Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Mary Jefferson, 16 February 1791

To Mary Jefferson

Philadelphia Feb. 16. 1791.

My dear Poll

At length I have recieved, a letter from you. As the spell is now broke, I hope you will continue to write every three weeks. Observe I do not admit the excuse you make of not writing because your sister had not written the week before: let each write their own week without regard to what others do, or do not do.—I congratulate you my dear aunt on your new title. I hope you pay a great deal of attention to your niece, and that you have begun to give her lessons on the harpsichord, in Spanish &ca. Tell your sister I make her a present of Gregory’s comparative view, inclosed herewith, and that she will find in it a great deal of useful advice for a young mother. I hope herself and the child are well. Kiss them both for me. Present me affectionately to Mr. Randolph and Miss Jenny. Mind your Spanish and your Harpsichord well and think often and always of, Your’s affectionately,

Th: Jefferson

P.S. Letters inclosed with the book for your sister.

RC (ViU); addressed: “Miss Maria Jefferson Monticello.” PrC (ViU). Enclosure: John Gregory (1724–1773), A comparative view of the state and faculties of man with those of the animal world (London, 1766). The letters enclosed with the book may have been those to Martha Randolph and Lewis Nicholas of 9 Feb. 1791, assuming that these missed the post of the previous week.

If TJ’s sole purpose had been to furnish “a great deal of useful advice for a young mother,” it is strange that he did not choose another work by the professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh whose ideas he found so congenial. Gregory’s A father’s legacy to his daughters was an extremely popular treatise devoted to the improvement of mind and manners, going through many editions in both English and French. TJ owned a copy of the London, 1779, edition (Sowerby No. 1354). But Gregory’s Comparative view, a series of discourses presented to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh between 1758 and 1763, contains only one small passage that is strictly relevant to TJ’s avowed purpose in sending it to Martha. Only the first of the discourses is devoted to reflections on infancy, “that period of life, where Instinct is the only active principle of our Nature, and consequently where the analogy between us and other animals will be found most compleat.” It urged a “back to Nature and Common sense” approach to the care and nurture of infants, inveighing against the use of midwives, wet nurses, restrictive clothing, and in general any practice that disregarded the lessons of instinct “and the analogous Constitutions of other Animals.”

All of the remaining discourses were devoted to those distinctions that set man apart from “the rest of the Animal Creation”: his powers of reasoning, his social dispositions, his refinements of taste, and his capacity for religion. The second discourse developed the theme that talent and genius were not in themselves sufficient to place their possessor at the head of a useful art or profession or to make him more happy in himself. On the contrary, these endowments were “usually dissipated in such a way, as renders them of no account, either to the Public or the Possessor.” Thus nothing was more likely to deprive the world of the fruits of great talents than “the passion for universal knowledge so constantly annexed to those who possess them.” By this indulgence “the flame of Genius is wasted in the endless labour of accumulating promiscuous or useless facts, while it might have enlightened the most useful Arts by concentrating its force upon one object.” Mere passive and undirected reading contributed to the same end and thus the “powers of Genius and Invention languish for want of exercise.” Moreover, “All the public and social affections, in common with every taste natural to the Human Mind, if they are not properly exercised, grow languid.” Yet in a situation withdrawn from the world, private and selfish feelings—especially “Envy and Jealousy, the most tormenting of all Passions”—flourished. Failure to mix with the world was often an insuperable obstacle to the advancement of men of merit, thus providing “a frequent source of their disgust to the World, and consequently to themselves.” One of the principal misfortunes of talent exerted in a speculative and isolated rather than an active sphere was “its tendency to lead the Mind into too deep a sense of its own weakness and limited capacity.” This naturally brought on “a gloomy and forlorn Scepticism.” Under such handicaps, “Reason, that boasted characteristic and privilege of the Human Species,” would produce little if any public or private good. Despite all of these and other limitations, however, those endowed with superior talents were “born to an ascendancy and empire over the Minds and Affairs of Mankind, if they would but assume it.”

Such was the burden of the message in Gregory’s Comparative view, and it contradicts TJ’s declared purpose in sending it to his daughter. Even that fractional part of the discourses that treats of infancy seems under the circumstances somewhat superfluous for such an object. Martha Randolph had long been exposed to her father’s faith in common sense and the healing power of nature. Moreover, she was at that moment under the capable guidance of Mrs. Mary Walker Lewis in facing the problems of infant care. By contrast, the principal burden of Gregory’s discourses—the warning that the man of talent, withdrawn from society, might contribute little to the public good or to his own happiness-seems exactly suited to another member of the little audience to which the letter to Mary was addressed. In view of the sensitive web of relationships connecting father, daughter, and husband, a resort to a characteristically indirect means of persuasion may have seemed more appropriate for use by one who, under other circumstances, never hesitated to make direct appeals to young men of talent urging them to assume active roles in society. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that Gregory’s Comparative view was chosen not for the stated reason, but because it contained a great deal of useful advice peculiarly fitted to the temperament and condition of the young father at Monticello. See TJ to Randolph, 24 Feb. 1791, note.

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