Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Prentis, 14 November 1803

From William Prentis

Virginia—Petersburg, Nov. 14, 1803.


I have long had it in contemplation to promote a work, so interesting to the State of Virginia, and indeed to the present as well as future generations, that I cannot refrain, on viewing its magnitude, from addressing a letter to you on the subject of it.

Mr. Burke has informed me, that he communicated to you, his intention to write a History of Virginia. A work of this kind I have long wished to see published—For several years I have endeavored to press the subject, in order to induce some gentleman, competent to the undertaking, to come forward—but the insurmountable difficulties which it is said are in the way of procuring the necessary materials, hath been the principal obstacle. I wrote to Mr. Madison, of Williamsburg, upwards of three years ago, and solicited him to engage in the compilation, but he declined it principally from the embarrassments in the way. These embarrassments, however, if they do exist, will forever remain, and the longer we are without a History, the difficulties will necessarily increase. I therefore suggested it to Mr. Burke, who readily saw the importance and necessity of such a publication, and immediately proceeded to collect every information in his power to effect the object.—He has, he informs me, made some progress, so far as to be ready to publish the First Volume—but altho’ I have confidence in the abilities of Mr. Burke, I feel a conviction in my mind, that his residence in this country has been so short, as to render it impracticable for him to be so fully acquainted with the occurrences here, as those whose lives have been devoted to public service, and who have passed through so many years study and application, in order to acquaint themselves with the rise and progress of their country—And, Sir, it is an object too interesting, too important, to be suffered to pass through the press without undergoing a previous examination. A publication of such magnitude, correctly and faithfully compiled, would be a work of inestimable value, and would amply compensate, as well as do honor to, the compiler:—but if hurried over without a proper regard to its importance and dignity, may prove injurious to our literary and moral character, and be a subject of severe animadversion and reproach. Posterity too would still be as much in the dark as ever—and indeed had better remain so, that to have a compilation in which they could not implicitly rely.

Mr. Burke, since he has prepared his first volume, has applied to me to print it for him. In a conversation I had with him, I have suggested to him a plan which it appeared to me, as well as other friends of the work, he ought to pursue, to give credit and stability to the History—informing him that I was sensible every literary gentleman of Virginia felt himself interested in a correct and faithful History, and that I would not undertake it unless it bore that character; and that some gentlemen I could name, I believed would readily afford their aid in revising the work before it was printed. I therefore took the liberty of naming yourself, Mr. Page, (our Governor), and Mr. Madison, (of Wmsburg)—In doing so, Sir, I have been actuated by motives which I feel a conviction prevail in your mind—a wish that such a publication should go forth as would be both useful and honorable to our national character. In this proposition Mr. Burke readily and chearfully acquiesed; and altho’ I have no other interest in the publication, than that of every other citizen of Virginia, I have at heart so much a correct work of the kind, that, if time and opportunity will enable you, I flatter myself you will chearfully afford your aid in effecting so desirable an object, by perusing the volumes respectively before they are printed.

You will no doubt surmise that I am interested—it is true, as a printer, if I undertake the work I should expect to be paid for it—but Mr. Burke is at liberty to have the History printed where he pleases.—All the concern that I feel about it is, that having first mentioned it to Mr. Burke, I should regret extremely ever having done so, if the History should not be faithfully and correctly executed.

When at leisure I would thank you to honor me with an answer—as it is Mr. Burke’s wish and mine also, that he should commence the publication as early as possible, and go through with it in the course of the ensuing year.

Accept, Sir, the assurances of my profound respect and veneration.

William Prentis.

RC (ViW: Tucker-Coleman Collection); addressed: “Thomas Jefferson, Esqr City of Washington”; franked; postmarked 15 Nov.; endorsed by TJ as received 18 Nov. and so recorded in SJL.

William Prentis (ca. 1740-ca. 1824), probably the son of Williamsburg merchant William Prentis, who died in 1765, was a Virginia printer who worked on the Richmond Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser from 1781 to 1785, the Norfolk and Portsmouth Chronicle from 1789 to 1792, and the Petersburg Virginia Gazette from 1786, continuing its publication as the Petersburg Intelligencer until 1804. He also produced almanacs and served several terms as mayor of Petersburg from 1793 to 1806 (Brigham, American Newspapers description begins Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, Worcester, Mass., 1947, 2 vols. description ends , 2:1123, 1131, 1149; Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, J. C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, Chicago and Charlottesville, 1962- , 35 vols.; Sec. of State Ser., 1986- , 9 vols.; Pres. Ser., 1984- , 7 vols.; Ret. Ser., 2009- , 2 vols. description ends , 4:48n).

TJ and John Daly Burk had communicated with one another in February 1803. In March, Burk delivered an oration in Petersburg commemorating the anniversary of TJ’s inauguration (An Oration, Delivered on the Fourth of March, 1803, at the Court-House, in Petersburg: to Celebrate the Election of Thomas Jefferson, and the Triumph of Republicanism [Petersburg, 1803; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952-59, 5 vols. description ends No. 3297]; Vol. 34:388-9n; Vol. 39:434, 559).

While not specified here, the embarrassments in the way for Bishop James Madison may have related to the popular perception of his British allegiance and ties to the Church of England. He left Virginia for Great Britain in 1775 to be ordained an Anglican priest. In 1777, Madison became president of the College of William and Mary, which had a royal charter and close ties to the Anglican Church. Because of the likelihood of a British occupation during the Revolution, Madison declared the college closed on 1 June 1781, and Cornwallis soon took over the vacated president’s house. All of Madison’s papers, books, and instruments were destroyed in a fire when his home was occupied by French troops (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends , s.v. “Madison, James [1749-1812]”; Susan H. Godson and others, The College of William and Mary: A History, 2 vols. [Williamsburg, 1993], 1:122, 128, 137, 139).

Index Entries