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John L. E. W. Shecut to Thomas Jefferson, 17 August 1814

From John L. E. W. Shecut

Charleston South Carolina. August 17th 1814.

Much esteemed Sir

I take leave once again to trespass upon your goodness, but, not until I was fully satisfied you wou’d pardon this intrusion. I am greatly straitened for the want of advice, & as I have ever held your opinion as of the utmost value, have selected you, to aid me, in preference to all others. I have been for the last nineteen years, taking notes, on the Theory and Practise of Medecine Having at that period, discovered many inconsistencies in both. I did believe that there was a primary cause of disease, which if once discovered, wou’d lead to a more successful & Philosophical practice, than had yet been adopted. I had learnt by experience, that the Theory of Nosologists were much the Same, but in practice there was a direct opposition, The doctrine of phlogiston, and the Antiphlogistic treatment appear’d to be the leading features in the practice of Physicians, but the success attending this doctrine was not such as answered the high expectations of its advocates. As yet, I knew nothing of the Theory of Doct Brown, I had been practising twelve years in the Interior, where the most of my Notes were originated—On my reading this most elegant production, I was truly charmed with the Style and more than gratified with the Philosophy of his reasoning. His doctrine of excitement and excitability, is a monument of human wisdom, which cannot be destroyed, but with Time. But even Here, as with Dr Cullen & our illustrious Countryman Professor Rush, there was still a clashing as to the Theory and Practice of Medecine. I felt myself still authorised to pursue my original Plan, much however upon the Principles of Doctor Brown. I have therefore progressed in my work which I have termed, Medical and Philosophical Aphorisms, or the Universal Doctrine of Medicine.—I have treated Disease as a Unit. And the primary Causes, as of two kinds the first, as Stimulant, the latter as debilitating.—The application of one of those kind of powers of each of which there are endless variety, produces Sthenic disease, of the latter Asthenic. By which it is obvious that there are two, and only two General States of disease, peculiar to Man, throughout all the World. The Practise necessary to be adopted in either case, is at once obvious, and is directly opposed to that of the other.—I consider the Electric fluid, as a “fifth element—a kind of Soul of Nature” Oxygenizing, and giving vitality and circulation to the blood, that the vast train of diseases heretofore termed Nervous, indeed owe their origin to the excess or deficiency of this fluid—I have therefore considered those diseases, as Electroses which arise from an excess of this fluid in the System, & those as Neuroses from a defect. And upon this principle I account for the reason, why one Practitioner, has cured, Palsy, Rheumatism, Epilepsy &c by means of Electricity, while others have aggravated the Symptoms. all of which happen from the misapplication of the fluid, in these and many other diseases, which are properly Electroses and in which this fluid is then prejudicial. In short I have made so many new remarks, founded on Practice, and actual observation, as to have procured for me, from my esteemed Preceptor Dr David Ramsay, the most flattering remarks He has done me the Honor to assure me, that it was indeed, a New and valuable doctrine of Medicine, and which woud ultimately procure for me an imperishable monument in the bosoms of the friends of Science. It was true, that he had Seen in various other writers on Medicine, many of the remarks which were blended in my work, but woud at the Same time do me the justice to Say, He had not seen them any where, So happily blended nor So strikingly exemplified, that in fact, I had left no room or very little for controversy, particularly on the Subject of Medical Electricity. I acknowledge to be highly flattered with such compliments from Doctor Ramsay, the Rush of Carolina. But while he So highly appreciated the merits of the work, with me he had to lament the want of encouragement in this State particularly to works of Science, He touch’d upon the Flora Caroliniensis, and I was done.

