Thomas Jefferson Papers

Skelton Jones to Thomas Jefferson, 19 June 1809

From Skelton Jones

Richmond, June, 19. 1809.


I find in a letter from you to the late John D. Burke, dated Washington June 1. 1805, the following passage—“After my return to live at Monticello, I am persuaded it will be in my power, as it is certainly in my wish, to furnish you with some useful matter, not perhaps to be found elsewhere.” Knowing this to be the case, and that your inclination and ability, to throw every possible light on Virginian History, are both great, I have taken the liberty to address you. From April 22. ’75, to the 4th of March last, is the period of which it was my intention to have written the history; though for reasons, which in justice to myself I cannot conceal, I am certain that I shall be obliged, in my present undertaking, to depart widely from my original design, as expressed in my prospectus. When I was hurried into this business, I was made to believe that materials were collected and chronologically arranged, and that nothing remained but the finishing touches of composition. On the contrary I find myself compromitted on this subject, under more embarrassing circumstances than can well be imagined.—The collection of materials, and compiling the narrative have commenced and progressed together: I have to deal with sordid merchants, (with whom Burk had entangled himself,) whose knowledge extends not beyond the counter & the yard stick. It is prescribed to me when the first chapter is to go to press; when the volume is to be finished; and, I am limited as to the number of pages it is to contain:—You will readily perceive, under these circumstances, that it surpasses human exertion to bring out the work as it should be. I foresee therefore that my literary reputation must suffer for a time; but I am resolved, if life and health is spared me, to redeem it, when the galling fetters of commercial cupidity shall have fallen from my limbs.

But now sir to the principal object of this letter. I have files of newspapers, or access to them, for ’75, ’76 and ’77. I have examined three several files in this town, viz: master commissioner Hay’s, Doctr Benjn Duval’s, and Chs Copeland’s, and find that the file for ’78 is missing in them all. It has been suggested to me that in consequence of the difficulty of obtaining paper, there were no news papers issued in that year; but this I think extremely improbable: you can certainly inform me. I wish not only information from you but advice also: After Dunmore left the coast of Virginia, in the summer of ’76, and joined the British to the southward, Virginia was not the theatre of hostilities, until Matthews burnt Suffolk, in ’79, which was followed up by the invasion of Philips and Arnold, from which time it continud to be the scene of active warfare, until the surrender of Cornwallis and the conclusion of peace. Now, I wish your advice what the historian is to do with the latter part of ’76, the whole of ’77 & ’78, and a part of ’79? As our state was happily exempt during nearly three years, from the calamities of war, and its history during that therefore barren of battles and bloodshed, what else can be done than search into the laws, religion, manners, & customs of those times? A philosophical historian had he time and materials, might usefully employ his pen upon these subjects during the recess from actual war. Upon this subject, sir you will greatly oblige me by your advice as to the plan; as you will also by information where materials for its execution can be obtained.

My motive, I trust, will be my apology for making this application. May you, sir, enjoy in old age and retirement that happiness, which a devotion of the best years of your life to public service so amply merits.

Very respectfully Yr obedt. servt.

Skelton Jones

RC (DLC); addressed: “Thomas Jefferson, Esquire. Late President of the U.S. Monticello”; franked and postmarked; endorsed by TJ as received 29 June 1809 and so recorded in SJL; notation by TJ: “from 1741–60 lent to Burke.” Enclosures: (1) Jones’s Prospectus for volume four of John Daly Burk, The History of Virginia, Richmond, 2 Aug. 1808, stating that the volume would start with the American Revolution and conclude with the end of TJ’s administration; that it would include biographies of “heroes, statesmen and patriots” as well as an appendix on “police, literature, arts, manners, manufactures, commerce, government, naval and military strength, population, productions, mode of living. &c. &c. &c.” and charters and other public papers “interesting to the politician and antiquary”; that it would be a large octavo volume costing three dollars in sheepskin and two-and-a-half dollars in boards; and concluding with a blank for subscribers’ names. (2) Circular letter from Jones, August 1808, requesting information from the addressee for the period outlined in the prospectus on twenty topics including parents, early life and education, public life, physical description, family life, personal anecdotes, temperament, and a request for a miniature; asking for even “the most trifling circumstances”; and promising that no political use was intended, that responses would be used only for research, and that they would be returned if requested (printed broadsides in DLC, with No. 2 endorsed by TJ as a “circular” received 29 June 1809 and so recorded in SJL).

Skelton Jones (d. 1812), an attorney in Richmond, published the Richmond Examiner, 1803–04. He contracted with the estate administrator of Burk, who was killed in a duel in 1808, to write the concluding volume of Burk’s The History of Virginia: from its First Settlement to the Present Day (Petersburg, 1804–05; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 464; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library [1829] description ends , 4 [no. 127]). Jones was delayed by ill health and did not finish the fourth volume before his own death in a duel, but his work was incorporated in 1816 in the last published volume, completed by Louis Hue Girardin and only taking the history through 1781 (Norfleet, Saint-Mémin description begins Fillmore Norfleet, Saint-Mémin in Virginia: Portraits and Biographies, 1942 description ends , 179; Brigham, American Newspapers description begins Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820, 1947, 2 vols. description ends , 2:1139; Jones to TJ, 17 Apr. 1811; Lewis H. Jones, Captain Roger Jones, of London and Virginia [1891], 55; Richmond Enquirer, 30 Oct. 1812).

TJ loaned Burk his file of Virginia newspapers in june 1805 for use in preparing his history (TJ to Burk, 1, 12 June 1805 [DLC]).

Index Entries

  • American Revolution; historiography of search
  • biography; books of search
  • Burk, John Daly; The History of Virginia search
  • Copeland, Charles search
  • Duval, Benjamin; newspaper collection of search
  • Girardin, Louis Hue; and J. D. Burk’s History of Virginia search
  • Hay, George; newspaper collection of search
  • historiography; of American Revolution search
  • Jones, Skelton; and J. D. Burk’s History of Virginia search
  • Jones, Skelton; identified search
  • Jones, Skelton; letters from search
  • newspapers; collection of Va., owned by TJ search
  • newspapers; Virginia search
  • The History of Virginia (J. D. Burk, S. Jones, and L. H. Girardin); TJ’s role in the preparation of search