James Madison Papers

Nicholas P. Trist to James Madison, 18 January 1828

Monticello Jan. 18. 1828.

Dear Sir

I am utterly ashamed of myself for having kept you waiting so long for letters which you have, doubtlessly, been impatient to receive; and this shame is the greater from the delicacy which has prevented your jogging my memory on the subject.

The only excuse I have to offer, is the procrastination forced on me by the multiplicity of agenda constantly before my eyes; & the forgetfulness which causes many of these to be delayed far beyond the time to which they have been set. This has been the case with your letters; for had there not be forgetfulness in the matter, you should certainly not have so much cause of complaint. Yesterday morning, the recollection of them came suddenly across my mind; and to make amends, as far as in me lay, for my neglect, I forthwith sat down to separating them. This work, I completed this evening; & the letters only require an envelope to be in a state for their journey to you. Shall I risk them by mail? And if so, shall it be all by the same post; or the contents of one vol. at a time? Please let me know at once.

The kind confidence which I have thought you sometimes evinced in your conversations with me, & with which you pointed out passages in some of these very letters, while confined to your bed at the University, led me to believe that you would not consider my doing so an unwarrantable use of the opportunity: accordingly, being less pressed for time while engaged in the separation of these than on the former occasion of the sort, I have taken the liberty of occasionally running over the contents of one of them. This has been sufficient to make me sensible of their immense value; not in respect to the history of this assay of free government only; but as regards the estimation in which He & You deserve & must be held, as those to whom its success is chiefly due. Never were two characters more thoroughly misconceived—even by many of those who look up to you as apostles. And it is not surprising: for how many, even among the "vulgar great", are there capable of conceiving & believing in, that singleness of purpose which your lives exhibit? You, no doubt, know that by many—perhaps the generality—you are looked upon as two of the deepest intriguers--politicians, in the low, cunning sense of the word--that ever figured in the political world. Now, nothing is so well calculated to show you in the purity of which you are such unblemished specimens, as these, your daily & confidential letters to each other: particularly yours—which bear every mark of unpremeditation & spontaneity. They admit us into the recesses of your minds; & it is there that one must go, to learn what you were: Not, as in every other case almost, to detect the dross which the glittering surface may conceal; but to become acquainted with that purity which no exterior can make known.

Let me then presume so far, on his account as well as your own, as to beg that, if you do destroy any of these, it may be done with a sparing hand. Every letter which you consign to the flames, diminishes the means whereby posterity may derive that intimacy with you on which your best title to their affection & gratitude will rest. Indulge not therefore, those principles of delicacy & tenderness--(for in your character I consider them as principles)--towards the feelings of others, which have always characterised you, at the expense of two characters destined to become so dear to the philanthropist, as realisations of his most brilliant conceptions.

If I have ventured to hold such language, it is not because I am weak enough not to be sensible that, in ordinary eyes, it would partake of the despicableness of flattery; but because I know that your conscience will tell you that such sentiments may be sincere. The only danger is that they may offend that modesty which constitutes not the least conspicuous or captivating trait in your character.

My affectionate attachment attends you and Mrs Madison, now & ever.

Nichs. Ph. Trist.

RC (ViHi: Nicholas P. Trist Album Book); draft (DLC: Nicholas P. Trist Papers). RC docketed by James Madison.

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