Thomas Jefferson Papers
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From Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 10 January 1791

To James Madison

Jan. 10. 1791.

Th: J. to J. M.

Will you be so good as to let me know how much I am in your debt for travelling expenses and the horse. My monstrous bill of freight rendered the question useless till now. I send you a moment’s amusement at my expence in the Connecticut paper. I suppose it is from some schoolmaster who does not like that the mysteries of his art should become useless.

RC (DLC: Madison Papers); addressed: “James Madison esq.” Not recorded in SJL. Enclosure: printed below.

TJ’s assumption was right: the author of the squib in the Connecticut Courant was Noah Webster, who one day would be called schoolmaster to the nation. The satire on the report on weights and measures was only a forerunner of the Federalists’ later ridicule of TJ’s salt mountains and horned toads, being an inferior example of the productions of one of the Hartford Wits. During 1790 Webster wrote a number of anonymous essays for the Connecticut Courant, employing The Prompter as his signature. These satirical efforts, imitative of Franklin’s Poor Richard, were proclaimed by the author to be “full of common sense, the best sense in the world” (E.E.F. Skeel, ed., Notes on the life of Noah Webster [New York, 1912], i, 297–8; ii, 534). They were first published in 1790 and went through many editions. Webster silently dropped “A Pendulum without a Bob” from the collected edition. See note to TJ to Webster, 4 Dec. 1790.

A more serious criticism of TJ’s recommendation of the rod pendulum came from a Scottish clergyman, George Skene Keith, who sent him a copy of his Tracts on weights, measures, and coins (London, 1791). TJ appears not to have acknowledged this, though he did thank James Somerville for a copy received later (Keith to TJ, 1 July 1791; TJ to Somerville, 1 Dec. 1791, acknowledging Somerville’s [missing] letter of 22 Nov. 1791 from Baltimore, recorded in SJL as received 24 Nov. 1791; see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 3766). A favorable comment on TJ’s report on weights and measures, signed W. W., appeared in Bache’s General Advertiser for 21 Dec. 1790. A more recent criticism of TJ as being naive, not to say intransigent, in his response to Rittenhouse’s comments appears in Brooke Hindle’s Rittenhouse, p. 309–16. The fundamental point on which Rittenhouse and TJ differed was not the shape of the pendulum, though TJ did recommend the uniform cylindrical rod as proposed by Robert Leslie. His basic aim was to choose motion rather than a linear standard and to fix upon some one latitude for determining the length of the second pendulum (or the second rod) in the hope that it might “become a line of union with the rest of the world.” Rittenhouse publicly supported TJ’s report. But in his correspondence with TJ and especially in his criticism of Keith’s pamphlet he seemed to prefer the linear standard that France later adopted (Hindle, Rittenhouse, p. 313; TJ to Rittenhouse, 8 June 1792; Rittenhouse to TJ, 11 June 1792). This adoption brought disappointment to TJ’s hopes. While it is true that his report was the work of a statesman rather than a scientist, it does not follow from this that he was imperceptive or that he was insistent in the advocacy of “his own creation.” Neither the cylindrical rod nor the choice of latitude was original with him, as he was careful to point out (Vol. 16: 651, 652). See also TJ’s comparison of the “rival propositions” (undated but after 12 Jan. 1792, DLC: TJ Papers, 60: 10809–17).

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