Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to William G. Munford, 18 June 1799

To William G. Munford

Monticello June 18. 99.

Dear Sir

I have to acknolege the reciept of your favor of May 14. in which you mention that you have finished the 6. first books of Euclid, plane trigonometry, surveying & algebra and ask whether I think a further pursuit of that branch of science would be useful to you. there are some propositions in the latter books of Euclid, & some of Archimedes, which are useful, & I have no doubt you have been made acquainted with them. trigonometry, so far as this, is most valuable to every man, there is scarcely a day in which he will not resort to it for some of the purposes of common life. the science of calculation also is indispensible as far as the extraction of the square & cube roots; Algebra as far as the quadratic equation & the use of logarithms1 are often of value in ordinary cases: but all beyond these is but a luxury; a delicious luxury indeed; but not to be indulged in by one who is to have a profession to follow for his subsistence. in this light I view2 the conic sections, curves of the higher orders, perhaps even spherical trigonometry, Algebraical operations beyond the 2d dimension, and fluxions. there are other branches of science however worth the attention of every man. astronomy, botany, chemistry natural philosophy, natural history, anatomy. not indeed to be a proficient in them; but to possess their general principles & outlines, so as that we may be able to amuse and inform ourselves further in any of them as we proceed through life & have occasion for them. some knowlege of them is necessary for our character as well as comfort. the general elements of astronomy & of natural philosophy are best acquired at an academy where we can have the benefit of the instruments & apparatus usually provided there: but the others may well be acquired from books alone as far as our purposes require. I have indulged myself in these observations to you, because the evidence cannot be unuseful to you of a person who has often had occasion to consider which of his acquisitions in science have been really useful to him in life, and which of them have been merely a matter of luxury.

I am among those who think well of the human character generally. I consider man as formed for society, and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society. I believe also, with Condorcet, as mentioned in your letter, that his mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception. it is impossible for a man who takes a survey of what is already known, not to see what an immensity in every branch of science yet remains to be discovered, & that too of articles to which our faculties seem adequate. in geometry & calculation we know a great deal, yet there are some desiderata. in anatomy great progress has been made; but much is still to be acquired. in natural history we possess knowlege; but we want a great deal. in chemistry we are not yet sure of the first elements. our natural philosophy is in a very infantine state; perhaps for great advances in it, a further progress in chemistry is necessary. surgery is well-advanced; but prodigiously short of what may be. the state of medecine is worse than that of total ignorance. could we divest ourselves of every thing we suppose we know in it, we should start from a higher ground & with fairer prospects. from Hippocrates to Brown we have had nothing but a succession of hypothetical systems each having it’s day of vogue, like the fashions & fancies of caps & gowns, & yielding in turn to the next caprice. yet the human frame, which is to be the subject of suffering & torture under these learned modes, does not change. we have a few medecines, as the bark, opium, mercury, which in a few well defined diseases are of unquestionable virtue: but the residuary list of the materia medica, long as it is, contains but the charlataneries of the art; and of the diseases of doubtful form, physicians have ever had a false knowlege, worse than ignorance. yet surely the list of unequivocal diseases & remedies is capable of enlargement; and it is still more certain that in the other branches of science, great fields are yet to be explored to which our faculties are equal, & that to an extent of which we cannot fix the limits. I join you therefore in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. this is precisely the doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating, & their friends here re-echoing; & applying especially to religion & politics; ‘that it is not probable that any thing better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers.’ we are to look backwards then & not forwards for the improvement of science, & to find it amidst feudal barbarisms and the fires of Spital-fields. but thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened, to listen to these impostures; and while the art of printing is left to us science can never be retrograde; what is once acquired of real knowlege can never be lost. to preserve the freedom of the human mind then & freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, & speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement. the generation which is going off the stage has deserved well of mankind for the struggles it has made,3 & for having arrested that course of despotism which had overwhelmed the world for thousands & thousands of years. if there seems to be danger that the ground they have gained will be lost again, that danger comes from the generation your cotemporary. but that the enthusiasm which characterises youth should lift it’s parracide hands against freedom & science, would be such a monstrous phaenomenon as I cannot place among possible things in this age & this country. your college at least has shewn itself incapable of it; and if the youth of any other place have seemed to rally under other banners it has been from delusions which they will soon dissipate. I shall be happy to hear from you from time to time, & of your progress in study, and to be useful to you in whatever is in my power; being with sincere esteem Dear Sir

Your friend & servt

Th: Jefferson

RC (NNC-T); at foot of first page: “Mr. Munford.” PrC (DLC); with emendations by TJ in ink (see notes 2–3 below).

