Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to John Trumbull, 20 February 1791

To John Trumbull

Philadelphia Feb. 20. 1791.

Dear Sir

Much hurried while you were here, I was the less exact in sending you the inclosed, because I knew I could send it to Charleston before you would have occasion for it. There I hope it will meet you in good health, and resolved to return by the way of the Natural bridge. Remember you will never be so near it again, and take to yourself and your country the honor of presenting to the world this singular landscape, which otherwise some bungling European will misrepresent. On that rout you will surely take my daughters in your way, who as well as my son in law will be very happy to receive you at Monticello, and do the honours of the house instead of grand—papa. I am with great affection Dear Sir Your friend & servt,

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC). Enclosure: TJ’s general letter of introduction, dated at Philadelphia, 20 Feb. 1791, reading as follows: “The bearer hereof, Mr. John Trumbul, son of the late Governor Trumbull of Connecticut, proposing to pass through Virginia in the ensuing spring, and not certain by what particular rout, I take the liberty of introducing him to any of my friends and acquaintances to whose perusal he may be so good as to offer this note. The honour he has done our country in Europe as a painter, his extraordinary merit personally, and my affection for him will I hope procure for him from my friends all the civilities and attentions on his journey which may be useful or agreeable, which will be more considered than if personally shewn to their very humble servt., Th: Jefferson” (PrC in DLC).

TJ’s appeal to Trumbull to visit the natural bridge and to honor himself and the nation by portraying the singular landscape reflects his continuing effort over a long period of time to have some competent artist depict the scene. This desire arose from his belief that the phenomenon was “the most sublime of Nature’s works” and it reflected his conviction that its ownership was a public trust of such an exacting nature that no consideration could bring him to “permit the bridge to be injured, defaced or masked from the public view” (Notes, ed. Peden description begins William Peden, ed., Notes on the State of Virginia, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , p. 24–5; TJ to William Caruthers, 15 Mch. 1815).

TJ himself in 1767 made what appears to be the first detailed description of the Natural Bridge, together with measurements and an accompanying profile, but this remained unpublished (Account Book; 1767; owned by Dr. Robert H. Kean, Richmond, Va., 1945). His life-long fascination with this object of wonder must have begun much earlier. When Andrew Burnaby traveled through Virginia in 1759–1760, he listed among the natural curiosities that he wanted to see, but did not, “a natural arch, or bridge, joining the high mountains, with a considerable river running underneath” (Burnaby, Travels through the Middle Settlements in North-America [New York, 1904], ed. R. R. Wilson, p. 77). This has been considered to be the first public allusion to the Natural Bridge, though it did not appear in print until Burnaby’s first edition was issued in 1775 (TJ owned a copy of the 2d edition, published the same year; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1959, 5 vols. description ends No. 4017; C. A. Reed, The Natural Bridge of Virginia and its Environs [New York, 1927]). Since Burnaby was in Williamsburg from the fall of 1759 through the spring of 1760, it is possible that TJ may have met him. It is also plausible to imagine that the son of Peter Jefferson, who as a cartographer of Virginia cannot have been ignorant of the existence of the Natural Bridge, may have called it to the attention of the traveler.

But the first description of the Natural Bridge to appear in print, detailed and based on actual observations, was published in American newspapers over two years before Burnaby’s Travels came out. This interesting account was first published in Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania Journal of 25 Nov. 1772 and was written for the express purpose of inducing an artist to portray the phenomenon. The description was prefaced by a communication signed humble servant—perhaps written by the editor or even by the artist himself—in which the anonymous writer declared that the description was “sent by a Gentleman of Virginia to his Friend in this City with a view of prevailing upon the ingenious Mr. P—LE [Charles Willson Peale] (who is now among us) to come and oblige the Public with a draught” of the Natural Bridge. Because of its possible influence in exciting anew TJ’s interest, the text is given in full:

