Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Noah Webster, Jr., 31 January 1791

From Noah Webster, Jr.

Hartford Jany. 31st 1791


The bearer of this, Mr. John Jenkins, will present with this, a Method of teaching the art of penmanship, which appears to me to be in some measure novel and very ingenious. If his plan should make the same impression on you, I flatter myself it will receive your patronage and encouragement.—I have the Honor to be Sir, with great respect your obedt hum Servt

Noah Webster jun

RC (NNP); endorsed by TJ as received 18 Feb. 1791 and so recorded in SJL.

John Jenkins’ The art of writing (Boston, 1791) apparently did not make the same impression on TJ that it had on Webster and other leading educators of New England. In his The art of writing reduced to a plain and easy system on a plan entirely new (Elizabethtown, N.J., 1816), Jenkins explained that he had been an instructor of writing in ten states since 1781, that his system was under the patronage of the Massachusetts legislature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and that the first edition of 1791 was “highly approved by the first characters” (p. iii). The foundation of his system was the assumption that “nearly the whole alphabet was composed of six principal strokes or lines,” which he arranged and classified by number. In the second edition Jenkins published a list of fifty-four subscribers under date of 21 Feb. 1791 in addition to those already obtained in New England—for example, John Hancock, Jeremy Belknap, Fisher Ames, Ezra Stiles, and Noah Webster, Jr. The subscribers in Philadelphia included William Samuel Johnson, Robert Morris, Ebenezer Hazard, Arthur St. Clair, and Benjamin Franklin Bache (same, p. viii–x). Three medical men—Benjamin Rush, James Hutchinson, and Benjamin Say—after examining Jenkins’ directions for the position of the body and limbs declared themselves satisfied that the system was “easy and natural; and that the action of the muscles, and the circulation of the blood … less interrupted by it than by any of the usual positions in writing” (same, p. xii). TJ, who was much interested in tachygraphy and various forms of multiplying texts, evidently was not enamored of systematic forms of handwriting that stifled individuality. He was not a subscriber to Jenkins’ The art of writing and, so far as is known, did not lend his patronage to the man or to his system.

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