Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Chastellux, 27 December [1784]

From Chastellux

27 Decbr. [1784]

Tout ce que votre amitié et votre excellent jugement vous a dicté, Monsieur, ne peut etre susceptible que de deux reponses, je ferai ce que vous me conseillés, ou bien, j’ai fait ce que vous me conseillés. Je me trouve heureux de pouvoir employer la derniere. Oui, monsieur, j’ai ecrit il y a longtems, c’est a dire, il y a plus de six mois, a M. de Marbois qu’il pouvoit faire traduire en anglois mon journal et en retrancher tout ce qui pourroit offenser qui que ce soit. De tout ce que j’ai pu hazarder legerement, je ne regrette qu’une plaisanterie, assez innocente cependant sur le gout qu’a Madame Powell pour la conversation. J’ai conçu depuis beaucoup d’estime et d’amitié pour elle. Il y a aussi un petit article sur Mde. Schuyler. Il etoit plus merité et d’ailleurs il etoit asséz compensé par l’éloge que j’ai fait de son mari. Pour la lettre au docteur Madisson, je ne crois pas que M. de Marbois en ait une copie, mais je n’ai aucune objection à ce qu’elle soit imprimée en Amerique. Lorsque j’aurai l’honneur de vous voir, je vous parlerai d’un Voyage de Virginie, qui n’a pas eté imprime et que j’ai preté seulement a quelques personnes. J’avoue que j’ai craint que celui cy ne vous deplût davantage, et cela pour deux raisons: l’une que je me suis livré au plaisir de faire votre éloge, l’autre que je me suis permis quelques observations peu favorables aux virginiens, dont le caractere et le patriotisme ne m’ont pas satisfait absolument. Vous jugerés si j’ai eu tors dans ce dernier article; mais je vous récuserai pour le premier. Dittes moi du bien de vos compatriotes, je le croirai. Mais ne me dittes pas de mal de vous, car je ne le croirai pas.

Agrées mes remerciemens et les assurances de mon sincère attachement.

Chelier. de Chastellux

RC (MoSHi); endorsed. Entry in SJL, following immediately after entry for TJ’s letter to Chastellux of 24 Dec. 1784, reads: “received his answer.”

Je me suis livre au plaisir de faire votre eloge: Chastellux’ graphic and admiring portrayal of TJ caused the latter to blush when he read it in manuscript form (TJ to Chastellux, 2 Sep. 1785). As translated in the London, 1787, edition, this passage reads:

“The conversation continued and brought us insensibly to the foot of the mountains. On the summit of one of them we discovered the house of Mr. Jefferson, which stands pre-eminent in these retirements; it was himself who built it and preferred this situation; for although he possessed considerable property in the neighbourhood, there was nothing to prevent him from fixing his residence where-ever he thought proper. But it was a debt Nature owed to a philosopher and a man of taste, that in his own possessions he should find a spot, where he might best study and enjoy her. He calls his house Monticello, (in Italian, Little Mountain) a very modest title, for it is situated upon a very lofty one, but which announces the owner’s attachment to the language of Italy; and above all to the fine arts, of which that country was the cradle, and is still the asylum. As I had no further occasion for a guide, I separated from the Irishman; and after ascending by a tolerably commodious road, for more than half an hour, we arrived at Monticello. This house, of which Mr. Jefferson was the architect, and often one of the workmen, is rather elegant, and in the Italian taste, though not without fault; it consists of one large square pavilion, the entrance of which is by two porticoes ornamented with pillars. The ground floor consists chiefly of a very large lofty saloon, which is to be decorated entirely in the antique style: above it is a library of the same form, two small wings, with only a ground floor, and attic story, are joined to this pavilion, and communicate with the kitchen, offices, &c. which will form a kind of basement story over which runs a terrace. My object in this short description is only to shew the difference between this, and the other houses of the country; for we may safely aver, that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the fine arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather. But it is on himself alone I ought to bestow my time. Let me describe to you a man, not yet forty, tall, and with a mild and pleasing countenance, but whose mind and understanding are ample substitutes for every exterior grace. An American, who without ever having quitted his own country, is at once a musician, skilled in drawing; a geometrician, an astronomer, a natural philosopher, legislator, and statesman. A senator of America, who sat for two years in that famous Congress which brought about the revolution; and which is never mentioned without respect, though unhappily not without regret: a governor of Virginia, who filled this difficult station during the invasions of Arnold, of Phillips, and of Cornwallis; a philosopher, in voluntary retirement, from the world, and public business, because he loves the world, inasmuch only as he can flatter himself with being useful to mankind; and the minds of his countrymen are not yet in a condition either to bear the light, or to suffer contradiction. A mild and amiable wife, charming children, of whose education he himself takes charge, a house to embellish, great provisions to improve, and the arts and sciences to cultivate; these are what remain to Mr. Jefferson, after having played a principal character on the theatre of the new world, and which he preferred to the honourable commission of Minister Plenipotentiary in Europe. The visit which I made him was not unexpected, for he had long since invited me to come and pass a few days with him, in the center of the mountains; notwithstanding which I found his first appearance serious, nay even cold; but before I had been two hours with him we were as intimate as if we had passed our whole lives together; walking, books, but above all, a conversation always varied and interesting, always supported by that sweet satisfaction experienced by two persons, who in communicating their sentiments and opinions, are invariably in unison, and who understand each other at the first hint, made four days pass away like so many minutes.

“This conformity of sentiments and opinions on which I insist, because it constitutes my own eulogium (and self-love must somewhere shew itself) this conformity, I say, was so perfect, that not only our taste was similar, but our predilections also, those partialities which cold methodical minds ridicule as enthusiastic, whilst sensible and animated ones cherish and adopt the glorious appellation. I recollect with pleasure that as we were conversing one evening over a bowl of punch, after Mrs. Jefferson had retired, our conversation turned on the poems of Ossian. It was a spark of electricity which passed rapidly from one to the other; we recollected the passages in those sublime poems, which particularly struck us, and entertained my fellow travelers, who fortunately knew English well, and were qualified to judge of their merit, though they had never read the poems. In our enthusiasm the book was sent for, and placed near the bowl, where, by their mutual aid, the night far advanced imperceptibly upon us. Sometimes natural philosophy, at others politicks or the arts were the topicks of our conversation, for no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson; and it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe.”

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