Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Jean Baptiste LeRoy, [30 April 1789]

From Jean Baptiste LeRoy

Jeudy [30 Apr. 1789]

Pardonnez, Monsieur, Si je n’ai pas répondu plutot à la lettre que vous m’avez fait l’honneur de m’écrire; mais n’ayant pas été à l’Académie, samedy dernier, je ne Savois pas si les propositions de M. Rumsay y avoient été renvoyées par M. De Villedeuil. J’y ai été hier, et J’ai trouvé sur le régistre du sécrétaire qu’en effet ces propositions y avoient été envoyées, et que J’avois été nommé un des commissaires pour les examiner.

Soyez persuadé, Monsieur, que j’y donnerai toute l’attention possible, et qu’il ne tiendra pas à moi que le rapport n’en soit fait aussitôt qu’il sera possible. Je serai avec plaisir le Traducteur du mémoire de M. Rumsay, si les autres commissaires n’en ont point de Traduction, Enchanté de pouvoir trouver quelqu’occasion de vous donner des preuves des sentimens d’attachement et de respect avec lesquels j’ai l’honneur d’être bien sincèrement Monsieur Votre très humble et très obéïssant serviteur


RC (ViWC); endorsed. Recorded in SJL as received 1 May 1789.

TJ’s letter to LeRoy concerning the propositions de M. Rumsay has not been found and is not recorded in SJL. James Rumsey (1743–1792), an American inventor whom TJ ranked almost as high as he did Rittenhouse (TJ to Willard, 24 Mch. 1789), had come to Europe with the backing of Washington, Franklin, and various leaders of scientific enterprise in America (Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735–1789, p. 373–6). He also came with recommendations from TJ’s friends (Vaughan to TJ, 11 July 1788; Paine to TJ, 9–15 Sep. 1788; Trumbull to TJ 11 Mch. 1789). Franklin and others, mostly members of the American Philosophical Society, had formed a subscription under the guise of the “Rumseian Society” in order to send the inventor to Europe, where his schemes could be better exploited. The chief of Rumsey’s inventions was a boat propelled by jets of water vented through the stern under force produced by a steam-powered pump, and others included an improved steam boiler, improvements in saw mills and grist mills, and a plan for raising water by steam. His mission—and the rivalry between him and John Fitch and their respective adherents—was not unknown to the French government. Crèvecoeur, a supporter of Fitch, had urged the Duc d’Harcourt to press upon the ministry the importance of an invention so simple and so useful. As a result, La Luzerne, minister of marine, directed De la Forest, consul general at New York, to join with Crèvecoeur in an effort to obtain Fitch’s secret (Julia Post Mitchell, St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, p. 270–3). But De la Forest thought that Rumsey had eclipsed Fitch and that his invention offered superior advantages: “Il a annoncé l’été dernier qu’il avoit enfin perfectionné sa découverte et laissant ici le Sr. Fitch, pauvre et découragé, occupé à remedier aux defauts qu’on reproche a la Sienne, il est parti pour l’Europe. Il a obtenu du Gouvernement Anglois un privilége exclusif pour 14 ans et on dit qu’il doit demander la même protection au Gouvernement francois. Il est recommandé a M. Jefferson qui vous l’adressera, Monseigneur, s’il ne l’a déja fait. On pourra avoir son secret de lui même, si le succès de ses experiences donne de l’importance à ses decouvertes” (De la Forest to La Luzerne, 15 Feb. 1789, enclosing a paper entitled “Idée générale de l’appareil du Sr. Rumsey pour faire remonter un bateau contre le courant au moyen de la vapeur”; Archives Nationales, Marine, B7 461). Rumsey gave to his friend Benjamin West a graphic account of TJ’s intercession in his behalf: “I have this day had a good ride upon my hobby. It was by the particular request of our American Embassader that I took this ride, and glad I was of the opertunity of mounting, haveing been so long out of practice, by being in a Country where the people could not understand the Language in which I Explained hobbys gates. Mr. Jeffersons Hotel was the place appointed for me to Exercise, and I had not been long mounted before Mr. Jefferson bore me Company, and fine sport we should have had, would time have permited; but dinner time came on and Company arived that had been invited to dine. The horse was therefore obliged to be Stabled; however Mr. Jefferson was so pleased with hobby, that he borrowed him of me, with the Explanation of his gates.—I know very well that what I have said will convey to you a Very Clear idea of the buisness of the day, but I beg that you will not Explain it to any body (not nobody) in the Same way. To be Serious you Cannot Conceive how attentive Mr. Jefferson has been to my business. He has been to the Hotels of a great number of the nobility to gain their interest in my favor. But the most of them are unfortunately for me in the Country at the Election now holding. When they return I have no doubt but I shall succeed in the object of my Jurney. What is much in my favor is Mr. Jeffersons being the most popular Embasador at the french Court. They are Certainly fond of america in this Country, for American principles are bursting forth in Every quarter; it must give great pleasure to the feeling mind, to see millions of his fellow Creatures Emergeing from a state not much better than Slavery… . March 22d. I have this day been viewing the boats upon the Seine they are wonderfull large indeed and cary from 5 to 6 hundred tons. The average cost of horse hire to bring them from Ruane to Paris is Seventy guinies a trip which they perform in about 12 days. An engine would bring them up for ten, Including all Expence. It is said that their is several thousand Souch boats in the kingdom! Think of this, and no longer blame me for being so fond of rideing hobby. I have such a freindship for you, that nothing Short of observing how pleasant your little horse Carries you would prevent me from giveing you an invitation to mount along with me; and after a little practice, to go to the Emperor of Germany, or the king of Spain, to Soliset Exclusive rights, or rewards, for the use of hobby… . The Countries I speak of Exceed france for advantages, and I think their is no human Event not yet come to pass, that can be Calculated upon with Such Certainty as the boat plans” (Rumsey to West, 20 Mch. 1789; DLC: Personal Papers, Misc.). Writing to another friend, Rumsey said that in Paris “one of the holy order, an abby, was makeing head against me, and was encroaching fast upon the great prospects that this kingdom held out to my Views, but (frenchman like, full of politeness), as soon as I arived, he took his departure for an other world, from where no travellers are yet returned. The road now being Clear I have reason to believe a grant will soon be obtained in my favor.—I have been frequently at Mr. Jeffersons, our American Embasador. He has got all that Ease, affabelity, and goodness about him, that distinguishes him as a good, as well as a great man. He has taken much pains Indeed to serve me. Yesterday Evening by his appointment I met a Moseiuer Leroy (a leading member of the royal accadime of arts and Sciences) to Explain the nature of my buisness to him, that he might State it to the Accademy. He was much pleasd with my plans and Informed me that Doctr. Franklin had wrote to him Several times respecting me Since I have been in Europe. On the whole he was very Clever understood the buisness well and spoke English well, but you will pity me when I tell you the necessary preparation to wait on such Charectors (or in Short on any jenteel person if in the afternoon. I was obliged to be dressed in a black Coat, West Coat, breeches and Stockings, my hair handsomely dressed and powdered, and the hind part in a large black bag; by my side a Sword! my hat in my hand! and (hard at my——) a lusty french Servant, broght up the rear! In this order (to use my Sister Marys Expression) I went Tackleing along! … many of their hats are nothing more than a three Square flat thing on purpose to be Convenient to Cary and are never put on atall! I had like to have forgot the muffs for the hands, which In truth are often as big as a half barrel, and are generally worn by both men and women; you will naturally conceive the appearance! These are things Charles, that at first, I had no idea was a necessary Conection of a Steam boat!” (Rumsey to Charles Morrow, Paris, 27 Mch. 1789; DLC: same).

