Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Henry A. S. Dearborn to Thomas Jefferson, 14 October 1811

From Henry A. S. Dearborn

Boston Octo 14. 1811

Much respected Sir,

A fiew days [ago]1 I spent the afternoon at Salem with my friend Nath. Bowditch to consult him on the observations which he hade made on the Comet which now blazes in the nothern regions of the sky. He had attentively observed it since its first appearance & had nearly finished his calculations of its Elements.

Yesterday I received a letter from him, requesting me to forward to you, the enclosed succinct result of his calculations of its orbit, with a note thereto attatched, desiring that you would do him the favor, of furnishing such observations, as you may have made, or can procure, on the recent Solar Eclipse. I have known him for a number of years & so far as I am capable of judging, have no doubt, of his being, by far the ablest astronomical mathematician in this country & equal to any in Europe. He is entirely self educated & who from early youth, discovered a great taste for the mathematics. By constant study & practical observation, he has become famillier with all the varios authors both ancient & modern, who have made great advances in the most sublime science of Astronomy. He is modest & unassuming—preeminantly distinguished for his amiable virtues & extensive researches & by unceasing study & observation elevated his fame in the minds of those who have the pleasure of knowing him, to that honorable station, where stand the greatest geniouses of Phylosophy. Unattatched to any of our seminaries of learning, his mathematical researches & character have not been greatly extended. He has for some years corresponded with the celebrated La Place. The government of Harvard University have offered him the professorship of mathematics & Astronomy, but not having received a Collegiate education, he did not think himself adequate, thus modesty has deprived our literary institution of an inestimable treasure. In the early part of life he went to sea & was master of a ship, when he was chosen President of an Insureance Office, where he remains. He is not 40 years of age. It is unnecessary to observe that a communication from a gentleman of your distinction, relative to the subjects contained in the enclosed Paper, would be received with peculiar pleasure

He is preparing at length2 two communications for the A. of A. S. of this state, which will contain his calculations on the Comet & Eclipse. When the number is published I shall do myself the pleasure of forwarding it to you.—

You will excuse the liberty I have taken in thus trespassing on your time, but knowing your fondness for scientific discoveries & pleased at the rising fame of the U.S., I hope this particular detail relative to Mr. Bowditch will not be unwelcome.

While my father was at the head of the war Department, my youth & short residence3 at Washington did not admit of my being much known to you.

However my respect is that, of an American citizen, for the most distinguished of her worthies.

With the highest esteem I am with respect Your Obt. Sevt.

H,A,S, Dearborn

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Hon. Th. Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 24 Oct. 1811 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: Nathaniel Bowditch, The Comet: Elements of the Orbit of the Comet, now visible, calculating the perihelion of a comet hitherto unknown to astronomers, based on observations taken between 6 and 23 Sept. 1811, and estimating its previous and future course; reporting that he had observed the annular solar eclipse of 17 Sept. 1811 in Salem, Massachusetts (“about 300 feet s.s.w. of the Rev. Dr. Barnard’s meeting house”), aided by “a four feet achromatic telescope and a well regulated time-keeper. The beginning was at 0h. 55m. 14.3s. and the end at 3h. 59m. 00.1s. apparent time. Latitude of the place of observation 42 deg. 33 min. 30 sec. n.; longitude 70 deg. 53 min. w. from Greenwich”; and concluding that he “wishes to make a complete collection of the observations of the Eclipse (viz. the beginning and end of the eclipse, and the beginning and end of the annular appearance) that were carefully made with a well regulated clock or watch. The gentleman to whom this is addressed is respectfully requested to furnish any observations that may be depended upon in the district where he resides, with the latitudes and estimated longitudes of the places of observation. These observations may be communicated in a letter directed to Nathaniel Bowditch, Salem, Massachusetts” (broadside in DLC: TJ Papers, 194:34459; undated; endorsed by TJ: “Astronomy. Solar eclipse of Sept. 17. 1811. by Bowditch”).

Henry Alexander Scammell Dearborn (1783–1851) was the son of Henry Dearborn, the secretary of war during TJ’s presidency. A native of Exeter, New Hampshire, he graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1803. After further study under William Wirt and Joseph Story, he established a legal practice in Salem, Massachusetts. Soon tiring of the law, Dearborn served as a deputy customs collector for three years, succeeded his father as collector at Boston in 1812, and retained this position until 1829. He was also appointed a brigadier general of militia during the War of 1812 and placed in command of the American defenses around Boston’s harbor. Dearborn was a member of the state house of representatives in 1829, the state senate the following year, and the United States House of Representatives, 1831–33. He served as state adjutant general, 1835–43, and as mayor of Roxbury, Massachusetts, from 1847 until his death. A prolific author and speaker, Dearborn was the first president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; George Putnam, An Address, delivered before the City Government and Citizens of Roxbury, on the Life and Character of the late Henry A. S. Dearborn, Mayor of the City, September 3d, 1851 [1851]; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States description ends , 2:278, 279, 4:46 [22, 26 June 1812, 14 Jan. 1830]; Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, John C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, 1962– , 29 vols.: Congress. Ser., 17 vols.; Pres. Ser., 5 vols.; Sec. of State Ser., 7 vols description ends , Pres. Ser., 4:476–7; Boston Daily Advertiser, 30, 31 July 1851).

a. of a. s.: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

On this day Dearborn also sent Bowditch’s broadside to James Madison (Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, John C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, 1962– , 29 vols.: Congress. Ser., 17 vols.; Pres. Ser., 5 vols.; Sec. of State Ser., 7 vols description ends , Pres. Ser., 3:487–8).

1Omitted word editorially supplied.

2Preceding two words interlined.

3Manuscript: “resdidence.”

Index Entries

  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences search
  • astronomy; and solar observations search
  • astronomy; books on search
  • Boston, Mass.; American Academy of Arts and Sciences search
  • Bowditch, Nathaniel; and solar eclipse search
  • Bowditch, Nathaniel; The Comet: Elements of the Orbit of the Comet, now visible search
  • Dearborn, Henry; as secretary of war search
  • Dearborn, Henry Alexander Scammell; and astronomy search
  • Dearborn, Henry Alexander Scammell; identified search
  • Dearborn, Henry Alexander Scammell; letters from search
  • Harvard University; mathematics and astronomy at search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; works sent to search
  • Laplace, Pierre Simon, marquis de; Americans correspond with search
  • Madison, James; and solar eclipse search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); solar eclipse observed by TJ at search
  • schools and colleges; Harvard University search
  • sun; annular eclipse of1811observed search
  • The Comet: Elements of the Orbit of the Comet, now visible (Bowditch) search