“This Bridge is thrown by the hand of Nature from one precipice of a rock to another over Cedar-creek, which falls into James River in Bottetout County, Virginia. The precipice seems in some violent convulsion of Nature to have been torn asunder to allow a passage to the water, which flows at least 350 feet below the top of the Arch, which at its base is about 60 feet broad, but widens as it rises, so as to appear halfway up to be 120 broad. The top of the Arch is 25 feet wide, and would allow a ready Passage for Carriages of all kinds.—The edge of the precipice is skirted with trees of various kinds, and growths, and makes a most romantic appearance; nor is it without its terrors, for here and there you see huge piles of rocks, that seem lose and tottering, as if they were about to tumble down, and impede the river’s future progress. The imagination keeps pace with probability in this expectation, for below you observe fragments of many tons weight, that have in the revolution of ages fallen at various times from the precipice above. The winter before I visited this place, a very large fragment fell, and the noise it made astonished the inhabitants, who supposed it to be thunder, uncommon at that season of the year. To know whether I was not imposed upon in this circumstance, I made my servant throw over some stones, which sounded like a cannon: after this I fired a pocket pistol under the arch, the report of which was louder than a swivel. The swallows skimming through the arch above, appeared not much larger than humming birds. The crows and the ravens, which build in clefts of the rock, strike the ear with their perpetual cawing. The weeping springs that trickle down the sides of the arch; the ivy and wild vines, forming festoons along its sides, with stragling trees shooting in many places from clefts of the naked rock, and intermixing their roots, entertain the eye with an endless variety above, while below a rapid stream ripling over the opposing rocks washes the roots of some tall mulberry and locust trees, which grow almost under the arch itself. Could the eye for a moment be estranged from such a delicious scene, to look either way through the arch, it might catch the view of mountain rising upon mountain, diversified into a thousand shades from the various trees that form their forests. But it is in vain to dwell longer upon a description, which must appear feint to those who have seen, or shall see, with an enthusiastic pleasure, the numberless beauties of this enchanting place, where the eye, far from being satiated, is still discovering new objects to admire. I felt a sort of a veneration under its arch, which in times of paganism would have led me to invoke the genius of the place, and casting many a lingering look behind, I measured back my steps with reluctance, reflecting with pleasure on the toils I had encountered in my travels through so many wildernesses, since they drew me at length to one of nature’s most prodigious works.” (The Editor is indebted to Professor David F. Hawke of Dartmouth College for discovering this text in the Pennsylvania Journal and for calling it to his attention.)

This description, written “in the full enjoyment of a Romantic enthusiasm,” was from the pen of William Carmichael, who spoke so feelingly to Charles Willson Peale about the Natural Bridge that the artist asked for a copy of his notes. Carmichael complied with this “very hasty and incorrect copy” that was published soon thereafter, no doubt at Peale’s instigation (Carmichael to TJ, 3 Oct. 1786). It is obvious that there are close parallels between Carmichael’s description and that written about a decade later by TJ in Notes on Virginia. The former states, for example, that the precipice “seems in some violent convulsion of Nature to have been torn asunder.” The latter asserts that the hill “seems to have been cloven through its length by some great convulsion”—an opinion to which TJ clung for many years until his young friend Francis William Gilmer postulated another theory that is still generally regarded as valid (Chastellux, Travels in North America [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963], ed. Howard C. Rice, Jr., ii, 446–7). Both accounts reflect the feelings of awe and even terror induced by the scene. Carmichael described it as “one of nature’s most prodigious works” and TJ called it without qualification “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” Both accounts declare the scene to be indescribable in words. Most striking of all, both concur in the mistaken opinion that it was possible to view the distant mountains through the arch. TJ, in a later MS note added to his own annotated copy of the Stockdale, 1787, edition of Notes on Virginia, declared: “This description was written after a lapse of several years from the time of my visit to the bridge, and under an error of recollection. … The statement therefore in the former edition needs the corrections here given to it. Aug. 16. 1817” (ViU). But the error of recollection was not made over the length of time that TJ assumed, for his detailed description of 1767 makes the same error. Presumably both TJ’s notes of 1767 and those of Carmichael of 1772 from which the “very hasty and incorrect copy” was made were set down at the time of the visit to the Natural Bridge or very soon thereafter.