The “one of the holy order” of whom Rumsey wrote was the Abbé Etienne d’Arnal, whose Prospectus de la navigation générale des rivières du royaume par le moyen de la machine à feu was published in Paris in 1781 (TJ possessed a copy: Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1955, 4 vols. description ends No. 1219). Rumsey may have heard of D’Arnal’s proposals while in England, for he endeavored to have TJ register his claims in advance of his coming to France for that purpose. In response to Condorcet’s advice, obtained by TJ, Rumsey had forwarded his sealed specifications in Aug. 1788 to the Académie des Sciences. D’Arnal’s privilege was nevertheless granted and published three months later, though TJ did not think that this would present a real obstacle (Vaughan to TJ, 11 July 1788; TJ to Vaughan, 23 July 1788; TJ to Paine, 23 Dec. 1788). Death also overtook Rumsey just as success seemed assured and as his most promising boat, Columbia Maid, was nearing completion.

Gouverneur Morris, who inspected one of Rumsey’s steam engines that had been erected in Paris to demonstrate their applicability to mills, thought that TJ was overly optimistic about the steamboat: “There is here an Abbé whom I have met with at Mr.Jefferson’s who is a very great Astronomer and who makes several Observations on the philosophic Credulity of Franklin and Jefferson. Both of them he thinks have entertained a higher Sense of the Force of Steam Engines applied to Navigation than they merit; and I think so too. I have told Parker long ago that I believe Rumsey’s Contrivances will answer only to work up Stream in Rivers where Fuel is cheap” (Morris, Diary, i, 50, 198, 526). The astronomer must have been the Abbé Rochon (1741–1817), who is often mentioned in TJ’s letters to men of science in America (TJ to Rittenhouse, 25 Jan. 1786; TJ to Franklin, 27 Jan. 1786) and of whom he wrote: “I was intimate with him in France and … possess … one of his lunettes, which he had given to Doctor Franklin and which came to me thro’ Mr. Hopkinson” (TJ to Robert Patterson, 27 Dec. 1812). The estimate attributed to him by Morris of the attitudes of TJ and Franklin was certainly in error as to the latter: Franklin was skeptical of Fitch’s invention, did little more than lend his name to Rumsey’s (perhaps because of Washington’s support), and in general his “imagination seems to have been untouched by any prospect of the coming age of steam” (Carl Van Doren, Franklin, p. 769). Franklin’s reasons for doubting that the advantages of steam as applied to navigation would “be such as to bring the Invention into Use”—the first cost, the need of a skilled engineer to operate and repair the engine, the space required in the boat—are set forth in a letter to Crèvecoeur of 16 Feb. 1788 (quoted in Julia Post Mitchell, St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, p. 272).

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