Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Hall, 5 December 1801

From James Hall

Iredell County, N. Carolina, Decr. 5th. 1801


Permit me the honour of presenting to your Excellency a copy of a brief history of the Mississippi Territory, which I have lately published. The appendix will apologize for the brevity of the work.

It is not sent for any supposed degree of merit which it displays; but as my worthy friend, the Comptroller of the United States, informed me, that the history of the territory is but little known, even at the seat of government, I flatter myself that the transient view given in the work may afford to your Excellency some gratification.

Should the business of your very important station admit, your observations, as a naturalist, on my theory of hail would be highly desirable.

Permit me further to observe, that in Summer 1800, with the assistance of a coarse mechanic, I constructed, in a very crude manner, an instrument on astronomic principles, which promises to serve as a solar & lunar dial, and also as a solar compass, without the magnetic needle.

It has lien in Salisbury since Septr. 1800, together with a letter, containing a description of the instrument, addressed to your Excellency, as President of the American Philosophical Society. I have been strangely unfortunate in conveying it to Philadelphia. This I do not now expect before next Summer.

I would not have mentioned this matter, had I not been lately informed, that one of my pupils, to whom alone I developed the principles on which the instrument is constructed, has employed a finished workman to make another of the same kind.

I know not that the young man has any undue designs on the subject; but should the instrument be of any real advantage, which I think it may, if constructed with accuracy, it is hoped that government will admit of nothing, to the prejudice of the inventor.

Confiding therefore in your excellency, as a friend to science & the rights of men, should any undue measures be attempted, I will promise myself your patronage & influence as far as they may be necessary.

I am, Sir, your Excellency’s most obedient and very humble servant,

Jas Hall.

RC (DLC); addressed: “His Excellency, Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States City of Washington”; endorsed by TJ as received 21 Dec. and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: James Hall, A Brief History of the Mississippi Territory, to Which is Prefixed, a Summary View of the Country Between the Settlements on Cumberland-River, & the Territory (Salisbury, N.C., 1801); Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 4047.

Presbyterian minister James Hall (1744–1826) was born in Pennsylvania. His family moved to North Carolina during his childhood. He studied under John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey in Princeton, graduated in 1774, obtained a license to preach, and was ordained in 1778. He served congregations in North Carolina but also completed a number of missions. One of those journeys, under the auspices of the Presbyterian General Assembly, took him and two companions to the Mississippi Territory for several months in 1800–1801. Hall taught school and supported various educational institutions. For much of his career he was active in the Synod of the Carolinas and the Presbyterian General Assembly (Richard A. Harrison, Princetonians, 1769–1775: A Biographical Dictionary [Princeton, 1980], 386–91; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ).

Hall explained in the appendix to his work on the Mississippi Territory that his intention to write a longer book was curtailed when “the weight and diversity of my professional business obliged me to bring it into narrow bounds” (Hall, Brief History of the Mississippi Territory, 67).

Comptroller: John Steele.

Hall’s theory of hail conjectured that hailstones formed when whirlwinds drew water vapor high into the air, where water droplets froze and increased in mass as they collected more ice on their fall to earth. He wrote an essay on the subject that Philadelphia clergyman Ashbel Green, a member of the American Philosophical Society, presented to the society in October 1794. Hall also outlined the idea in a footnote on pages 64–7 of his Brief History of the Mississippi Territory. Hall had an interest in natural philosophy, and in 1798, when the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends devoted attention to a mysterious stone wall uncovered in North Carolina, correspondence between Hall and Dr. James Woodhouse was one of the pieces of information the society received on the subject (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 168, 225, 271; Vol. 31:317, 318n, 353n).

In a meeting on 16 July 1802, the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends received Hall’s description and model of the astronomical instrument. The device had five dials, one of which was a solar compass for marking a course or running a line using the sun rather than a magnetic compass. The other dials related to positions and cycles of the sun, moon, and stars. In the early 1790s, Hall had sent a diagram of an early version of the instrument to Samuel Stanhope Smith at Princeton, who passed the information along to David Rittenhouse, and it was at Rittenhouse’s suggestion that Hall incorporated a solar compass in the device. Hall confessed that the prototype he built of the mechanism was somewhat crude, having been constructed not by an instrument-maker but by Hall’s combination of his own labor with that of a blacksmith, a wheelwright, and one of Hall’s students. Hall’s letter to TJ of 22 Sep. 1800, which described the instrument’s development and included instructions for its use, is not recorded in SJL or endorsed by TJ. Hall may have conveyed both the letter and the model directly to the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends in Philadelphia in 1802. Fearful that someone might steal his ideas, Hall hoped that he might secure “the Copy-Right” to the instrument. After reviewing the device and its description, an APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends committee reported that although the device showed “ingenuity,” Hall’s description of it did not merit publication in the society’s Transactions (Hall to TJ, 22 Sep. 1800, RC in PPAmP, addressed: “The President of the American Philosophical Society Philadelphia” and “Care of the Honble John Steele,” endorsed for the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends ; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 326, 328).

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