James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Andrew Ellicott, 10 August 1813

From Andrew Ellicott

Lancaster August 10th. 1813


A few days ago I received a note from Genl. Armstrong, requesting “to know if the appointment of Professor of Mathematics in the military school at West point would be agreeable to me?”1 By the Publick papers I understand the Genl. has left Washington, and therefore may not receive my answer, (which is forwarded to the department of war,) for some time.2

It has always been my opinion, that my talents such as they are, ought to be devoted to the service of my country whenever called for, and I feel conscious, that in the department mentioned by the Genl. I could be of more use than in any other situation, except in making a survey of our coast.3

I have long lamented the want of a good military school for the United States, and given my opinion on that subject in my Journal pages 281, 282 and 283, published in 1803, and since republished in London.4 The want of such an institution is now seriously felt by this country. If there was a probability of the appointment mentioned by the Genl. being permanent, I certainly should not decline it, tho the compensation he has proposed is certainly too small.

As some knowledge of practical astronomy is absolutely necessary for the gentlemen of the Navy, my own apparatus is sufficiently extensive for that purpose, no publick expense would therefore be immediately incurred on that account should my residence at West point be considered advantageous to the United States. I have the honour to be with due regard your hbl servt.

Andw. Ellicott.


1For John Armstrong’s letter to Ellicott of 28 July 1813 (incorrectly attributed to James Monroe), see Mathews, Andrew Ellicott, 229.

2Ellicott’s reply of 4 Aug. 1813 (DNA: RG 107, LRRS, E-60:7) stated that he was inclined to accept the appointment but would not do so until hearing from his wife, who was visiting relatives in New York.

3Albert Gallatin had corresponded with Ellicott and others in 1807 regarding a survey of the U.S. coast provided for by an act of Congress of 10 Feb. 1807. Ferdinand Rudolf Hassler was sent to London in 1811 to procure the necessary instruments, but his return was delayed by the War of 1812, and work on the survey under his direction did not begin until 1816 (Gallatin to JM, 1 Feb. 1811, PJM-PS description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (6 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984–). description ends , 3:147 and n. and n. 1; Florian Cajori, “Swiss Geodesy and the United States Coast Survey,” Scientific Monthly 13 [1921]: 123–24).

4Ellicott, The Journal of Andrew Ellicott (Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols.; New York, 1958–66). description ends 4147). Commenting at length on the poor design of U.S. fortifications on the St. Marys River, Ellicott observed that “perhaps no civilized nation in the world, is as deficient in the knowledge of this important part of the art of war, as the United States.” A U.S. military school established during Washington’s administration “fell into contempt,” he noted, because “the professorship … was given to a person ignorant of the common properties of a right lined triangle,” whereas in Europe “the best informed scientific characters” were hired to teach in military schools (ibid., 281–83).

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