Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Fitch, 24 July 1792

From John Fitch

24 July 1792

I Sir am sorry to live in a State that no soner becomes a Nation than it becomes depraved. The injuryes which I have Received from my Nation or rather from the first Officers of Government has induced me for a lesson of caution to future generations to record the treatment which I have received which will in a Very Few Days be sealed up and placed in the Library of Philadelphia to remain under Seal till after my Death in which Sir your candour is Very seriously called in question.

I Sir altho an Indigent Citizen feal myself upon an equal floore with the first Officers of Government therefore trust that your Exalted Station will not permit you to treat this proposal with contempt as I do not wish to take any undue advantage and should I out live you and you not haveing it in your Power to make your Defence I should think it unmanly to conceal it from you therefore offer you the perusal of all my Manuscripts for Six days on your giveing in writing your Plighted faith of honor to return them all safe in that Time and on these conditions that if you should make any observations upon them that you will furnish me with a Coppy of the same. This Sir is from a poor but an independant Citizen of the United States of America and from one who wishes to subscribe himself your most Sincear Friend

John Fitch

MS (PPL: Fitch Papers); entirely in Fitch’s hand; at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr.”; with subjoined note by Fitch indicating that this letter was never sent: “This I suppressed by the advice of my Friends who was unaquainted with my designes”; endorsed by Fitch.

This unsent letter reflected Fitch’s profound bitterness at his failure to obtain a general patent for a steamboat and his unshakable conviction that TJ, as chair of the Patent Board, was partial to his chief rival, James Rumsey. Fitch first petitioned the board on 22 June 1790, describing how he completed the arduous efforts he began in 1785 to develop a steamboat only after receiving exclusive patents from five states, spending about $8,000 of his own money when assistance from Congress and the state legislatures was not forthcoming, and conducting countless futile experiments partly because he was totally ignorant of steam engines being developed in England; urging that interference from competitors not be allowed to undermine his invention “under any pretense of a different Mode of Application”; and requesting a patent granting “an exclusive Right to the Use of Steam to Navigation, for a Limited time” (FC in DLC: Fitch Papers; entirely in Fitch’s hand; at head of text: “To the honourable the Secretary of State the Secretary of War and the attorney General”; endorsed as received by the board a day later; printed from lost MS in William Thornton, Short Account of the Origin of Steam Boats, written in 1810, and Now Committed to the Press [Washington, 1814], 10–12). In at least nine ensuing petitions, the last of which was dated 14 Apr. 1791, Fitch peppered the board with arguments against granting anyone else a patent for any method of propelling boats by steam, with requests for procedural changes and expeditious action, with complaints about the financial cost of the delays to which his application was subjected, and with exhaustive documentation of his assertions that the law permitted issuance of a general patent founded on the use of fire and steam and did not require one based on a specific method, that his claim to a steam-boat patent predated Rumsey’s, and that the pretensions of other claimants were weak (Dfts and FCs in Fitch’s hand in PPL: Fitch Papers and DLC: Fitch Papers).

The board eventually decided to award patents bearing the date of 26 Aug. 1791 to all but the last named of the five aspirants—Fitch, Rumsey, John Stevens, Nathan Read, and Isaac Briggs—and to leave a final determination on the competing claims to the courts, a decision that effectively ended serious American work on steamboats until the expiration of the rival patents in 1805 (Frank D. Prager, “The Steam Boat Interference 1787–1793,” Patent Office Society, Journal, xl [1958], 640–1). Fitch’s patent did not grant the general rights for all water transportation powered by steam that he had sought, but rather awarded rights “for applying the force of Steam to a trunk or trunks for drawing water in at the bow of a boat or vessel and forcing the same out at the Stern, in order to propel a boat or vessel through the water; for forcing a column of air through a trunk or trunks filled with water, by the force of Steam; for forcing a column of Air through a trunk or trunks out at the Stern with the bow valves closed by the force of Steam; and for applying the force of Steam to cranks and paddles for propelling a boat or vessel through the water” (Tr in NjHi: Alofsen Collection; with George Washington as signatory and TJ as countersignatory, and with subjoined 26 Aug. 1791 certification by Attorney General Edmund Randolph and 30 Aug. 1791 notation by TJ that the patent had been delivered to Fitch that day; consisting of a certified copy of 12 July 1811 authenticated by Secretary of State James Monroe, filed with Trs of specification and drawing; for the latter, see Prager, Fitch description begins Frank D. Prager, ed., The Autobiography of John Fitch, Philadelphia, 1976 description ends , 196).

Fitch attributed the board’s decision to the favoritism he believed the three members, but the Secretary of State most of all, displayed toward Rumsey at the decisive hearing on 23 Apr. 1791 (Prager, Fitch description begins Frank D. Prager, ed., The Autobiography of John Fitch, Philadelphia, 1976 description ends , 197–8). Although he chose not to confront TJ directly with his encyclopedic allegations of mistreatment, and decided against sending the letter printed here, Fitch followed through on his intention of depositing copies of his papers relating to the controversy in the Library Company of Philadelphia. Instructing the Librarian to keep them under seal for thirty years because of his “fear that the violence of the times or the parties whome they affected might be a means of haveing them destroyed,” Fitch nevertheless authorized him “should Mr. Jefferson ever be aiming toward the presidents chair by all means to obtain leave to breake the seals and extract what affects the Commissioners of Congress [i.e., the Patent Board] and then seal them again.” Fitch also expressed a keen desire that the same might be “done to all the scounderals that is stepping forward for more favours from their country,” but always in such a manner as to ensure that they would not be able to destroy his papers (Fitch to the Librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia, 30 July, 26 Oct. 1792, in Prager, Fitch description begins Frank D. Prager, ed., The Autobiography of John Fitch, Philadelphia, 1976 description ends , 207–9). No evidence has been found to indicate that the Librarian honored Fitch’s request during TJ’s elections to the presidency.

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