Munford’s favor of may 14 has not been found but may have been a letter from Munford that is listed in SJL as received on 24 May 1799. TJ did not record the date on which that letter was written.

In his Elementa Medicinae, first published in 1780, Scottish physician John BROWN (d. 1788) challenged prevailing medical thought, most notably in his opposition to bloodletting in many cases of fever. His “Brunonian” system was controversial into the nineteenth century, but mainstream medical practice eventually incorporated its key elements. Benjamin Rush was interested in Brown’s theories, and TJ owned a copy of the English translation of the Elementa Medicinae (DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, 2d ed., New York, 1908–09, 22 vols. description ends , 3:14–17; George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His “Travels Through Life” together with his Commonplace Book for 1789–1813 [Princeton, 1948], 44, 87–8, 364–5; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 897).

It is not probable that any thing better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers: an expression of this sentiment appeared in John Adams’s 7 May 1798 reply to an address from “the Young Men of the City of Philadelphia, the District of Southwark, and the Northern Liberties.” Adams declared that he had taken an active role in the American Revolution “not from a desire of innovation… but, to preserve the honor of our country, and vindicate the immemorial liberties of our ancestors.” He went on: “Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity, or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction that after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all, will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education, more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity, than those you have received from your ancestors” (A Selection of the Patriotic Addresses, to the President of the United States. Together with the President’s Answers [Boston, 1798], 197–8; 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. 3525; TJ to Thomas Mann Randolph, 9 May 1798; Madison to TJ, 20 May 1798; TJ to Elbridge Gerry, 26 Jan. 1799).

Fires of spital-fields: a detailed survey of London by the chronicler John Stow, republished in several forms after its first appearance in 1598, reported that in the sixteenth century workers digging clay for bricks in the Spitalfields section of London had discovered the remains of numerous cremations from the Roman era (John Stow, A Survey of London: Reprinted from the Text of 1603, intro. and notes by Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, 2 vols. [Oxford, 1908; repr. 1971], 1:168–9; DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, 2d ed., New York, 1908–09, 22 vols. description ends , 19:4–5).

Although Munford was known to the faculty of the College of William and Mary, any official relationship he had with the institution in 1799 is unclear (see note to Course of Reading for William G. Munford, [5 Dec. 1798]). It was a different William Munford, a native of Mecklenburg County who later achieved some repute as a poet, translator of Homer, and clerk of the House of Delegates, who attended the college from 1790 to 1794 and appears in the roster of alumni (List of Alumni description begins A Provisional List of Alumni, Grammar School Students, Members of the Faculty, and Members of the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, from 1693 to 1888, Richmond, 1941 description ends , 29; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends , 13:326–7).

Of this letter Julian P. Boyd, the founding editor of these volumes, declared: “If all other writings of Jefferson were destroyed, the essential quality of the man would remain fully and brilliantly portrayed in this single document.” Boyd brought the letter, which was printed in a work on mathematics in 1934 but did not appear in earlier editions of TJ’s writings, to the attention of historians, and found opportunity to publish it as a keepsake miniature volume and elsewhere (Boyd, ed., Thomas Jefferson on Science and Freedom: The Letter to the Student William Greene Munford, June 18, 1799 [Worcester, Mass., 1964], 22, 26–7; “Let every Sluice of knowledge be Open’d and set a Flowing”: A Tribute to Philip May Hamer on the Completion of Ten Years as Executive Director, The National Historical Publications Commission [New York, 1960], document IV; David Eugene Smith, The Poetry of Mathematics and Other Essays [New York, 1934], 67–70; Adrienne Koch and Harry Ammon, “The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions: An Episode in Jefferson’s and Madison’s Defense of Civil Liberties,” WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly, 1892– description ends , 3d ser., 5 [1948], 151–2; Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, Boston, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , 3:418).

1Preceding four words and ampersand interlined and next word reworked from “is.”

2Sentence to this point interlined in place of “among these I reckon”; alteration made in ink on PrC.

3TJ first wrote “those who like myself are going off the stage have deserved well of mankind for the struggles they have made,” then altered the passage to read as above and made the changes in ink on PrC.

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