Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Bishop James Madison, 6 January 1800

To Bishop James Madison

Philadelphia Jan. 6. 1800.

Dear Sir

A mr Thomas P. Smith of this place, who is particularly able in the line of chemistry, and is master also of the Linnean Botany is desirous of getting a birth in your college, if these professorships still exist there & are vacant. I could not inform him on these points. I remember that in our reformation of the plan of the college in 1779. there was a professorship of Chemistry, Botany & Medecine established, & that Mc.lurg was the professor for a considerable time. but whether in the subsequent demolition of that reform this professorship escaped the ruin, or not, I do not know. this gentleman could bring the most unquestionable recommendations as a chemist, & particularly from Dr. Priestly; so that if the institution admits of him he would really be an acquisition. I have promised him to ask information from you, and I will thank you to give it me by the first post. if it be favorable, I would request the names of the present visitors, as it might be advantageous to him to take letters from gentlemen here to their acquaintances among them.   I learn nothing new in the line of science or the arts. the republican horison is greatly brightening by the events of Europe and the current of public opinion in America. accept my friendly & respectful salutations

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of text: “Bishop Madison”; endorsed by TJ in ink on verso.

Thomas Peters Smith, in his mid-twenties when TJ made this inquiry in his behalf, had studied with Robert Patterson and Benjamin Smith Barton. In 1798 he gave an oration before the Chemical Society of Philadelphia that was published as A Sketch of the Revolutions in Chemistry (Philadelphia, 1798; 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. 848). He became a member of the American Philosophical Society in July 1799, served on committees pertaining to minerals and niter, and was elected one of the society’s secretaries three days before TJ wrote the letter above. In May 1800 Smith embarked for Europe and Britain to expand his knowledge of mineralogy, chemistry, and industrial processes, but during his return voyage in 1802 he was mortally wounded when a cannon on board the ship exploded. He died at sea after bequeathing his papers and specimens to the society (Wyndham Miles, “Thomas Peters Smith: A Typical Early American Chemist,” Journal of Chemical Education, 30 [1953], 184–8; APS, description begins American Philosophical Society description ends Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 283, 290). Three letters exchanged by TJ and Smith are recorded in SJL but have not been found: Smith to TJ, 1 June 1798 and 4 Jan. 1800, received on the same days on which they were written, and TJ to Smith, 12 June 1798.

The reformation of the plan of the college of William and Mary in 1779, when TJ was on the Board of Visitors, abolished the professorships of divinity and classical languages. Among three new faculty positions created at that time was one in anatomy and medicine that James McClurg occupied until 1783. He never developed a formal course in medicine, and Bishop Madison, the president of the college, came to construe the position as a professorship of chemistry (Autobiography, in Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Letterpress Edition, New York, 1892–99, 10 vols. description ends 1:69–70; Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , 151; J. E. Morpurgo, Their Majesties’ Royall Colledge: William and Mary in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries [Williamsburg, 1976], 193–4).

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