 16 Mar. 1784 in LC: Madison Papers). For Maury, see JM to James Madison, Sr., 27 May 1783, n. 2; for previous references to Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and his works on natural history, Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 55; 56, n. 8; V, 16; 18, n. 7.

16Many years later, after recovering this letter, JM wrote in the left margin of his sentence on “Central heat,” “see [?] letter of Feby. 17. 1784 shewing Buffon who [?] had been read to have been misconceived.” That is, JM, at the time he wrote the present letter, relied upon what Jefferson had told him about Buffon’s “Theory of Central heat.” In a letter of 1 January 1784, Jefferson admitted that, upon reflecting “a little more attentively,” he had come to realize how “false” an “idea of Buffon’s hypothesis” he had given JM in their “conversation.” In his letter of acknowledgment on 17 February, after commenting that Jefferson had “rectified my misconception” of the “hypothesis,” JM added: “I forbear as I ought perhaps formerly to have done, making any further remarks on it, at least till I have seen the work itself” (Jefferson to JM, 1 Jan., and JM to Jefferson, 17 Feb. 1784). For this reason, JM’s marginal comment would have been clearer if, after “had been read,” he had added “by Jefferson.” The “work” at issue was Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), Théorie de la terre. See M. A. Richard and M. le Baron Cuvier, eds. Oeuvres complètes de Buffon (34 vols.; Paris, 1825–31), I, 120–27, 156–58, 175–80; II, 235–393, passim.

17JM refers to Benjamin Martin (1704–1782), a British mathematician and maker of optical instruments, and to Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698–1759), a French mathematician and astronomer.

18Oeuvres de Maupertuis (Nouvelle édition corrigée & augmentée; 4 vols.; Lyon, 1768), III, 51–58, 167–68; IV, 287, 335; Benjamin Martin, A Plain and Familiar Introduction to the Newtonian Philosophy (London, 1751), pp. 92, 105, 156; Benjamin Martin, Philosophia Britannica; or, a New and Comprehensive System of the Newtonian Philosophy, Astronomy, and Geography (3 vols.; London, 1788), I, 146; III, 290, 295–98, 301, 302.

19The 87.94 is obtained by dividing “the mean semidiameter” (7942.2 + 7852.4 ÷ by 4) by ½ of 89.8, or 44.9.

20If the “44.9” is made 45 miles and the “89.8” is made 90 miles, the radius of the earth from its center to its surface would shorten ½ mile for each of the 90 degrees from the equator to the North or South Pole.

21The equator is separated from the Arctic Circle by 66° 30′ of latitude. If, upon moving north from the equator, the distance from the earth’s center to the surface shortens by ½ mile for each degree of latitude, the distance from the earth’s center at the Arctic Circle is 33 1/6 miles less than at the equator. To arrive at 1/119, JM first of all added to 7852.4 an extra 11.6 miles—that is, ½ mile for each of the 23° 30′ from the Arctic Circle to the North Pole. The result, 7,864 added to 7,942.2, and their sum quartered, is 3,951.55 miles. This is the “mean distance” from the center of the earth to the surface in the span of 66° 30′ of latitude separating the equator from the Arctic Circle. Taking 3,951.55 and dividing it by 33.1666 produces 119.14.

22Isaac Newton (1642–1727), of whom both Maupertuis and Martin were followers, had held that the earth was an oblate spheroid, but Jean Dominique Cassini (1625–1712), an Italo-French astronomer, contended that the earth was an oblong spheroid. To determine which scientist was correct, Maupertuis led an expedition to the Arctic Circle in Lapland in 1736–1739, and other French scientists journeyed to the equator in Peru in 1744 (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 114, entry No. 296). By comparing the difference in the diameter of the meridians of the two sites, they demonstrated that Newton had been correct. The earth was an oblate spheroid, sufficiently flattened at the Arctic Circle to make the diameter of a meridian there about 1/200th shorter than at the equator (Oeuvres de Maupertuis, I, 66–68; II, 292–98; III, 51–58; IV, 287, 331; Benjamin Martin, Philosophia Britannica, III, 294).

23Approximately all the Atlantic coast of the United States was between 31° and 45° north latitude. If, on moving northward from the equator, the distance from the surface of the earth to its center lessens by ½ mile for each degree of latitude, the southern border of the United States was seven miles farther than its northern border from the earth’s center.

Many years later, after recovering this letter, JM or someone by his direction placed a bracket at the close of the paragraph, probably signifying that all he had written to that point should be published in the first extensive edition of his papers; but Henry D. Gilpin, the editor of that edition, printed only the first two paragraphs of the letter (Madison, Papers [Gilpin ed.] description begins Henry D. Gilpin, ed., The Papers of James Madison (3 vols.; Washington, 1840). description ends , I, 579–80).

24Relying on the money owed him for services as a delegate, JM on 26 November loaned Jefferson in Annapolis $333.33 in the form of a draft on Jacquelin Ambler, the treasurer of Virginia. The “note” was an acknowledgment by Jefferson to JM of that sum. Before leaving Philadelphia, JM had also loaned $170 to Jefferson. Jefferson repaid these loans in part by a bill of exchange and in part by purchases, especially of books, for JM in Philadelphia and later in Paris (Settlement of Accounts, 31 Dec. 1783; Jefferson to JM, 1 Jan.; 20 Feb.; 16 Mar. 1784 in LC: Madison Papers; Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , VII, 243–44, 356–57, 536–37).

25Mrs. Mary House in Philadelphia. See Jefferson to JM, 11 Dec. 1783; 1 Jan. 1784.

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