With a desire therefore, to prevent if possible the failure of the publication of my New doctrine, I have selected your Excellency as I before mentioned, and will now unbosom myself as to a Father and a Friend.—I have been more than unfortunate thro Life, The Love of my Country and of Science, has made me poor indeed. add to which I have Seven Children now living, the eldest of whom are females, all incapable1 of doing for the rest, So that it is upon my success in life they all depend at present. I cannot think of publishing in So Carolina, for the reasons already stated. And I am an entire stranger elsewhere, nor have I funds to carry me any where else.—It was suggested to me, to attempt its publication in Europe, or the Northern States. I can get to neither situated as I am, and being determined to avoid the contracting any debt, I consequently will not ask a loan of Money of any friend whatever. I have therefore come to the determination of soliciting your advice which I have assured myself you will cheerfully give me. Whether, I coud not procure an appointment under Government with a moderate tho competent Salary, as Secretary to Some of the legation, either going to Europe, or in any of the Northern States?—I have though[t] of such a thing and if your Excellency conceives any thing like an impropriety therein, I hope He will have the Candour to advise me thereof. I submit the whole to the consideration of your Excellency, and look up to you for the plan which I shoud pursue, assured that your Superior judgment will point to the most appropriate.* In the mean time I take leav[e] to add that the Capsicum minutissimum flourishes luxuriantly in the open gardens of Charleston & I expect to distribute them widely and extensively, they have obtained the name here of Jefferson Pepper, as having been obtained from your Excellency. The Literary & Philosophical Society are greatly increasing & have commenced a Museum in the City.—

With Sentiments dictated by a heart truly grateful permit me to subscribe myself, your Excellencys most obliged and obedt Servt

J L E W Shecut

RC (DLC); edge chipped; with author’s endnote on verso of address leaf; addressed: “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson Esqr Monticello State of Virginia Pr Mail”; stamp canceled and replaced by frank; postmarked Charleston, 18 Aug.; endorsed by TJ as received 31 Aug. 1814 and so recorded in SJL.

The British physician John brown taught that human health depended on balancing excitement, a property of the nervous system, and stimulation. Brown based his work in part on the teachings of his mentor William cullen but contemporaries saw it as a rival theory (ODNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, 60 vols. description ends ; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 897). In Brown’s system, known as Brunonianism, an excess of excitability caused sthenic disease (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ).

On the nature of the electric fluid, Shecut paraphrased Patrick Brydone, A Tour through Sicily and Malta [London, 1773], 1:216–7, which described electricity as “the great vivifying principle of nature, by which she carries on most of her operations.—It is a fifth element, perfectly distinct, and of a superior nature to the other four, which only compose the corporeal parts of matter: But this subtile and active fluid is a kind of soul that pervades and quickens every particle of it.” In his letter to Shecut of 29 June 1813, TJ enclosed seeds of the capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum, commonly called bird pepper (Hortus Third description begins Liberty Hyde Bailey, Ethel Zoe Bailey, and the staff of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium, Cornell University, Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada, 1976 description ends , 219).

1Manuscript: “incaple.”

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

.* *I imagine that with such a station, I coud find both the means and leisure, to have printed as also to superintend the correction of the work in question. which has indeed given rise to the thought.

Index Entries

  • A Tour through Sicily and Malta (P. Brydone); paraphrased by Shecut search
  • bird pepper search
  • Brown, John (physician); medical theories of search
  • Brydone, Patrick; A Tour through Sicily and Malta search
  • Cullen, William; medical theories of search
  • Flora Carolinæensis (Shecut) search
  • health; epilepsy search
  • health; palsy search
  • health; rheumatism search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; letters of application and recommendation to search
  • medicine; electricity and theories of disease search
  • medicine; nosology search
  • patronage; letters of application and recommendation to TJ search
  • pepper; bird search
  • Ramsay, David; Charleston physician search
  • Rush, Benjamin; on the practice of medicine search
  • Rush, Benjamin; prestige of search
  • Shecut, John Linnaeus Edward Whitridge; family of search
  • Shecut, John Linnaeus Edward Whitridge; Flora Carolinæensis search
  • Shecut, John Linnaeus Edward Whitridge; letters from search
  • Shecut, John Linnaeus Edward Whitridge; medical theories of search
  • Shecut, John Linnaeus Edward Whitridge; seeks TJ’s publication subsidy search
  • Shecut, John Linnaeus Edward Whitridge; TJ sends bird pepper to search
  • spices; bird pepper search