James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Andrew Ellicott, 14 November 1810

From Andrew Ellicott

Lancaster Novbr. 14th. 1810.

Dear Sir.

While you were Secretary of State, I frequently troubled you with forwarding my communications to the National Institute of France,1 and being some time indebted to the Institute several letters, and communications, I wish to know if they can be forwarded as formerly thro’ the department of State, to our minister, or publick functionary at Paris?

I feel some ambition to continue this correspondence, arising I presume from being the only native born american astronomer, now corresponding with the Institute, on the subject of astronomy: however, I should not have found leisure for some time to come, to have made out my present communication, had I not been impelled by the tyranny of Mr. Snyder’s administration, to abandon tra[n]sacting business, as an agent, in the different publick offices of this Commonwealth.

I resided some time under the despotism of Spain,2 which I found infinitely milder, and more dignified, than Snyderite democracy in this State, which appears to be so far at open war with the arts, sciences, and literature, that not one single person who had the slightest pretension to either has been left in office. The following anecdote, attested by the Journals of our State legislature, will amply establish the fact of this war against science. Some time last winter, a false report got abroad, that I had been one evening looking at the stars thro’ a telescope belonging to the Commonwealth; this report was immediately followed by a resolution of the house of representatives, to prevent my making use of that instrument!3 The resolution was lost in the Senate.

There must certainly be something very grateful in the persecution of a poor republican philosopher, who otherwise would scarcely know he was in the world, and who is either immersed in his study among his books, or engaged in cultivating a garden, and pruning his young trees with his own hands, and who has been fifteen months at one time in the service of his country, without ever once laying down on a bed, or sleeping in a house; and six years under the administration of Mr. [M]cKean, that he was never absent one day from the office over which he presided.

Political intolerance among republicans, who claim the freedom of opinion as a birth-right, and religious intolerance among christians, whose religion is founded on brotherly love, and charity, has always appeared to me a paradox, and sometimes almost induced me to believe, that there are but few real republicans, and christians in the world. Whenever I think of intolerance, the following picture of it by Voltaire never fails presenting itself to my view. “Quoi! monstre qui seras brûlé à tout jamais dans l’autre monde, & que je ferai-brûler dans celui-ci dès que je le pourrai, tu as l’insolence de lire de Thou & Bayle qui sont mis à l’index à Rome? Quand je te prêchais de la part de Dieu que Samson avait tué mille Philistins avec une mâchoire d’ane, ta tête plus dure que l’arsenal dont Samson avait tiré ses armes m’a faite connaître par un léger movement de gauche à droite que tu n’en croyais rien. Et quand je disais que le diable Asmodée, qui tordit le coû par jalousie aux sept maris de Saraï chez les Mèdes etait enchainé dans la haute Egypte, j’a[i] vu une petite contraction de tes lèvrès nommée en latin cachinnus, me signifier que dans le fond de l’ame l’histoire d’ Asmodée t’etait en dérision.”4 The election of Simon Snyder, which I confess I did not oppose, tho’ from my knowledge of the man, my conscience frequently warned me that as a patriot I ought, has led me almost to suspect, that the same writer is correct when he says, “les hommes sont très-rarement dignes de se gouverner aux-mêmes.”5 The french nation certainly agree with Voltaire.

You see, that I write to you with all the familiarity of an old friend, and I assure you that my friendship is not in the least diminished by time. I am sir, with great respect and esteem, your sincere friend.

Andw. Ellicott.


1See, for example, Ellicott to JM, 20 Feb. 1802 (PJM-SS description begins Robert J. Brugger et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series (3 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1986—). description ends , 2:480).

2Ellicott alluded to the years from 1796 to 1800 when he was engaged in establishing the boundary line between the U.S. and the American possessions of Spain following the ratification of Pinckney’s treaty (see PJM-SS description begins Robert J. Brugger et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series (3 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1986—). description ends , 1:202–4).

3The resolution Ellicott complained of was introduced and passed on 17 Feb. 1810 (Journal of the Twentieth House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania [Lancaster, 1809 (1810); Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols. to date; New York, 1958—). description ends 21024], pp. 553, 563).

4“What! monster who will burn forever in the next world and whom I would burn in this world if I could, you have the insolence to read de Thou and Bayle who are placed on the index in Rome? When I preach to you on behalf of God that Samson had killed one thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, your head, harder than the arsenal from which Samson drew his weapons, indicated to me by a slight movement from left to right, that you believe none of it. And when I say that the devil Asmodeus, who from jealousy wrung the necks of the seven husbands of Sarah while she was with the Medes, was imprisoned in Upper Egypt, I observed a slight curling of your lip, known in Latin as cachinnus [to mock with laughter], telling me that at the bottom of your soul you regarded the story of Asmodeus as ridiculous” (editors’ translation). The editors have been unable to identify these sentences positively as a direct quotation from Voltaire. The anecdotes and the sentiments, however, can be found in almost any edition of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique (see the entries under Asmodée, Samson, and Tolérance), and it is possible that Ellicott blended them into continuous sentences which he then rendered in French in a style resembling that of the French philosophe (Dictionnaire philosophique, vols. 17–20 of Œuvres complètes de Voltaire [52 vols.; Paris, 1877–85], 17:434–36, 20:396–99, 517–26).

5“Mankind is rarely worthy of self-government.” Possibly this was Ellicott’s recollection of Voltaire’s question in the second section of his essay on government in the Dictionnaire philosophique: “What, then, is the destiny of mankind? Scarcely any great nation is self-governing” (editors’ translation) (ibid., 20:287).

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