Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph Elgar, Jr., 24 November 1801

From Joseph Elgar, Jr.

Brooke-ville Novemr. 24th. 1801—

My Dear President

It is the misfortune of those whose talents and virtues have raised them to eminence and power to be persecuted by a train of applicants and projectors.—I am sorry to add one to the number

But laying my confidence upon that amiable part of thy character, acknowleged even by political enemies as the warm friend to mankind and to every thing that can promote their happiness or convenience, I am encouraged to trouble thee with a subject and however trifling or foreign it may appear to thee I pray the good intentions with which it is dictated may in some measure interpose to procure my pardon—

In the course of my business, as a Surveyor, I have frequently experienced the great vexation and embarrassment to the artist, and law-suits and destruction of good neighbourhood among land holders, occasioned by local attractions influencing the magnetic Needle from the true point; and have been looking out with a kind of hopeless wish for something to remedy the evil. A paragraph from Tillocks Philosophical Magazine printed in London at length induced me to beleive that what I had regarded as a thing to be wished for but not expected was perhaps attainable. It is there stated on the authority of M. Humboldt that a species of Serpentine which he describes possesses polarity but is not Obedient to Iron. Taking the fact as stated and supposing the local attractions in this country to proceed from bodies of Iron oar lodged below the surface of the Earth, I inferred that if it were possible to procure a needle of this Serpentine it would be the desideratum I had in view—Considering Humboldt as authority sufficient respectable to justify an experiment I wrote to a member of the New York Mineralogical Society (Dr Mitchill) and recieved for answer that Serpentines exist in plenty and variety in the neighbourhood of New York City, that he thought the object I had in view was important but could not send me any Specimens.

This indifference to a Subject I had earnestly recommended, from a man who has professed himself a friend to the Arts—added to the information that Humboldt was engaged in traveling through South America which would render access to him extremely difficult if not impracticable to one in my sphere—and not being able to procure his description or one species of Serpentine—and pecuniary embarrassments forbiding any exertions on my part which would be attended with much expense—I began to dispair of my Object and abandon the pursuit.

But recollecting that I was within a few miles of the great patron of every usefull Art and improvement, and that a single dash of his pen might procure for me the Substances I wished to experiment upon, I have so far overcome my natural diffidence as to take the liberty of laying the Subject before him and will have the pleasure of submitting to any decision he may come to upon it—

While the great Interests of America and of man are revolveing in the mind of our worthy President I may be charged with want of patriotism for desiring to claim one moment of his attention, but I will cheerfully submit to this charge or any other for the presumption of troubling him with this address since it gives me an opportunity of declaring my love for the excellency of his character and the high respect with which

I am his friend

Joseph Elgar Junr.

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson President of the United States”; endorsed by TJ as received 1 Dec. and so recorded in SJL.

Joseph Elgar, Jr., was probably born between 1772 and 1784. In 1807, when he wrote TJ again to recommend someone for office, he signed himself as surveyor of Montgomery County, Maryland. He later became a clerk under Samuel Lane, who was then the commissioner of public buildings for the District of Columbia. Benjamin H. Latrobe, who had an acrimonious relationship with Lane, described Elgar unflatteringly in 1816 as “a Schoolmaster, and Land surveyor.” The next year Lane forced Latrobe out of the office of surveyor of Washington and replaced him with Elgar. Upon Lane’s death in 1822, Elgar succeeded him as commissioner of public buildings. He held that position until 1834. His younger brother, John Elgar, was a foundryman and machinist, and their father built mills and forges (Alexander Crosby Brown, “Autobiographical Sketch of the Formative Years of John Elgar, 1784–1858, Builder of America’s First Iron Ship,” WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly, 1892– description ends , 3d ser., 13 [1956], 87–93; John C. Van Horne, ed., The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 3 vols. [New Haven, 1984–88], 3:810, 694n; William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics [Washington, 2001], 146–7, 150–1, 165–6, 176; Charles Lanman, Biographical Annals of the Civil Government of the United States, During its First Century [Washington, 1876], 135).

Brooke-Ville: Brookeville, Maryland, was characterized in 1804 as a “post town” located about 20 miles northwest of Washington in Montgomery County (Jedidiah Morse, The American Gazetteer, 2d ed. [Charlestown, Mass., 1804]; T. H. S. Boyd, The History of Montgomery County, Maryland, from its Earliest Settlement in 1650 to 1879 [Clarksburg, Md., 1879; repr. Baltimore, 1968], 122).

In the first volume of the philosophical magazine, a scientific serial begun by English printer and inventor Alexander Tilloch in 1798, a brief notice about polarity of different substances reported that “Humboldt’s serpentine” had magnetic poles but would not attract iron (The Philosophical Magazine. Comprehending the Various Branches of Science, the Liberal and Fine Arts, Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce, 1 [1798], 426; 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 , 54:790–1).

Alexander von Humboldt had embarked in 1799 on a scientific journey that took him through much of south america, Mexico, and Cuba. The trip lasted until 1804 (DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends , 6:550–1).

Index Entries