Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Andrew Ellicott, 18 January 1801

From Andrew Ellicott

Philadelphia Jany. 18th. 1801

Dear Sir,

The first part of the fifth volume of the transactions of our Philosophical Society is now with the printer.—more than one half of it will consist of the astronomical journal kept on our southern boundary.—The charts, and plans, are yet with our executive, and I do not expect to obtain them till after the 4th. of March next.—I have been told by Mr. Pickering and others, that the work done on our North eastern boundary, has been executed in a truly scientifick manner, that the astronomical observations, and mathematical deductions, are very important, some of which will doubtless be found in the report.—If so, and there should be no impropriety in it, it would be a desirable object to have them for our next volume. The journal with an account, and discription of the instruments made use of, if it could be had, would be preferable to the report, or the observations extracted from it.—It appears to me that publicity ought to be given to all papers of that kind, perticularly such as have a tendency to improve the geography of our own extensive country.—A contrary policy can only originate in a narrowness of mind, and be defended by persons, who would prefer a conclusion drawn from one of Aristotle’s syllogisms, to a deduction from Euclids elements.—The observations made by Mason, and Dixon, on the boundary between Pennsylvania, and Maryland, are published in the transactions of the Royal Society at London.—Those on the boundary between Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania and New York, are published in the 4th. volume of the transactions of our Philosophical Society. From which it appears that publicity has been given, to important national records by institutions, which it has lately been fashionable to treat with redicule, and contempt!—

We had a very full meeting of the members of the Philosophical Society on friday evening last.—My friend Mr. Dunbar’s interesting communications which accompanied your letter of the 16th. ultimo to Doctr. Wister, were read, and referred to that gentleman and myself to report on.—

Whilst I resided in the Missisippi Territory, I proposed Mr. Dunbar as a member of the Society, and he was accordingly elected; but had no intimation of it till since my return, when I forwarded his Diploma which he received last July.—He furnished the whole of the mathematical, and astronomical apparatus, on behalf of his Catholick Majesty, for determining our southern boundary.—Since that time, he has imported a valuable collection of instruments, and I have no doubt but we shall, (from his singular industery,) shortly receive a number of important astronomical observations from him.—His meteorological journal, is interesting, and does him great credit.—I presume you observed in perusing it, that the changes of the Thermometer in 24 hours during the winter months, frequently exceeded 30 degrees, which is common in that country, but with us it is generally less.—the greatest change in 24 hours in December 1770, and January, and February, 1771 in this City, was 17 degrees.—

Our friend Doctr. Priestly is now in this City, he arrived on wednesday last and intends staying but two or three weeks:—he has just left me, and requested that if I intended writing to you shortly, not to fail presenting you with his respects, and assuring you of the satisfaction he feels in contemplating the present political prospects of our country.

I have the honour to be with great respect, and sincere esteem, Your friend &c.

Andw; Ellicott.

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Hnble. Thos. Jefferson. V.P.-U.S and President of the Senate”; endorsed by TJ as received 21 Jan. and so recorded in SJL. Dft (DLC: Ellicott Papers).

As secretary of state in 1798 Timothy Pickering involved himself in research on the boundary between Maine and adjoining British territory (Vol. 30:284).

Astronomical observations made by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as they ran the Pennsylvania-Maryland boundary, including their calculation of the length of a degree of latitude, appeared in Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions, 58 (1768), 270–335. In a report to the American Philosophical Society that took the form of a letter of 2 Apr. 1795 to Robert Patterson, Ellicott reported observations associated with the extension of the Mason-Dixon line, the running of the western boundary of Pennsylvania, which with the extended southern boundary marked the state’s limits with Virginia, and the determination of Pennsylvania’s northern boundary, all of which was done in the mid-1780s (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 4 [1799], 32–48).

Had a very full meeting: Ellicott, who with Caspar Wistar and Robert Patterson was a vice president of the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends for the year 1801, presided over the society’s meeting on 16 Jan. (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 307).

Before writing the letter above, Ellicott began but did not complete the undated draft of another letter, apparently to TJ, that touched some of the same subjects but with different phrasing. Ellicott began that aborted draft by noting that the finishing work on the southern boundary of the U.S. had given him “leisure to undertake that from the Lake of the Woods to the source of the Mississippi.” He had “almost determined never to undertake another piece of business of a similar nature” but found his mind “only sufficiently active when engaged in scientific enterprises.” He mentioned the probable delay in publication of the volume of Transactions caused by the government’s continuing possession of charts and maps needed for his report. And in the final paragraph before breaking off the draft Ellicott wrote: “The prospect of you being shortly elevated to the most dignified, and important station, our country can bestow, is a subject highly pleasing both to men of Science, as well as to the friends of liberty, and good order.—Philosophy has for some years past been a subject of redicule, it has been artfully coupelled with the enormities committed during the revolution in france, for the purpose of introducing arbitrary measures in our own government” (Dft in DLC: Ellicott Papers).

Writing at Philadelphia on 25 Dec., Ellicott sent TJ a brief letter: “To amuse you a few minutes I have taken the liberty of sending the following extract from my journal.” Ellicott subjoined a description of a spectacular meteor shower he witnessed at sea off the coast of Florida on 12 Nov. 1799. He sent the same extract to Robert Patterson, and from that copy, submitted to the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends on 16 Jan. 1801, it was published (RC in DLC, alongside signature: “Thos. Jefferson V.P. U.S. and President of the Senate,” endorsed by TJ as received 1 Jan. and so recorded in SJL; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 307–8; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 6 [1809], 28–9).

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