Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Francis Adrian Van der Kemp to Thomas Jefferson, 7 January 1818

From Francis Adrian Van der Kemp

Olden barneveld 7 Jan 1818

Dear Sir!

After So long a Silence, I trust, it Shall not be deemed an intrusion as it will not interrupt you too long in more Serious occupations, when I address you once more with a few lines. I wished—it was in mÿ power, to render these Some what more important, or at least, that I might be in another manner Serviceable.1   It cannot be Sir! or a man of your talents—industry and activity must have hoarded many valuable, productions—buried in your desk, which prudence, and aversion of entering in contest on disputable topics may imperiously forbid you to communicate—at least in your life, and which nevertheless might be deemed to possess intrinsic value by a Scientific world. Would it not be pleasing—to witness this effect? Was you in my unfavorable Situation with respect to language, an insurmountable barrier would have been raised—but your2 masterly delineations does not leave this excuse—I have just before me—your description of the natural bridge of rocks in Virginia, cited—as an example of the Sublime—in an Explanation of one of Burke’s notions on this Subject. Can I be of use in this manner—under what restrictions you dictate—provide I may examine, and Suggest my Sentiment—your wishes Shall be accomplished with the faithfulness of a friend—either in this Country—or in England.

I Send you for examination—with a view to obtain your criticisms—my Strictures on the great Dr Livingston’s Diss. on Incestuous marriage. Several of my respected correspondents have approved it, and advised the Publication—but—it can not be—except duty towards my fellow-citisens compelled me to it—otherwise—as it was written only—to answer the request of a friend—I listen to the voice of my respected friend at Quincy. Noli irritare crabrones.

Since late my mind has been employ’d in Geological pursuits—of which the natural consequence is—the birth of notions on the theory of our earth—which appears to me, more and more Simple. It is yet—rudis, indigestaque moles—but it Seems to me that that for the Neptunian and Plutonian Theorists—have build on different data—that truth lies between them—while both theories are founded in nature, with that difference—that the Neptunian has the precedence.

The whole earth—I do not inquire in the cause—atmosphere and all—existed in a chaotic mass—at the expansion of the Atmosphere—when the Sun’s influence again illumed and warmed—and the winds blowed—and the earth was beginning to be redintegrated—to be ere long coverd with verdure—and inhabited by beast and man—the Planetary happy Inhabitants, percieving this new work of Nature’s God rejoyced—and chaunted—as the author of Job Sung.   You See—I believe—that the Mosaic creation—was rather a renovation of this globe—of which he gives us a Sublime description. Its former Inhabitants may now occupÿ another Spot in our Planetary System—perhaps at first the moon—and So may be our fate, and another future destruction of this globe—which Seems equally unavoidable.

It must have Some times occupy’d your thoughts—Perhaps you might give me a clue in this Labyrinth.

In my Ms—which I called—Philos. Res. on Several parts of Nat. Hist in the theories of Buffon and Jeffersons—and which you have Seen, when in Embryo—I considered it a duty—when I corrected and augmented it, to defend and justify a passage in your Notes—against the Scurrilous remarks of N. papers mongers and venal Scriblers. Although I do not consider it a happy expression, it is in my opinion correct. I obeyd only the dictates of truth—but by the Same powerful motive, I in another place blamed Some expressions in your Mem. on the discovery of certain bones &c vol. iv. Trans pag. 255/6—which then Seemed to me to betray a Pantheistic Notion: The movements of nature are in a never ending circle &c   Now—Since I have been honoured with your correspondence, Since you was pleased, to communicate your ideas—upon the most momentous Subject, we can chuse for our contemplation—on which our happiness here and future existence depends—Now—I perceive it may [be]3 a Philosophic notion—originating in your Sentiments on cosmogonÿ—Some what incautiously expressed.   Tell me—if I am now correct—if I wronged you before. This I Should regret—but less So—than that Such exalted talents had no more glorious object in view—than Nature—without its intelligent cause—

Have you Seen Cuvier’s Essay Sur la theorie de la terre and Breislac’s Introduzione alle geologie? if So—what is your opinion of either. I will endeavour to obtain the Latter. The former I received from de Witt Clinton—but could not yet find time to peruse it.

