Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Paul Jones, 28 February 1786

From John Paul Jones

Paris Feby. 28th. 1786.

Dear Sir

I have received the kind Note you wrote me this morning, on the occasion of receiving my Bust. I offered it to you as a mark of my esteem and respect, for your virtues and talents. It has been remarked by professed judges, that it does no discredit to the talents of Mr. Houdon; but it receives its value from your acceptance of it, with the assurance you give me of your particular esteem; which will ever be felt by me as an Honor truely flattering.

I am, Dear Sir, with great esteem and respect, Your most obedient and most humble Servant,

J Paul Jones

MS not found. Text follows two facsimiles described below in spelling, punctuation, &c., but its substance has been verified by the letter as printed in J. H. Sherburne, Life of Jones, N.Y., 1825, p. 270. Neither this letter nor TJ’s kind note to Jones to which it is a reply has been found, and neither is recorded in SJL. These facts, coupled with the existence of a forgery of the letter, might have served to cast doubt upon the reliability of the text if other circumstances did not remove such doubt.

First of all, the fact that J. H. Sherburne printed the letter is all but conclusive proof that Jones wrote it and that TJ lent it to Sherburne, along with many others exchanged between TJ and Jones, all of which seem to have been retained by Sherburne despite his promise to return them (TJ to Sherburne, 14 Feb. 1825; Sherburne to TJ, 30 Jan. 1826). Second, it is an unquestioned fact that TJ owned a bust of Jones by Houdon, which he described as “an excellent likeness” (TJ to Sherburne, 2 July 1825). TJ does not state here or elsewhere that Jones presented the bust to him, but such a statement would have been needless in correspondence with an author whose book, based in considerable part on letters lent by TJ and appearing in his lifetime, contained the text of Jones’s letter acknowledging an acknowledgment of the gift. Sherburne would scarcely have printed the text of the present letter in a book appearing during TJ’s lifetime if there had been any doubt of its authenticity or of the fact that the bust that TJ owned had in fact been presented by Jones. TJ acknowledged Sherburne’s gift of the book on 5 Aug. 1825. In this connection it is worth pointing out that the present letter is the only one of the Jones-TJ exchange about which the slightest doubt has been raised; all others for which verifying texts are available prove the reliability of Sherburne’s presentation of this correspondence. Third, of the 1780 bust of Jones by Houdon, some sixteen copies were made at Jones’s direction for presentation to friends. These included eight that Jones asked TJ to obtain from Houdon in 1788 and ship to America, a transaction which TJ carried through as requested (Jones to TJ, 29 Aug. 1788, which includes the names of the persons for whom these busts were intended; TJ to Jones, 23 Mch. 1789; Account Book entry 22 Sep. 1789 recording payments to Petit for four boxes of busts for Jones; Dipl. Corr., 1783–1789 , iii, 728–31). It is very unlikely that Jones would have asked TJ to undertake this kind of commission if he had not previously presented a bust to the one who had so expeditiously and successfully pressed through to completion the settlement of the prize money due Jones and the men of his squadron—a matter that was fresh in Jones’s mind in Feb. 1786. Finally, Houdon’s return to France at this particular juncture on a mission which TJ had negotiated and Jones’s knowledge of TJ’s great admiration for the artist must have suggested to him the appropriateness of the bust as a means of expressing his gratitude for TJ’s diplomatic maneuvers in his behalf. In view of these circumstances, we may conclude as beyond doubt that Jones presented the bust to TJ and that the above text as printed by Sherburne is authentic.

It is necessary to review these circumstances because of the existence (NjP) of what at first appears to be a genuine holograph letter by Jones identical in text with that printed here. Its provenance cannot be traced beyond the late Grenville Kane, in whose possession it was at the time of his death. Its presence in the library of that discriminating collector, who was, among other things, a specialist on Jones and the American Revolution, would of itself give respectable standing to the MS. But the Kane cachet was withdrawn from this particular letter and it was not a part of the Kane Collection when that very distinguished group of Americana was acquired by the Princeton University Library. Subsequent examination of paper, ink, and handwriting confirms the wisdom of the decision to exclude it. Despite the skillfully reproduced 18th-century qualities that this MS has—and the fact that it was even acquired temporarily by Grenville Kane is a testimony to the skill of execution—there can be little doubt that it came into existence in the 20th century.

