Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Volney, 17 March 1801

To Volney

Washington Mar. 17. 1801.

Dear Sir

You left this country in a state of high delirium. the paroxysm was very [tense?], but has been shorter than I expected. it is now compleatly recovered. this has been effected by the better […] conduct of your nation in a considerable degree, and by a development of the artifices & the objects of those who fomented the quarrel between us. our citizens are now generally returned to their antient principles, & there is the best prospect of an entire obliteration of that party spirit of which you were a victim when here. one of the first effects of this restoration of harmony which I hope for is the hearing from you, as nothing now forbids a communication between us. mr Dawson, the [bearer of] this, is I believe, known to you, as having been a member of Congress wh[ile] you were here. he is the near relation of Governor Monroe; and being intimately possessed of every thing relative to the affairs of this cou[ntry] will give you all the details you can desire. they will astonish you. he is a person of entire confidence, and I shall hope to recieve by him [a let]ter from you, informing me of whatever relates to yourself, as being […] interesting to me, & such other matters as you may chuse to communicate. did you ever recieve the residue of the translation to the end of the [20th] chapter inclusive? it was sent through mr Mc.lure. literary news will be now & at all times acceptable. we have nothing to communicate hence [of] that kind. consequently my letters can only convey to you the expressions of my constant esteem & attachment. accept them [&] all the warmth [&] sincerity of my heart.

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); faint; at foot of text: “M. Volney.”


Translation: TJ translated into English the opening “Invocation” and at least the first 19 chapters of Volney’s Les Ruines, ou, Méditation sur les Révolutions des Empires, which contained 24 chapters and had first been published in Paris in 1792. The “residue” mentioned by TJ above may have been chapters 13–19, since in his papers his retained copy of those chapters became separated from the earlier portions of the translation (PrC in MHi, 2 p. in TJ’s hand with two emendations, consisting of the “Invocation,” untitled, beginning “Hail solitary ruins”; PrC in same, 31 p. in TJ’s hand with some emendations, consisting of chapters 1–12; Dft in same, 23 p. in TJ’s hand with extensive emendations, consisting of chapters 1–12; MS in DLC, TJ Papers, 234:41854–62, 18 p. in TJ’s hand with some emendations, consisting of chapters 13–19). William Maclure was acquainted with both Volney and TJ by March 1798, when Maclure entertained the two of them, along with Julian Niemcewicz and Giambattista Scandella, at dinner in Philadelphia a few months before Volney returned to France. Maclure, who had retired from commerce to devote himself to science, left the United States in late summer or autumn 1799 to study the geology of Europe. He was in Paris in the spring of 1801, his travels having taken him first to Scandinavia and Prussia. Maclure and TJ did not correspond prior to July 1801, so it seems likely that TJ completed the “residue” of the translation before Maclure’s departure in 1799 and that the traveler had the manuscript in his keeping until he met with Volney in Paris (Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine description begins Julian Ursin Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797–1799, 1805, with some Further Account of Life in New Jersey, trans. and ed., Metchie J. E. Budka, Elizabeth, N. J., 1965 description ends ,46–7; John S. Doskey, ed., The European Journals of William Maclure [Philadelphia, 1988], xxi; ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; Vol. 30:396; Maclure to TJ, 3 July 1801).

Volney asked Joel Barlow to finish the translation of the Ruines.In the fall of 1802 the entire work appeared in two volumes titled A New Translation of Volney’s Ruins.That version, leaving TJ’s portion of the translation largely intact, alters some wording of his retained manuscripts. An unsigned “Preface of the Translator,” no doubt written by Barlow, used the plural form “we” rather than “I,” but the 1802 publication names neither of the translators. When Volney sent the translated “Invocation” to the United States in 1801 to excite interest in the forthcoming volumes, he kept the source of the translation secret. Asking TJ what to do with the manuscript translation following the publication of the book,

Volney received the reply: “it is desired that it may be burnt.” Volney complied. The Ruines had already been translated into English once, in a 1792 London edition that had been reprinted several times. Barlow’s preface to the New Translation asserted that the earlier effort had fallen well short of doing justice to the original. Volney’s Ruines has been described as partly “un poème en prose,” and in the preface Barlow said that the intent of the New Translation was “that as much of the spirit of the original be transfused and preserved as is consistent with the nature of translation” (A New Translation of Volney’s Ruins; or Meditations on the Revolution of Empires. Made under the Inspection of the Author [Paris, 1802], v-viii; Gilbert Chinard, Volney et l’Amérique d’après des Documents Inédits et sa Correspondance avec Jefferson, The Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literatures and Languages, 1 [Baltimore, 1923], 110–13; Jean Gaulmier, L’Idéologue Volney, 1757–1820: Contribution á l’Histoire de l’Orientalisme en France [Geneva, 1980], 207; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 1278; Volney to TJ, 24 June 1801, 21 Mch. 1803; TJ to Volney, 20 Apr. 1802).

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