Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Mason Locke Weems, 12 June 1801

To Mason Locke Weems

Washington June 12. 1801


I have duly recieved your favor of the 6th. inst. it happened but at an early period of life, when I had time to read, & was in the habit of acquiring books, Dr. Blair’s sermons becoming a subject of conversation in society. I mistook them for the sermons of a mr Blair, of the Virginia family, published some 50. or 60. years ago, which I possessed & thought little of. I was not sensible of my misapprehension till some [years past when] I had become so immersed in public business as to have no [time] for [reading]. hence it has happened that I have never read, or even seen, Dr. Blair’s sermons; and consequently am unable to attest their merit myself. I have heard them generally commended, and from my knowledge of [another] work of his, I have no doubt of their excellence, that they are worthy of [being] put on a line with Sterne & Enfield; excellent [moral] writers, [tho not of the] same character. I believe firmly with you in the [strict] connection between virtue & happiness: that the latter can never exist where the for[mer is] not: and that virtuous habits are produced by exercising the mind in [reading] and contemplating good moral writings. the publication of these [sermons] cannot therefore but be publicly useful: and I regret that I can bear witness to it only in the ordinary way of subscription. the work [however] has too much celebrity to need the commendations of any individual. it’s character is not unknown to any who will be disposed to read [works of] that kind. wishing you sincerely therefore success in your undertaking I tender you assurances of my consideration [& res]pect

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); faint, with words in brackets supplied from Tr; at foot of text: “The Revd. Mr. Weems.” Tr (MHi); later 19th-century copy, in unidentified hand; torn.

Mason Locke Weems (1759–1825) was an Episcopal priest and moralist from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, who studied medicine in London and Edinburgh and may have practiced as a surgeon on a British man-of-war. After the Revolution, Weems sought ordination, which he ultimately obtained in 1784 without having to take a British oath of allegiance. He preached in several Virginia parishes for more than twenty years, supplemented his income by becoming a traveling book agent for Mathew Carey, and became an author in his own right, achieving fame with his biography of George Washington published in 1800 (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ).

Favor of the 6th: not found, but recorded in SJL as received 9 June.

TJ probably confused Hugh Blair (1718–1800) with James Blair (1656–1743), both Scottish-born divines. Dr. Hugh Blair was a professor of rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh and a literary critic whose published sermons appeared in 1777 and were widely republished, including a fifth volume in 1801 that featured an account of his life. Although TJ states that he never read Dr. Blair’s sermons, he paid 25 cents in July 1792 on subscribing to them, probably the fourth volume of Hugh Blair’s sermons, first printed in the U.S. in 1794 (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 , 2:874). James Blair was bishop’s commissary of Virginia as well as founder and first president of the College of William and Mary. He wrote sermons on Our Savior’s Divine Sermon on the Mount, published in five volumes in London in 1722 with a second four-volume edition published there in 1740. Another work of Hugh Blair’s, with which TJ may have been familiar, was Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, first published in 1783 (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; DNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, In Association with The British Academy, From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, Oxford, 2004, 60 vols. description ends ; see also Sowerby description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends , No. 4658).

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