This curious duplication of error by two young and impressionable visitors to the Natural Bridge and other parallels in their descriptions might be dismissed as mere coincidence, if it were not for the fact that Carmichael’s account, without humble servant’s prefatory note, but with the caption “Description of a Natural Bridge in Botetourt County, Virginia,” appeared in full in Purdie & Dixon’s Virginia Gazette on 17 Dec. 1772, just as TJ was setting off from the capital for Monticello. It was only six months later that he paid £2 15s. 4d. at the “S[urveyor General’s] O[ffice at Williamsburg for a survey warrant,] returning my own 157. acres for Natural bridge.” Shortly thereafter he paid James Tremble £2 1s. 8d. “for making survey of my entry on Natural bridge.” And on 5 July 1774 a patent in the name of George III was issued to him for the property that for the remainder of his life he held and cherished as a sort of public trust (Account Book, 10 June and 15 Sep. 1773; plat of survey in MHi; Betts, Farm Book description begins Edwin M. Betts, ed., Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, Princeton, 1953 description ends , p. 32). It is difficult to believe that, having allowed five years to pass after making his careful description of the Natural Bridge in 1767, TJ was not inspired to this sudden action by the appearance in the Virginia Gazette of the sensitive description by William Carmichael. It is equally plausible to assume that Carmichael’s account influenced in part at least the description given in Notes on Virginia.

It is another coincidence that, when Carmichael revealed his authorship to TJ in 1786 and recounted his effort to persuade Peale to paint the scene, the owner of the Natural Bridge had just witnessed the publication in Paris of its first pictorial representation—a delineation for which he himself was indirectly responsible by having urged the Marquis de Chastellux, during his stay at Monticello in 1782, to visit the Natural Bridge. When Chastellux returned from that visit he regretted that he had failed to take proper measurements and determined to send someone “who was both a draftsman and a surveyor … to the Appalachians for this sole purpose.” His commanding general, Comte de Rochambeau, readily supported the suggestion with his orders, thinking that it would be another service to America to make this natural wonder known to the world and that “it would even be rather droll for people to see that the French had been the first to describe it with precision and publish a correct plan of it” (Chastellux, Travels, ed. Rice, ii, 448). The person selected for the task was Baron de Turpin of the Royal Corps of Engineers, who drew both a flat projection of the Natural Bridge with its environs and two perspective views from upstream and downstream vantage points (same, ii, at p. 446; see reproduction of the upstream view in Vol. 6: 204). Both of Rochambeau’s motives were realized when engravings of these drawings were published in Chastellux’ Voyages, which appeared in Paris in 1786. Though TJ had been the first to make measurements and the first to set down an exact description of the Natural Bridge, his account in Notes on Virginia printed the previous year was not so explicit as that recorded in his notes of 1767 and carried no illustration. The engravings from Baron de Turpin’s drawings became the prototypes of many subsequent reproductions (Chastellux, Travels, ed. Rice, ii, 608). Very shortly after the French thus achieved the distinction of being the first to depict the phenomenon, TJ learned from Carmichael how “the honor of presenting to the world this singular landscape” had almost fallen to an American more than a decade earlier.

John Trumbull had been in Paris and an intimate of TJ’s household when Chastellux’ Voyages appeared. Baron de Turpin’s drawings must have become an object of critical discussion at the time between the American artist and the one who not only owned the property but took patriotic pride in it. TJ clearly was not pleased with the perspective views. Chastellux himself acknowledged that an exact idea of the platform of the Natural Bridge could not be gained from them (same, ii, 608). Thus there was no need in 1790 for TJ to argue the importance of having Trumbull visit and depict the scene or even to mention the previous engravings from Baron de Turpin’s drawings: his somewhat acerb remark that “otherwise some bungling European” would misrepresent the phenomenon could only mean that Trumbull would understand the allusion to a bungling already committed and that, its results being dismissed, the honor was still available to be claimed by an American. But the lines of convergence that came to the Hôtel de Langeac with Carmichael’s news in the autumn of 1786 place in clearer perspective the hope expressed by TJ at that time that another artist would visit America and depict the Natural Bridge. That artist was European but one whom TJ never considered as bungling and before whom even the national pride of claiming the honor for an American gave way. She was Maria Cosway (TJ to Mrs. Cosway, 24 Dec. 1786).

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