James Madison Papers

William Beach Lawrence to James Madison, 29 November 1827

London November 29. 1827.


Mr. Gallatin, when he confided to me as Chargé d’Affaires of the United States the fund belonging to the University of Virginia over which he as well as his predecessor Mr. King had exercised a control, likewise put into my hands your letter of the 12th. of August last. Several months since, the late Minister conferred with me as to the selection of a suitable person to fill the vacant professorship in your Institution and by his request I made enquiries on the subject from the scientific gentlemen of my acquaintance. Owing, however, both to the intrinsic difficulty of finding proper candidates and to the uncertainty, which then existed, as to which of the two chairs, Mathematics or Natural Philosophy, would be vacant, I was unable to report any success.

I have conceived that a professor was wanted not only competent to the ordinary duties of instruction: but one whose talents might lead him to make advances in his science. I also supposed that it was desirable that the person selected should possess the acquirements of a liberally educated man. Five or six candidates have at different times called on me in London, but on referring to their recommendations and comparing their apparent general attainments with those of gentlemen now filling the Professorships of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in our American Colleges, several of whom I personally know, they did not appear to me worthy of being presented for your approbation.

In endeavouring to effect your object, I have conversed with, among others, Mr. Babbage, Dr. Birkbeck, Mr. Barlow of Woolwich, who purchased the philosophical apparatus for the University, and your late Professor, Mr Key. I have also, within two or three weeks, visited Oxford and Cambridge, where I saw several of the principal men, with whom I made the vacancy in the Virginia University a topic of conversation. At Oxford, from the preference given to classical studies, I hardly expected to accomplish my views, but I found that though the abstract sciences were particularly cultivated at Cambridge, little attention is given to Experimental Philosophy. There were young men of great promise and extensive mathematical attainments pointed out to me, but on talking with them, I found that they would have to learn their peculiar Department, if chosen to chairs of Natural Philosophy. Mr. Ritchie, though not a graduate of an English University, was specially presented to my consideration by Mr. Whewall, the leading fellow of the principal College (Trinity), who spoke of him from personal acquaintance and also referred for his character and qualifications to Mr. Herschell, the late Secretary of the Royal Society. Mr. Ritchie’s name had been likewise given to Mr. Key, who this morning called to say that he had seen Mr. Herschell and that he had in the strongest terms united his testimony to that of Mr. Whewall. Mr. Key added that from his knowledge of what would be expected from the new Professor, he considered that Mr. Ritchie possessed the desired qualifications.

Mr. Key speaks favourably of his late situation and as your letter did not distinctly state the probable income of the Professorship, I have been governed in my representations by that gentleman’s calculation, which makes the minimum, fees included, $2500 and a house. I have taken care to have it understood that there was no authority in this country to do more than to recommend, and as soon as I learn Mr. Ritchie’s views, to whom Mr. Herschell has this day written, I will communicate them together with such testimonials, as he may place in my hands.

The desire to be useful to my fellow-citizens would have been a sufficient inducement for me to execute, to the extent of my ability, not only my strictly official duties, but all other trusts, which have devolved on me by the return of Mr. Gallatin. It would however be an additional motive for exertion, if I could suppose that I was, in any way, assisting in the accomplishment of the laudable enterprize with which a venerable father of our country is now occupying the leisure of a dignified retirement.

Though on such an occasion as the present, it be hardly permitted to speak of gratitude for ordinary hospitality, I cannot but add that I shall ever look back with the most pleasing recollections to two days passed at Montpelier in the winter of 1821 and could I flatter myself that I am at all remembered would pray to be presented to Mrs Madison. I have the honour to be, with profound respect & veneration Sir Your most obedient Servant

W. B. Lawrence.

RC (DLC); letterbook copy (DLC: William Beach Lawrence Papers). RC docketed by James Madison.

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