Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Eli Whitney, 16 November 1793

To Eli Whitney

Germantown Nov. 16. 1793.


Your favor of Octob. 15. inclosing a drawing of your cotton gin, was received on the 6th. inst. The only requisite of the law now uncomplied with is the forwarding a model, which being received your patent may be made out and delivered to your order immediately.

As the state of Virginia, of which I am, carries on houshold manufactures of cotton to a great extent, as I also do myself, and one of our great embarrasments is the clearing the cotton of the seed, I feel a considerable interest in the success of your invention, for family use. Permit me therefore to ask information from you on these points, has the machine been thoroughly tried in the ginning of cotton, or is it as yet but a machine of theory? what quantity of cotton has it cleaned on an average of several days, and worked by hand, and by how many hands? what will be the cost of one of them made to be worked by hand? Favorable answers to these questions1 would induce me to engage one of them to be forwarded to Richmond for me. Wishing to hear from you on the subject, I am Sir Your most obedt. servt

Th: Jefferson

P.S. Is this the machine advertised the last year by Pearce at the Patterson Manufactory?

RC (CtY: Eli Whitney Papers); addressed: “Mr. Eli Whitney New-Haven Connecticut”; franked, stamped, and postmarked. PrC (DLC). Tr (ViU: Edgehill-Randolph Papers); 19th-century copy.

TJ had written William Pearce on 15 Dec. 1792 inquiring about his machine for cleaning cotton.

The personal interest TJ manifested in Whitney’s cotton gin typified the widespread expectations generated by reports of the machine. It was later related that, when the patent was taken out at the Department of State, “Mr. Jefferson, who was then at the head of that Department, and who will be admitted a competent Judge, declared his opinion, that it was the most useful and important invention which had then been recorded in that office” (Decius Wadsworth to Joshua Coit, Savannah, 12 Dec. 1797, CtY: Whitney Papers, Letterbook of Miller & Whitney).

TJ’s interest in such a device dates back at least to the 1770s, when he had purchased crude hand cotton gins. Although TJ apparently never acquired one of Whitney’s machines, in 1806 he ordered some sheet iron for a cotton gin, talked thereafter of raising cotton, and sometimes ordered or tried to order seed, but there is virtually no evidence that he did so successfully (MB description begins James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, Princeton, forthcoming in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 18 Dec. 1776, and note, 18 Aug. 1777, 18 Sep. 1779; Betts, Farm Book description begins Edwin M. Betts, ed., Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, Princeton, 1953 description ends , 247, 250, 361).

1TJ here canceled “might.”

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