Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Sir Herbert Croft, 30 October 1798

To Sir Herbert Croft

Monticello Oct. 30. 1798.


The copy of your printed letter on the English and German languages, which you have been so kind as to send me, has come to hand; and I pray you to accept my thanks for this mark of your attention. I have perused it with singular pleasure, and, having long been sensible of the importance of a knolege of the Northern languages to the true understanding of English, I see it, in this letter, proved and specifically exemplified by your collations of the English and German. I shall look with impatience for the publication of your ‘English and American dictionary.’ Johnson, besides the want of precision in his definitions, and of accurate distinction in passing from one shade of meaning to another of the same word, is most objectionable in his derivations. from a want probably of intimacy with our own language while in the Anglo-Saxon form and type, and of it’s kindred languages of the North, he has a constant leaning towards Greek and Latin for English etymon. even Skinner has a little of this, who, when he has given the true Northern parentage of a word, often tells you from what Greek or Latin source it might be derived by those who have that kind of partiality. he is however, on the whole, our best etymologist, unless we ascend a step higher to the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; and he has set the good example of collating the English word with it’s kindred word in the several Northern dialects, which often assist in ascertaining it’s true meaning.

Your idea is an excellent one, pa. 30. 37. in producing authorities for the meanings of words, ‘to select the prominent passages in our best writers, to make your dictionary a general index to English literature and thus intersperse with verdure and flowers the barren deserts of Philology.’ and I believe with you that ‘wisdom, morality, religion, thus thrown down, as if without intention, before the reader, in quotations, may often produce more effect than the very passages in the books themselves’—’that the cowardly suicide, in search of a strong word for his dying letter, might light on a passage which would excite him to blush at his want of fortitude, & to forego his purpose’—’and that a dictionary with examples at the words may, in regard to every branch of knolege, produce more real effect than the whole collection of books which it quotes.’ I have sometimes myself used Johnson as a Repertory, to find favorite passages which I wished to recollect, but too rarely with success.

I was led to set a due value on the study of the Northern languages, & especially of our Anglo-Saxon while I was a student of the law, by being obliged to recur to that source for explanation of a multitude of Law-terms. a preface to Fortescue on Monarchies, written by Fortescue Aland, and afterwards premised to his volume of Reports, developes the advantages to be derived, to the English student generally, and particularly the student of law, from an acquaintance with the Anglo-Saxon; and mentions the books to which the learner may have recourse for acquiring the language. I accordingly devoted some time to it’s study. but my busy life has not permitted me to indulge in a pursuit to which I felt great attraction. while engaged in it however some ideas occurred for facilitating the study by simplifying it’s grammar, by reducing the infinite diversities of it’s unfixed orthography to single and settled forms, indicating at the same time the pronunciation of the word by it’s correspondence with the characters & powers of the English alphabet. some of these ideas I noted at the time on the blank leaves of my Elstob’s Anglo-Saxon grammar: but there I have left them, and must leave them, unpursued, altho’ I still think them sound & useful. among the works which I proposed for the use of the A.S. student, you will find such literal & verbal translations of the A.S. writers recommended, as you have given us of the German in your printed letter. thinking that I cannot submit those ideas to a better judge than yourself, and that if you find them of any value you may put them to some use, either as hints in your dictionary, or in some other way, I will copy them as a sequel to this letter, & commit them without reserve to your better knolege of the subject. adding my sincere wishes for the speedy publication of your valuable dictionary, I tender you the assurance of my high respect and consideration.

Th: Jefferson

FC (ViU); entirely in TJ’s hand; at head of text: “Copied by hand: the press-copy being illegible”; at foot of first page: “Herbert Croft esq. Ll.B. London.”

Your printed letter: Herbert Croft, A Letter, from Germany, to the Princess Royal of England; On the English and German Languages (Hamburg, 1797; 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. 4840). TJ’s interest in Old English or anglo-saxon, piqued during his early study of law, continued throughout his life. His understanding of the early development of English had limitations, particularly in terms of scholarship about, or written in, German. Moreover, his consideration of Old English was prompted at least in part by what scholars have deemed the “Saxon myth,” certainly not limited to TJ, which located the origins of English democratic, legal, and constitutional traditions in the pre-Norman era. Nevertheless, TJ studied Old English, and later advocated its study at the University of Virginia, not as an aesthetic scholastic exercise but for its practical benefit to the study of law, history, and literature. Familiarity with Saxon English melded well, also, with his views of modern English as a dynamic, evolving language. When he sold his library to Congress in 1815 his collection of books in and about Old English was “by far the largest in the nation at that time” (Stanley R. Hauer, “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language,” PMLA, 98 [1983], 879–98).

Skinner: Stephen Skinner, Etymologicon Linguæ Anglicanæ (London, 1671; 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. 4873). fortescue on monarchies: Sir John Fortescue, The Difference between an Absolute and Limited Monarchy; As it More Particularly regards the English Constitution, written in the fifteenth century and published in 1719 with a preface by Fortescue’s descendant, Sir John fortescue aland, who also included the preface in his Reports of Select Cases in all the Courts of Westminster-Hall (London, 1748). 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. 2079, 2704.

TJ’s notations in elstob’s anglo-saxon grammar—Elizabeth Elstob, The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue, First Given in English: with an Apology for the Study of Northern Antiquities, published in London in 1715—have not been located; 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. 4861. Well after his death, when the University of Virginia printed his work on Old English as An Essay towards Facilitating Instruction in the Anglo-Saxon and Modern Dialects of the English Language (New York, 1851), the published work included his letter to Croft. This pairing of the above letter and TJ’s Essay helped establish a long-held supposition that the Essay was in fact the sequel TJ appended to his letter to Croft (Hauer, “Jefferson and Anglo-Saxon,” 885, 896n; L & B description begins Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert E. Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1903–04, 20 vols. description ends , 18:360). However, TJ likely composed most of the Essay, which is a fairly substantial work in several sections, over a course of years, probably 1818 to 1825, in conjunction with his inclusion of Anglo-Saxon in the curriculum of the University of Virginia. Although the Essay in its final form did not exist until well after 1798, a careful student of the subject has suggested that one portion, which TJ called “Observations on Anglo-Saxon grammar,” may be of an earlier composition date than the other sections and could be similar to what TJ sent to Croft (Hauer, “Jefferson and Anglo-Saxon,” 884–91).

The letter above is the only correspondence with Sir Herbert Croft (1751–1816) that TJ noted in his epistolary record. A baronet of limited means, Croft trained as a lawyer but took orders in the Church of England and held a nominal position as a vicar. A prolific writer in different genres, he intended to compile a dictionary of the English language but never completed the project. Ironically, a novel that he published anonymously in 1780, Love and Madness, contained—some years before the appearance of TJ’s Notes on the State of Virginia—a version of Logan’s lamentation of 1774. Knowledge of that fact could have reinforced TJ’s contention that Logan’s oration was widely circulated prior to his own publication of it, but he did not know of Love and Madness as he collected evidence in response to Luther Martin’s newspaper attacks. When acquaintances later sent him copies of the novel he was probably unaware that Croft was its author. Love and Madness, the fictionalized account of a notorious case of obsessive love, is best known for Croft’s treatment in its pages of the controversial poet, Thomas Chatterton (DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, 2d ed., New York, 1908–09, 22 vols. description ends ; Maximillian E. Novak, “The Sensibility of Sir Herbert Croft in Love and Madness and the ‘Life of Edward Young,’ “The Age of Johnson, 8 [1997], 189–207; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 4338; TJ to John Henry, 31 Dec. 1797).

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