Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Smith Barton, 25 October 1796

From Benjamin Smith Barton

Philadelphia, October 25th 1796.

Dear Sir

Your letter has come safe to hand. I am extremely glad to learn, that1 a number of the bones of the newly-discovered animal have been already discovered. I wish greatly to see your account of them. I find, by late inquiry, that the 4th vol. of the Transactions will not be published in less than two months.

As you request it, I shall retain the money (sixty dollars) lent to me, for the purpose which you mention. Several things, in the literary way, have made their appearance within the last year. These I shall not fail to transmit to you, by some safe conveyance. Have you seen a posthumous work, attributed to Condorcet, on the progress of the human mind? In many respects, it has, I think, great merit. Dr. Priestley has kindly lent to me the great work of Pallas, on the languages of all nations. This will enable me to discover what resemblances actually do subsist between the American languages and those of Northern-Asia. Of this great work, I have the first and second parts (two large quartos). As the empress has sent Mr. Pallas still farther north than Petersburgh, I fear the work will never be finished. He has not given any specimens of the languages of the American nations.

Some very interesting articles, which were taken out of an ancient tumulus, north of the Ohio, have been presented to the Philosophical Society. My account of, and conjectures concerning, these articles have been printed. I shall take the liberty of sending you a copy, by a safe conveyance.

Mrs. Rittenhouse requests me to present her compliments to you. I am, Dear Sir, with the greatest respect, Your most obedient & most humble servant, &c.

B. S. Barton

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 4 Nov. 1796 and so recorded in SJL.

Your letter: TJ to Barton, 10 Oct. 1796. The Posthumous Work was the Marquis de Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Paris, 1795), recently published in the United States as Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind: being a Posthumous Work of the late M. de Condorcet (Philadelphia, 1796). See Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 1247.

The German-born scientist Peter Simon Pallas, who spent most of his career working under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, made significant contributions to geology, the classification of flora and fauna, and the systematic description of far-flung regions of the Russian empire (DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends ). The great project of comparing and classifying linguistic families by rendering a list of 130 core words in each of 200 languages was a personal project of the Russian Empress, Catherine II. At her request, Pallas published the results of the study as Sravnitel’nye slovari vsiekh iazykov i nariechii, sobrannye desnitseiu vsevysochaishei osoby, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1786–89), which also bore a Latin title and preface although the vocabularies themselves were all printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. George Washington, recruited for the enterprise by the Marquis de Lafayette, had obtained for Catherine translations of the word list in some American Indian languages, but the first edition of the book, as indicated by Barton, did not contain vocabulary from any American nations. Languages from the Americas and Africa were added to a second edition published in four volumes (St. Petersburg, 1790–91), also in the Cyrillic alphabet, which expanded the word list as well as the number of languages covered, but Catherine was so distressed by the scheme of classification and arrangement introduced by her new compiler, Fedor Ivanovich de Mirievo, that she severely curtailed distribution of the second edition. TJ, like Barton, was interested in linguistic evidence that might provide clues to the origins of American Indians and compiled his own set of comparative word lists. He was evidently unaware of the expanded edition of the Russian work until 1806, when he learned of it from a published report by Volney and asked Levett Harris, the American consul in St. Petersburg, to find Pallas’s book. Harris obtained both editions for TJ’s library (Mary Ritchie Key, Catherine the Great’s Linguistic Contribution [Carbondale, Ill., 1980], 51–2, 56–7, 60–70, 73–6; Volney, Rapport fait à l’Academie celtique, sur l’ouvrage russe de M. le professeur Pallas [Paris, 1805?]; TJ to Harris, 18 Apr. 1806, 28 Mch. 1807; Harris to TJ, 10 Aug., 15 Sep. 1806, 24 July 1807). See Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends Nos. 4736–7.

Winthrop Sargent had sent the American Philosophical Society artifacts excavated from a burial mound at Cincinnati. Barton’s account of the finds took the form of a letter to Joseph Priestley, 16 May 1796, which was printed that year and also subsequently in the society’s Transactions (Winthrop Sargent and Benjamin Smith Barton, Papers Relative to Certain American Antiquities [Philadelphia, 1796]; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, iv [1799], 177–215; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, xxii, pt. 3 [1884], 237, 239). See Evans, description begins Charles Evans, Clifford K. Shipton, and Roger P. Bristol, comps., American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of all Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America from … 1639 … to … 1820, Chicago and Worcester, Mass., 1903–59, 14 vols. description ends No. 30038.

1Barton here canceled “there is a probability that.”

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