Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to John Isaac Hawkins, 13 April 1802

To John Isaac Hawkins

Washington Apr. 13. 1802.


The Forte piano which you made for me, and which I had great reason to be satisfied with on every account but one, has from a single cause become entirely useless, I mean that of not staying in tune. at first it would remain in tolerable tune for a day or two, and I hoped that when all it’s parts should take the set to which they might have a tendency when new, that it would become settled & hold it’s tune. but it grew worse & worse, till at length it would not stay in tune one single hour, and in that situation has continued upwards of a twelvemonth, so that it is entirely disused. I am shortly going to Monticello and had a thought, if you approved, to have it securely packed, and sent to you in Philadelphia to be cured of this defect if possible, and to be returned to me when in order. I would willingly meet the expence of the double transportation & of any operations you may find necessary for it, if you will undertake it. Colo. Cabell’s answers well. I shall await your answer to this proposition.

Th: Jefferson

P.S. I have never permitted a single project to be tried by any person towards curing the defect, so that the instrument remains precisely as it came out of your hands.

PrC (DLC); in ink at foot of text: “Hawkins John”; endorsed by TJ in ink on verso.

John Isaac Hawkins (1772–1854), an English-born entrepreneur, inventor, and instrument maker, settled in Bordentown, New Jersey, in the 1790s and then worked mainly in Philadelphia from 1800 to 1803. Among his inventions, several of which were patented, were the collapsible violin, self-sharpening pencil, paper ruling machine, trifocal glasses, physiognotrace, and polygraph. In May 1803, before returning to England to claim an inheritance, he received a patent for the polygraph, as his “pentagraph and parallel ruler” duplicating machine was known, for which Peale received American manufactory rights. Skilled as a civil engineer, Hawkins proposed several public infrastructure projects in England, including a tunnel under the Thames River, before facing financial difficulties and returning to the United States in 1848. In 1852 he published a monthly magazine in Rahway, New Jersey, Journal of Human Nature and Human Progress. Throughout his career, Hawkins received the admiration and sometimes financial support of TJ, for whom he designed and sold an upright fortepiano in 1800, wrote three pieces for his inauguration as president, shared a description of his claviol, and supplied a polygraph (Michael D. Friesen, “ ‘Mentor-General to Mankind’: The Life and Work in America of John Isaac Hawkins” [M.A. thesis, Northern Illinois University, 2001]; Helen Cripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music [Charlottesville, 1974], 55–7, 74–5; Aurora, 18 Feb. 1802; Vol. 31:365; Vol. 32:xxxv; Vol. 33:xlviii; Hawkins to TJ, 16 July 1802).

For TJ’s purchase, in 1800, of a Hawkins FORTE PIANO for his daughter Mary to play, see Vol. 31:365–6; Vol. 32:xxxv.

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