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To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 23 February 1795

From Thomas Jefferson

Monticello [Va.] Feb. 23. 1795.

Dear Sir

You were formerly deliberating on the purpose to which you should apply the shares in the Patowmack & James river companies presented you by our assembly; and you did me the honor of asking me to think on the subject.1 as well as I remember, some academical institution was thought to offer the best application of the money. should you have finally decided in favor of this, a circumstance has taken place which would render the present moment the most advantageous to carry it into execution, by giving to it in the outset such an eclat, and such solid advantages, as would ensure a very general concourse to it of the youths from all our states & probably from the other parts of America which are free enough to adopt it. the revolution which has taken place at Geneva has demolished the college of that place, which was in a great measure supported by the former government.2 the colleges of Geneva & Edinburgh were considered as the two eyes of Europe in matters of science, insomuch that no other pretended to any rivalship with either. Edinburgh has been the most famous in medecine during the life of Cullen;3 but Geneva most so in the other branches of science, and much the most resorted to from the continent of Europe because the French language was that which was used. a Mr D’Ivernois, a Genevan, & man of science, known as the author of a history of that republic, has proposed the transplanting that college in a body to America. he has written to me on the subject, as he has also done to Mister Adams, as he was formerly known to us both, giving us the details of his views for effecting it. probably these have been communicated to you by Mister Adams, as D’Ivernois desired should be done; but lest they should not have been communicated I will take the liberty of doing it.4 his plan I think would go to about ten or twelve professorships. he names to me the following professors as likely if not certain to embrace the plan. Mouchon, the present President, who wrote the Analytical table for the Encyclopedists, & which sufficiently proves his comprehensive science.

Pictet, known from his admeasurement of a degree, & other works, professor of Natural philosophy.

his brother, said by M. D’Ivernois to be also great. Senebier. author of commentaries on Spallanzani, & of other works in Natural philosophy & Meteorology; also the translater of the Greek tragedians.

Bertrand } both mathematicians, and said to be inferior to nobody
L’Huillier in that line, except La Grange, who is without an equal.

Prevost. highly spoken of by D’Ivernois.

De Saussure & his son, formerly a professor, but who left the college to have more leisure to pursue his geological researches into the Alps, by which work he is very advantageously known.5

most of these are said to speak our language well.

of these persons, the names of Mousson, Pictet, de Saussure & Senebier, are well known to me, as standing foremost among the literati of Europe. secrecy having been necessary, this plan had as yet been concerted only with Pictet, his brother, & Prevost, who knew however, from circumstances that the others would join them: and I think it very possible that the revolution in France may have put it in our power to associate La Grange with them whose modest & diffident character will probably have kept him in the rear of the revolutionary principles, which has been the ground on which the revolutionists of Geneva have discarded their professors. most of these are men, having families, and therefore M. D’Ivernois observes they cannot come over but on sure grounds. he proposes a revenue of 15,000. D. for the whole institution, & supposing lands could be appropriated to this object, he says that an hundred Genevan families can readily be found who will purchase & settle on the lands, and deposit for them the capital of which 15,000 D. would be the interest. in this revenue he means to comprehend a college of languages preparatory to the principal one of sciences; and also a third college for the gratuitous teaching of the poor reading & writing.

It could not be expected that any propositions from strangers unacquainted with our means, & our wants, could jump at once into a perfect accomodation with these. but those presented to us would serve to treat on, and are capable of modifications reconcileable perhaps to the views of both parties.

  • 1. we can well dispense with his 2d & 3d colleges, the last being too partial for an extensive country, & the 2d sufficiently & better provided for already by our public & private grammar schools. I should conjecture that this would reduce one third of his demand of revenue, & that 10,000. D. would then probably answer their remaining views, which are the only important ones to us.
  • 2. we are not to count on raising the money from lands, & consequently we must give up the proposal of the colony of Genevan farmers. but, the wealth of Geneva in money being notorious, & the class of monied men being that which the new government are trying to get rid off, it is probable that a capital sum could be borrowed on the credit of the funds under consideration, sufficient to meet the first expences of the transplantation & establishment, and to supply also the deficiency of revenue till the profits of the shares shall become sufficiently superior to the annual support of the college to repay the sums borrowed.
  • 3. the composition of the academy cannot be settled there. it must be adapted to our circumstances, & can therefore only be fixed between them & persons here acquainted with those circumstances, & conferring for the purpose after their arrival here. for a country so marked for agriculture as ours, I should think no professorship so important as one not mentioned by them, a professor of agriculture, who, before the students should leave college, should carry them through a course of lectures on the principles & practice of agriculture; and that this professor should come from no country but England. indeed I should mark Young as the man to be obtained. these however are modifications to be left till their arrival here.

Mr D’Ivernois observes that the Professors keep themselves disengaged till the ensuing spring, attending an answer. as he had desired his proposition to be made to our legislature, I accordingly got a member to sound as many of his brethren on the subject as he could, desiring if he found it would be desperate that he would not commit the honor either of that body or of the college of Geneva by forcing an open act of rejection. I received his information only a fortnight ago, that the thing was evidently impracticable. I immediately forwarded that information to D’Ivernois, not giving him an idea that there was any other resource.6 thinking however that if you should conclude to apply the revenues of the canal shares to any institution of this kind, so fortunate an outset could never again be obtained, I have supposed it my duty both to you & them, to submit the circumstances to your consideration.

