Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 18 January 1800

To Joseph Priestley

Philadelphia Jan. 18. 1800.

Dear Sir

I have to thank you for the pamphlets you were so kind as to send me. you will know what I thought of them by my having before sent a dozen sets to Virginia to distribute among my friends. yet I thank you not the less for these which I value the more as they came from yourself. the stock of them which Campbell had was I believe exhausted the first or second day of advertising them. the papers of Political arithmetic both in your’s & Mr. Cooper’s pamphlets are the most precious gifts that can be made to us; for we are running navigation-mad, & commerce-mad, and navy-mad, which is worst of all. how desireable is it that you could pursue that subject for us. from the Porcupines of our country you will receive no thanks; but the great mass of our nation will edify & thank you. how deeply have I been chagrined & mortified at the persecutions which fanaticism & monarchy have excited against you even here!1 at first I believed it was merely a continuance of the English persecution. but I observe that on the demise of Porcupine & division of his inheritance between Fenno & Brown, the latter (tho’ succeeding only to the federal portion of Porcupinism, not the Anglican which is Fenno’s part) serves up for the palate of his sect dishes of abuse against you as high-season as Porcupine’s were. you have sinned against church & king & can therefore never be forgiven. how sincerely have I regretted that your friend, before he fixed his choice of a position, did not visit the vallies on each side of the blue ridge in Virginia, as mr. Madison & myself so much wished. you would have found there equal soil, the finest climate & most healthy one on the earth, the homage of universal reverence & love, & the power of the country spread over you as a shield. but since you would not make it your country by adoption, you must now do it by your good offices. I have one to propose to you which will produce their good & gratitude to your [ages?], and in the way to which you have devoted a long life, that of spread[ing?] light among men.

We have in that state a college (Wm. & Mary) just well enough endowed to draw out the miserable existence to which a miserable constitution has doomed it. it is moreover eccentric in it’s position, exposed to bilious diseases as all the lower country is, & therefore abandoned by the public care, as that part of the country itself is in a considerable degree by it’s inhabitants. we wish to establish in the upper & healthier country, & more centrally for the state an University on a plan so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronising with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other states to come, and drink of the cup of knolege & fraternize with us. the first step is to obtain a good plan; that is a judicious selection of the sciences, & a practicable grouping of some of them together, & ramifying of others, so as to adapt the professorships to our uses, & our means. in an institution meant chiefly for use, some branches of science, formerly esteemed, may be now omitted, so may others now valued in Europe, but useless to us for ages to come. take, as an example of the former, the Oriental learning, and of the latter almost the whole of the institution proposed to Congress by the Secretary of war’s report of the 5th. inst. now there is no one to whom this subject is so familiar as yourself. there is no one in the world who equally with yourself unites this full possession of the subject with such a knolege of the state of our existence, as enables you to fit the garment to him who is to pay for it & to wear it. to you therefore we address our sollicitations. and to lessen to you as much as possible the ambiguities of our object, I will venture even to sketch the sciences which seem useful & practicable for us, as they occur to me while holding my pen. Botany. Chemistry. Zoology. Anatomy. Surgery. Medecine. Natl. Philosophy. Agriculture. Mathematics. Astronomy. Geology. Geography. Politics. Commerce. History. Ethics. Law. Arts. Fine arts. this list is imperfect because I make it hastily, and because I am unequal to the subject. it is evident that some of these articles are too much for one professor & must therefore be ramified; others may be ascribed in groupes to a single professor. this is the difficult part of the work, & requires a hand perfectly knowing the extent of each branch, & the limits within which it may be circumscribed; so as to bring the whole within the powers of the fewest professors possible, & consequently within the degree of expence practicable for us. we should propose that the professors follow no other calling, so that their whole time may be given to their academical functions: and we should propose to draw from Europe the first characters in science, by considerable temptations, which would not need to be repeated after the first set should have prepared fit successors & given reputation to the institution. from some splendid characters I have received offers most perfectly reasonable & practicable.

I do not propose to give you all this trouble merely of my own head. that would be arrogance. it has been the subject of consultation among the ablest and highest characters of our state, who only wait for a plan to make a joint & I hope succesful effort to get the thing carried into effect. they will recieve your ideas with the greatest deference & thankfulness. we shall be here certainly for two months to come; but should you not have leisure to think of it before Congress adjourns, it will come safely to me afterwards by post, the nearest post office being Milton.

Will not the arrival of Dupont tempt you to make a visit to this quarter? I have no doubt the Alarmists are already whetting their shafts for him also, but their glass is nearly run out; and the day I believe is approaching when we shall be as free to pursue what is true wisdom as the effects of their follies will permit: for some of them we shall be forced to wade through because we are immerged in them.

Wishing you that pure happiness which your pursuits and circumstances offer, and which I am sure you are too wise to suffer a diminution of by the pigmy assaults made on you, and with every sentiment of affectionate esteem & respect I am Dear Sir

Your most obedt. & most humble servt

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of first page: “Doctor Priestly.”

Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) was a British Unitarian theologian and a chemist. Priestley came to America in the spring of 1794, a few years after his home and laboratory near Birmingham were destroyed by a mob. With his wife and sons and his friend Thomas Cooper, he settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he lived until his death. TJ knew of Priestley’s scientific work as early as 1784 when he placed orders for the chemist’s books from England. In 1791 TJ praised Priestley’s rebuttal of Edmund Burke (DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, 2d ed., New York, 1908–09, 22 vols. description ends ; Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, Boston, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends 3:448–51; Vol. 7:288; Vol. 20:410, 712n; Vol. 28:24, 67, 102; Vol. 29:284).

Pamphlets you were so kind as to send me: Priestley apparently sent his own pamphlet, Letters to the Inhabitants of Northumberland and its Neighborhood, on Subjects Interesting to the Author, and to them, Part II of which was his Maxims of Political Arithmetic, applied to the Case of the United States of America (Northumberland, Pa., 1799). He also forwarded the first edition of Thomas Cooper’s Political Essays, which carried a preface by Cooper dated 19 July 1799 (Northumberland, Pa., 1799; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 3217). On 30 Dec. 1799 TJ paid $7.87 for pamphlets from the Philadelphia bookseller Robert Campbell. TJ ordered more on 15 Mch. and 4 Apr. 1800, these likely being of the second edition, printed for Campbell in Philadelphia in 1800, which Campbell may have arranged for when supplies of the Northumberland edition were exhausted. Substantially revised, this version eliminated some items of purely local interest and added one important essay, “On the Propriety and Expediency of Unlimited Enquiry” and carried a preface by Cooper dated Northumberland, February 1800. It is this second edition of Political Essays that TJ dispatched to his friends in March and April (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. 37250; MB description begins James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, Princeton, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 2:1012, 1015–16; order on John Barnes, 15 Mch. 1800, to pay Campbell $12.50, MS in MHi, written and signed by TJ, endorsed by Barnes, receipted).

Demise of porcupine: TJ had noted a year earlier that Porcupine’s Gazette was “going downhill.” William Cobbett, who saw his newspaper decline in subscriptions during 1799, brought out its final Philadelphia issue on 28 Aug. and published a few more from Bustleton, where he fled to escape the yellow fever. The paper folded completely after publishing one last issue, which appeared as a pamphlet, from New York on 13 Jan. 1800, and Cobbett returned to England (Brigham, American Newspapers, description begins Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820, Worcester, Mass., 1947, 2 vols. description ends 2:9467; TJ to Thomas Mann Randolph, 3 Jan. 1799). John (“Jack”) Ward Fenno became editor of the Federalist Gazette of the United States when his father died in the yellow fever epidemic on 14 Sep. 1798 (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ). Andrew Brown, Jr., had succeeded to the editorship of the Philadelphia Gazette when his father perished in a fire in the newspaper’s offices in February 1797. Jefferson may have subscribed to this newspaper, originally titled the Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Evening Post, when it first appeared in 1788, and as secretary of state he patronized it for the printing of the laws of the United States. Although less rabid than Porcupine’s Gazette or the Gazette of the United States, and although TJ continued to read it, the Philadelphia Gazette by this time apparently was within the group of newspapers that TJ regarded as Federalist (MB description begins James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, Princeton, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 2:1012; Brigham, American Newspapers, description begins Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820, Worcester, Mass., 1947, 2 vols. description ends 2:911; Vol. 18:66n, 78, 135n). In the weeks preceding this letter several issues of Brown’s newspaper carried dishes of abuse against Priestley. He and other immigrants were referred to as “turbulent wretches” and Priestley himself was called an “evil genius” who had “transplanted himself to the woods” of America (see, for example, the Philadelphia Gazette of 14 Dec. 1799 and 7 Jan. 1800).

Your friend: Thomas Cooper.

A miserable constitution: among the bills reported by the committee of revisors, 18 June 1779, was a “bill for amending the constitution of the College of William and Mary, and substituting more certain revenues for its support.” In essence, TJ hoped to create a state-supported university with a modernized and secularized curriculum. He accomplished some of what he intended when he served on the Board of Visitors (see Vol. 2:535–43 and Bishop James Madison to TJ, 17 Jan. 1800).

Secretary of war James McHenry on 5 Jan. submitted a report to the president, which Adams transmitted to Congress on 13 Jan. It called attention to the necessity for improving the nation’s military system by establishing and staffing a military academy (National State Papers: Adams, description begins Martin P. Claussen, ed., National State Papers of the United States, 1789–1817. Part II: Texts of Documents. Administration of John Adams, 1797–1801, Wilmington, 1980, 24 vols. description ends 16:21–59).

1Preceding two words interlined.

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