I dare not detain you longer, only to recommend me in the continuance of your good opinion—while you can not longer want the assurance that I remain with the highest regard and consideration

Dear Sir! Your most obed. Sert

Fr. Adr. vander Kemp

RC (DLC); dateline adjacent to closing; endorsed by TJ as received 23 Jan. 1817 and so recorded in SJL.

TJ described the natural bridge in his Notes on the State of Virginia (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, 1955 description ends , 24–5). Van der Kemp’s strictures on John H. Livingston, A Dissertation on the Marriage of a Man with his Sister in Law (New Brunswick, N.J., 1816), have not been found. His respected friend at quincy was John Adams. noli irritare crabrones: “do not provoke the hornets.”

rudis, indigestaque moles (“a rough, unordered mass of things”) is from Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.7 (Ovid in Six Volumes, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 3, trans. Grant Showerman, J. H. Mozley, and Frank Justus Miller, [1916; 1977], rev. by George P. Goold, 2–3). neptunian and plutonian theorists: advocates of “Neptunism” believed that rocks “were formed by crystallization from the waters of a primeval ocean,” while “Plutonists” thought they were created “by solidification from magma originating deep within the earth” (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 ). The mosaic account of creation is in the Bible (Genesis 1–2).

In his “Researches on various parts of Buffon’s and Jefferson’s theories in Natural historÿ” (MS in NBuHi: Van der Kemp Papers), Van der Kemp attempts to defend and justify TJ’s comment in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, 1955 description ends , 159). For TJ’s memoir on the discovery of certain bones of the megalonyx, see PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 41 vols. description ends , 29:291–304. Georges Cuvier’s essay sur la theorie de la terre was the “Discours préliminaire” to his Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles de Quadrupèdes (Paris, 1812), which was published separately in English translations by Robert Kerr, edited by Robert Jameson, in Edinburgh in 1813 and 1817.

1Manuscript: “Sericeable.”

2Manuscript: “you.”

3Omitted word editorially supplied.

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; friendship with F. A. Van der Kemp search
  • A Dissertation on the Marriage of a Man with his Sister in Law (J. H. Livingston) search
  • American Philosophical Society; Transactions search
  • Bible; Genesis referenced search
  • Bible; Job referenced search
  • books; on geology search
  • books; on natural history search
  • Breislak, Scipione; Introduzione alla Geologia search
  • Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de; and F. A. Van der Kemp search
  • Burke, Edmund; writings of search
  • Clinton, DeWitt; and F. A. Van der Kemp search
  • Cuvier, Georges; works of search
  • geology; books on search
  • geology; Neptunism search
  • geology; plutonic search
  • geology; study of search
  • Introduzione alla Geologia (S. Breislak) search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; works sent to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; religion search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes on the State of Virginia search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; on megalonyx search
  • Livingston, John Henry; A Dissertation on the Marriage of a Man with his Sister in Law search
  • marriage; incestuous search
  • megalonyx search
  • moon; supposed inhabitants of search
  • Moses (Hebrew prophet) search
  • Natural Bridge, Va.; TJ on search
  • natural history; books on search
  • natural history; study of search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); and religion search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); description of Natural Bridge in search
  • Ovid; quoted search
  • religion; TJ on search
  • Van der Kemp, Francis Adrian; and geology search
  • Van der Kemp, Francis Adrian; and incestuous marriage search
  • Van der Kemp, Francis Adrian; and natural history search
  • Van der Kemp, Francis Adrian; and TJ’s writings search
  • Van der Kemp, Francis Adrian; friendship with J. Adams search
  • Van der Kemp, Francis Adrian; letters from search
  • weather; wind search