George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Rodolph Vall-travers, 20 March 1791

From Rodolph Vall-travers

Hamburg, hohe Bleiche, No: 207. March 20th 1791.

May it please Yr Excellency Sir!

Having received, by my worthy Friend, Captn Bell, of the Union, the inclosed Letter from Mr Jn Churchman, with his Variation-Map & Book, dedicated to Your Excellency; I did not hesitate, both from the Importance of his Pursuit, and the Respectability of its Patronage, complying with his Request, and promoting his Views by every Means in my Power.1

May I be permitted, Sir, to lay before Your Excellency the Result of my Endeavors, to answer your ingenious Countryman’s Trust reposed in me?2 The Protection, You have been pleased to grant, not only to Him, but to every usefull Art & Science, best calculated to consolidate the Prosperity and Lustre, now enjoyed by yr native Country, through your Valor; and daily increasing by a wise Legislation; emboldens me, a sincere Admirer of every Benefactor to Mankind, and sometimes an humble Instrument of their Beneficence, to make Your Excellency, and the illustrious united States you so worthily preside, a Tender of what Services may still lay in my Power, on this Continent? particularly;

“In collecting and transmitting to your several Seats of Learning & Academies, (as my deceased Friend, Thos Hollis did;) the choicest Works in all the European Languages, of such Branches of Arts & Sciences, as shall be judged most eligible & best adapted to the present State of Learning & Industry, in your several Republics. Also, Models of useful Machines & Instruments, approved of and rewarded by our economical encouraging Societies; skilfull & industrious Artists, to execute & employ the same to best Advantage & to extend mercantile Objects & Connections.”

To facilitate and to accelerate such Services, by a regular Correspondence, throughout Europe, with the several Societies I belong to, and speedy Conveyances, all the Year round, I should fix my Station in Holland and act under the Protection and Inspection of the public Envoy of the confederate State⟨s⟩ residing at the Hague; or of yr Consul general at Amsterdam.

Having sacrificed all my Studies my Travels, Time, Labor and Fortune in such philanthropic Services, I hope to be enabled, to acquit myself of such a Trust, to the Satisfaction of my Superiors, and to the no small Emolument of the Public. Nor would I accept of any Compensation, if my Fortune was such, that I could afford the unavoidable Expences attending it. Whatever Power it shall please my Employers to trust me with, shall be faithfully, prudently & frugally applied & accounted for. Happy, if to the very last of my laborious Career, I can, anyways, second Your Excellency’s patriotic Labors, & manifest the profound Veneration & zealous Attachment with which I glory to profess myself Sir! Your Excellency’s Most devoted & obedt humble Servant:

Rodh Vall-travers.

ALS, DLC:GW; ALS (duplicate), DLC:GW; copy, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

Rodolph Vall-travers (1723–c.1815), a native of Berne, Switzerland, was a writer and occasional diplomat of varied interests. He moved to England in 1750 and became a British subject in 1757. For a brief period he was connected with the legations of Bavaria and the Palatinate in London. After 1777 he seems to have lived mostly on the Continent. Vall-travers corresponded with a number of contemporary intellectuals, including Linnaeus, Rousseau, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. Although his own scholarly work was slight, he was elected to the Royal Society, the Linnaen Society, and in 1792 to the American Philosophical Society (de Beer, “Rodolph Valltravers” description begins G. de Beer. “Rodolph Valltravers, F.R.S.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 4 (1946): 216–26. description ends ). An indefatigable correspondent, Vall-travers was constantly proposing schemes to aid the cause of America. Franklin found his letters and proposals so tiresome that he wrote: “having but a small Remnant left of Life, I cannot afford to attend to his endless Discourse and numerous long Letters, and visionary Projects. He wants to be employ’d in our Affairs, but he manages his own so badly that one can have but little Confidence in his Prudence” (Franklin to Jan Ingenhousz, 16 May 1783, Smyth, Writings of Benjamin Franklin, description begins Albert Henry Smyth, ed. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. 10 vols. New York, 1905–7. description ends 9:41–46). GW referred Valltravers’s letter of this date to Jefferson, along with a previous letter from Valltravers to GW of 15 Nov. 1789 (not found) and subsequent letters from Vall-travers to GW of 1 Aug. 1791 and 30 Nov. 1791; Jefferson replied on GW’s behalf on 2 April 1792 (Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 23:366–67; see also Vall-travers to GW, 21 July 1791).

1On John Churchman, a Quaker surveyor and cartographer from Nottingham, Pa., see Thomas Ruston to GW, 20 Mar. 1789, n. 1. In 1789 Churchman petitioned Congress to underwrite an expedition to Baffin Bay, where he proposed to investigate the phenomenon of magnetic variation and its effect on determining latitude. His petition was referred to a committee of the House of Representatives in April 1789. While the matter was pending in the House, Churchman wrote to GW on 7 May 1789 seeking the latter’s patronage. Following up on this letter in August 1790, Churchman sent GW a copy of his chart of magnetic variations and his accompanying pamphlet, An Explanation of the Magnetic Atlas, or Variation Chart, Hereunto Annexed; Projected on a Plan Entirely New, by Which the Magnetic Variation on Any Part of the Globe May Be Precisely Determined, for Any Time, Past, Present, or Future: and the Variation and Latitude Being Accurately Known, the Longitude Is of Consequence Truly Determined (Philadelphia, 1790), which he dedicated to GW (see John Churchman to GW, 9 Aug. 1790). The House committee reported favorably on Churchman’s petition, but a motion to underwrite an expedition to Baffin Bay was defeated on 28 Jan. 1791 (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 3:689). In 1796 Churchman sent GW a copy of The Magnetic Atlas, or Variation Charts of the Whole Terraqueous Globe; Comprising a System of the Variation and Dip of the Needle, by Which, the Observations Being Truly Made, the Longitude May Be Ascertained (London, 1794). This copy is now among GW’s books in the Boston Athenaeum (Griffin, Boston Athenæum Washington Collection, description begins Appleton P.C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 47, 549).

2Vall-travers enclosed a lengthy memorandum, dated Hamburg, March 1791, titled “Hints candidly offered to Mr John Churchman Land-Surveyor in Philadelphia.” It offers numerous suggestions relating to Churchman’s projected expedition to Baffin Bay. For the full text of this enclosure, see CD-ROM:GW.

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