What may be its prototype is to be found in a clipping from a regrettably unidentified auction catalogue preserved in the Boston Athenæum, bearing the following caption: “A.L.S. of Captain John Paul Jones. See No. 191.” To this caption was added in pencil: £50, “evidently the sale price at, presumably, an English auction, followed by the notation that the MS was sold by the Anderson Galleries at the dispersal of the George D. Smith Collection on 20 Jan. 1921. Above this caption in the clipping appears a facsimile of a letter from John Paul Jones of 28 Feb. 1786 which has the appearance of being an authentic Jones holograph. Whether the original from which this reproduction was made is, in fact, the authentic RC that TJ received in 1786 and lent to Sherburne in 1825 cannot be determined until it is found and examined. Unfortunately neither the catalogue from which the clipping was taken nor the MS itself can be found. However, the record of a Jones letter of 28 Feb. 1786 found in Book Prices Current would seem to pertain only to this missing MS. This record shows the following sales: (1) 26 Mch. 1917, Anderson Galleries, Clawson-Brown Sale; (2) 20 Jan. 1921, Anderson Galleries, George D. Smith Sale; (3) 16–17 Nov. 1938, Parke-Bernet Gallery, Hearst Collection; (4) 17 Nov. 1941, William D. Morley, Inc., Kolb Sale; and (5) 28 Apr. 1944, William D. Morley, Inc., Stockton-Booth Sale. None of the catalogues of these sales includes a facsimile of the letter. Nevertheless, the existence of the clipping in the Boston Athenæum proves beyond question that the pen-facsimile (or forgery) in NjP was copied from it, unless the discovery of the MS of the former should prove it to be a forgery also, in which case it could only be said that one was copied from the other or that both were copied from a common prototype. This question must at present be left unresolved, but the editors, on the admittedly unsatisfactory basis of a close examination of the facsimile reproduction in the clipping, hazard the guess that its original is the authentic RC from which Sherburne printed the above text and that the NjP facsimile was made from and perhaps inspired by the reproduction in the unidentified catalogue.

This conclusion gains some force, perhaps, from the fact that the Houdon bust of Jones that TJ owned can no longer be identified with complete certainty among the surviving copies, a circumstance which may have inspired the unknown maker of the NjP forgery with the illicit hope of bringing together a “genuine” bust and an equally “genuine” letter. In 1828, Joseph Coolidge, Jr., who had married TJ’s grand-daughter, deposited in the Boston Athenæum copies of the Houdon busts of Washington, Franklin, and Jones that had belonged to TJ, and in Oct. of that year the Athenæum purchased from him TJ’s copy of the Houdon bust of Lafayette. The Washington and Lafayette busts are still owned by the Athenæum, that of Franklin is in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and that of Jones, though recorded in exhibition catalogues of the mid-nineteenth century, disappeared without trace from the records of the Athenæum. The best supposition as to the identity of the Jones bust is that furnished in a letter to the editors, 20 Mch. 1947, from Walter Muir Whitehill, Director of the Boston Athenæum: “There is in the Museum of Fine Arts a bust of Jones by Houdon, given by the late Charles H. Taylor of the Boston Globe, who bought it in a junk shop about 1905. The junk dealer had acquired it in 1903 at an auction of the effects of Moses Kimball, proprietor of the old Boston Museum Theatre. As far as anyone knew at the time, it had been in Kimball’s theatre for years, and no one knew where he got it. The supposition is that it may have been lent to Kimball by the Athenæum which was, in the 1860’s and 70s, in the habit of lending some of the busts with which it was so abundantly supplied. The inference is fairly obvious, but definite proof is lacking.’ The inference—certainly a plausible one—also evokes the pleasant image of TJ’s own bust of the commodore looking down as a piece of stage property upon the unsuspecting audiences of the old Boston Museum Theatre.

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