A question would arise as to the place of the establishment. as far as I can learn, it is thought just that the state which gives the revenue should be most considered in the uses to which it is appropriated. but I suppose that their expectations would be satisfied by a location within their limits, and that this might be so far from the federal city as moral considerations would recommend, & yet near enough to it to be viewed as an appendage of that, & that the splendour of the two objects would reflect usefully on each other.

Circumstances have already consumed much of the time allowed us. should you think the proposition can be brought at all within your views, your determination, as soon as more important occupations will admit of it, would require to be conveyed as early as possible to Mister D’Ivernois now in London, lest my last letter should throw the parties into other engagements.7 I will not trespass on your time & attention by adding to this lengthy letter any thing further than assurances of the high esteem and respect, with which I have the honour to be, Dear Sir, your sincere friend & humble servt

Th: Jefferson

ALS, DLC:GW; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC: Jefferson Papers. GW docketed the ALS as “recd 7th of March.”

1See GW to Jefferson, 25 Feb. and 26 Sept. 1785, and Jefferson to GW, 10 July 1785 and 4 Jan. 1786 (Papers, Confederation Series description begins W. W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1992–97. description ends , 2:379–82; 3:111–14, 279–83, 490–92).

2In December 1792 a French-influenced movement ousted the Ancien Régime in Geneva and proclaimed equality. For a negative account of the revolution and its effects, see François d’Ivernois, Authentic History of the Origin and Progress of the Late Revolution in Geneva (Philadelphia, 1794).

3William Cullen (1710–1790) was a professor of medicine at Glasgow University before becoming professor of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh in 1756. Subsequently he held appointments in the theory and practice of physic at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.

4François d’Ivernois (1757–1842) had been exiled from Geneva in 1782 following the failure of an uprising against the city magistrates, whom he saw as agents of France. A more successful uprising led to his return to the city and participation in its government in 1790, but by 1795 he was once again in exile at London. He was knighted by the British government for his anti-French writings in 1796. D’Ivernois returned to Geneva following its liberation by Austria in December 1813 and was one of the Genevan deputies at the Congress of Vienna. For his letters to Jefferson of 5 Sept. and 11 Nov. 1794, see Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 28:123–33, 189–200. His letters on this subject to John Adams of 22 and 30 Aug. 1794 are in MHi: Adams Papers. D’Ivernois asked both Jefferson and Adams to bring the matter before GW; for Adams’s initiative, see GW to Adams, 15 Nov. 1794.

5The men listed here are Pierre Mouchon (1733–1797), Marc-Auguste Pictet (1752–1825), Charles Pictet de Rochemont (1755–1824), Jean Senebier (1742–1809), Louis Bertrand (1731–1812), Simon L’Huillier (1750–1840), Pierre Prévost (1751–1839), Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740–1799), and Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure (1767–1845). Mouchon, a Geneva pastor, was appointed principal of the college in 1791. Jefferson was referring to his Table analytique et raisonnée des matieres contenues dans les XXXIII volumes in-folio du Dictionnaire des sciences, des arts et des métiers, et dans son supplément (2 vols.; Paris and Amsterdam, 1780). Marc-Auguste Pictet was a professor of philosophy from 1786 until his death. Charles Pictet de Rochemont was not a member of the faculty and is best known as a diplomat. Senebier was librarian of the library at Geneva. He exiled himself from the city in 1791 and resigned in 1795 although he later resumed the post (Georgette Legée, “La physiologie dans l’œuvre de Jean Senebier [1742–1809],” Gesnerus, 48[1991]:307–22). Formerly a pastor, he is best known now for his work on photosynthesis. Among his many treatments of the works of the Italian naturalist Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729–1799) were translations published as Opuscules de physique, animale et végétale (Geneva, 1777); Expériences sur la digestion de l’homme et de différentes espèces d’animaux (Geneva, 1783), to which Senebier added “des considérations sur sa méthode de faire des expériences, & les conséquences pratiques qu’on peut tirer en médecine de ses découvertes”; Expériences pour servir a l’histoire de la génération des animaux et des plantes (Geneva, 1786), to which he added a sketch of the “histoire des êtres organisés avant leur fécondation”; and Voyages dans les deux Siciles et dans quelques parties des Appennins, 5 vols. (Berne, 1795–97). Bertrand was a professor of mathematics from 1761 to 1795. L’Huillier succeeded him and served as professor of mathematics from 1795 until 1823. Prévost was a professor of belles-lettres from 1784 to 1786 and a professor of philosophy from 1793 to 1823. Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was a professor of philosophy from 1762 to 1786 (Charles Borgeaud, Histoire de l’Université de Genève: L’Académie de Calvin, 1559–1798 [Geneva, 1900], 643). Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure was a professor of mineralogy from 1802 to 1835.

The astronomer and mathematician Joseph-Louise Lagrange (1736–1813), formerly a professor of the Royal Artillery School at Turin and director of mathematics at the Berlin Academy of Sciences, was chairman of the French commission on weights and measures that established the metric system. He finished his career as a professor at the French École Polytechnique.

6In a letter of 23 Nov. 1794 Jefferson asked Albemarle County representative Wilson Cary Nicholas to sound the Virginia legislature on the proposal, and Jefferson reported the results in his letter to d’Ivernois of 6 Feb. 1795 (Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 28:208–9, 262–64).

7Jefferson was referring to his letter to d’Ivernois of 6 February.

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