Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Bishop James Madison, 17 January 1800

From Bishop James Madison

January 17th. 1800 Williamsburg.

Dear Sir

I should certainly have answered your Favour by the succeeding Post, had I received it in Time. Unfortunately it did not come to Hand ’till the next Morning.

I am sorry I cannot return such an Answer as could be desired. The Professorship of Chemistry &c has not been actually abolished; but after Dr McClurg left us, two Professorships of Humanity were instituted in it’s Stead.—This Revival of the Grammar School has, however, so illy answered the Expectations of the Patrons of the Scheme, that I am persuaded, could a Visitation be had, one or both of the Professorships would be abolished. If this were done, the Professorship of Chemistry might be, very advantagously revived; an Event which I should rejoice to see. At present however, it is almost impossible to say what will be done. The Visitors seem to have abandoned the College. We have not been able to obtain a Meeting of them for 5 Years. Such is the attention paid to Science!—An Effort will be made to prevail upon them to meet at the annual Period, about the 25th of March, which, I flatter myself, will be successful. It is more than probable, that a considerable Change will then take Place in this badly organized Body. If Members more active, & more zealous in the Promotion of real Science be chosen, an Opening may then be made for Mr. Smith: In this Case I will immediately notify you of the fortunate Circumstance.

I rejoice to learn, that the Current of public Opinion is likely, at Length, to find the proper Channel. I can most heartily say, God speed it—

Beleive me to be, Dr Sir, with greatest Respect & Esteem—Yr. Friend & St.

J Madison

I had great Pleasure in reading your observations upon the Megalonix, which I saw, for the first Time, only a few Weeks past, in Smith’s Paper. Is it not probable, that the Saltpeter which abounds in the Part of the Country where thes. Bones were found, much more than in any other Place, might have been the Cause of their Preservation there, whilst many similar Bones may have perished elsewhere, for want of the same Cause.

Would it not be an Object well worthy of the Philosl Society to depute one of it’s Members, sufficiently instructed in Natural History & Chemistry—to examine the Wall in North Carolina, of which you have, no Doubt, often heard. According to the Account given to me by the Presidt of the College in that State, this wall may be ranked among the most extraordinary Phænomena of this Continent. Perhaps an able Chemist & Philosopher might be, enabled to penetrate into the Night of Time, & bring to Light Information most curious & useful.—If it be indeed, a Production of Nature, he would easily ascertain that Point; but if it be the Work of Man, as is confidently afirmed, or as the Descriptions of it lead us to conclude, it would be not only worthy of the Phill Society, but of the Govt. of the U.S. to have it accurately examined.

To this Miscellany, I will add one more Observation. When at the Sweet Springs, last Fall, I endeavoured to ascertain the Quantity of Carbonic Acid contained in any given Buck of the Water; & found, by the Expt. with Lime Water, according to the Method of Fourcroy & Weigleib—that an Ounce of the Water contained a Cubic Inch & more than a half of that Air.—I do not think those Waters contain any Magnesia.

I have sent Mr Tucker’s Letter to Morse in a seperate Paper.—Did you see my short Observations respecting the Wall in No Carolina, in my last? I wish’d to Know, generally, what was your Opinion respecting it.

RC (DLC); addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr Vice President of the U. States Philadelphia”; franked; endorsed by TJ as received 28 Jan. and so recorded in SJL.

Your favour: TJ’s letter of 6 Jan. The Grammar School of the College of William and Mary had been closed in the 1779 reorganization of the institution. The dismissed master of the lower school, John Bracken, tried unsuccessfully to challenge the action by means of a lawsuit. However, in 1792 the Board of visitors gave Bracken one of the two new humanities professorships, and in that capacity he reestablished the grammar school; see also Bishop Madison’s letter of 30 Mch. below (Wilford Kale, Hark Upon the Gale: An Illustrated History of the College of William and Mary [Norfolk, 1985], 67–9).

On 14 Nov. 1799 Samuel Harrison Smith’s paper, the Universal Gazette, published TJ’s Memoir on the Megalonyx, [10 Feb. 1797], following the text as it had been published in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society but omitting the final paragraph and postscript (see Vol. 29:291–304).

Heavy rains in 1794 had exposed a buried wall in Rowan County, North Carolina. Although it proved to be a natural phenomenon rather than a human-built structure, to some observers the wall seemed to consist of stones laid in courses and held in place by a form of cement. Geographers commented on it well into the nineteenth century (James S. Brawley, Rowan County: A Brief History [Raleigh, N.C., 1974], 48–51; Jasper Leonidas Stuckey, North Carolina: Its Geology and Mineral Resources [Raleigh, N.C., 1965], 132–3, 218). The person affiliated with the college in that state with whom Bishop Madison communicated about the wall may have been Samuel Eusebius McCorkle, a Presbyterian divine who was involved in the establishment and early operations of the University of North Carolina as a trustee and faculty member in the 1790s but ultimately failed to obtain the institution’s presidency. McCorkle and another clergyman first brought the stone wall to the attention of the American Philosophical Society in the spring of 1797 (William D. Snider, Light on the Hill: A History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [Chapel Hill, 1992], 9, 19–25, 28–9, 32; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 257–8).

Tucker’s letter to morse: A Letter, to the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, A.M. (Richmond, 1795), which criticized statements made about Virginia in Morse’s American Universal Geography. The pamphlet identified its author, St. George Tucker, only as “a citizen of Williamsburg.” 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. 29662.

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