Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 8 October 1809

To Joel Barlow

Monticello Oct. 8. 09.

Dear Sir

It is long since I ought to have acknoleged the reciept of your most excellent oration on the 4th of July. I was doubting what you could say, equal to your own reputation, on so hackneyed a subject. but you have really risen out of it with lustre, and pointed to others a field of great expansion.  a day or two after I recieved your letter to Bishop Gregoire a copy of his diatribe to you came to hand from France. I had not before heard of it. he must have been eagle eyed in quest of offence to have discovered ground for it among the rubbish massed together in the print he animadverts on. you have done right in giving him a sugary answer. but he did not deserve it. for notwithstanding a compliment to you now & then he constantly returns to the identification of your sentiments with the extravagancies of the Revolutionary zealots. I believe him a very good man, with imagination enough to declaim eloquently, but without judgment to decide. he wrote to me also on the doubts I had expressed five or six & twenty years ago, in the Notes on Virginia, as to the grade of understanding of the negroes, & he sent me his book on the literature of the negroes. his credulity has made him gather up every story he could find of men of colour (without distinguishing whether black, or of what degree of mixture) however slight the mention, or light the authority on which they are quoted. the whole do not amount in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. we know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor & friend, & never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker which shews him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed. as to Bishop Gregoire, I wrote him, as you have done, a very soft answer. it was impossible for doubt to have been more tenderly or hesitatingly expressed than that was in the Notes of Virginia, and nothing was or is farther from my intentions than to enlist myself as the champion of a fixed opinion, where I have only expressed a doubt. St Domingo will, in time, throw light on the question.

I intended, ere this, to have sent you the papers I had promised you. but I have taken up Marshal’s 5th volume & mean to read it carefully, to correct what is wrong in it, and commit to writing such facts and annotations as the reading that work will bring into my recollection and which have not yet been put on paper. in this I shall be much aided by my memorandums & letters, and will send you both the old & the new. but I go on very slowly. in truth during the pleasant season I am always out of doors employed, not passing more time at my writing table than will dispatch my current business. but when the weather becomes cold I shall go out but little. I hope therefore to get through this volume during the ensuing winter; but should you want the papers sooner, they shall be sent at a moment’s warning. the ride from Washington to Monticello in the stage, or in a gigg is so easy that I had hoped you would have taken a flight here during the season of good roads. whenever mrs Barlow is well enough to join you in such a visit, it must be taken more at ease. it will give us real pleasure whenever it may take place. I pray you to present me to her respectfully, and I salute you affectionately.

Th: Jefferson

RC (NjP: Straus Autograph Collection); endorsed by Barlow. PoC (DLC); at foot of first page: “Mr Barlow.”

Joel Barlow (1754–1812), poet and diplomat, was born in Connecticut, graduated from Yale College in 1778, and served as a chaplain during the American Revolution. In 1788 he sailed for Europe as representative for the Scioto Associates. Barlow remained abroad for seventeen years following the collapse of that real-estate venture, dividing his time between France, where he was named a French citizen; Hamburg, where he established a successful mercantile business; and Algiers, where as American minister in 1797 he negotiated the release of 119 American prisoners. A liberal thinker who collaborated with William Blake and rescued the manuscript of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason when Paine was arrested in 1793, Barlow’s own publications included The Vision of Columbus (Hartford, 1787; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4302), A Letter to the National Convention of France … To which is added The Conspiracy of Kings (London, 1792; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 2825), The Hasty-Pudding (New York, 1796), Prospectus of a national institution, to be established in the United States (Washington, 1806), and The Columbiad (Philadelphia, 1807; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4301). He returned to the United States in 1804 and took up residence at Kalorama, his estate in Washington, D.C. In 1811 James Madison appointed Barlow minister plenipotentiary to France, in which capacity he died of pneumonia in Poland while seeking Napoleon’s signature to a treaty. Barlow’s correspondence with TJ included wide-ranging discussions of the arts and sciences in addition to political topics (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Dexter,Yale Biographies, 4:2–16; Barlow obituary enclosed in Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours to TJ, 10 Feb. 1813; Charles Burr Todd, Life and Letters of Joel Barlow [1886]; James Leslie Woodress, Yankee’s Odyssey: The Life of Joel Barlow [1958]).

oration: Joel Barlow, Oration delivered at Washington, July Fourth, 1809 (Washington, 1809; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4686).

Barlow’s friend Henri gregoire, the constitutional bishop of Blois, was a former French revolutionist whose recently published Critical Observations on the poem of Mr. Joel Barlow, The Columbiad (Washington, 1809) criticized Barlow’s poem as anti-Catholic and generally irreligious. Barlow’s sugary answer, dated 13 Sept. 1809, was published as the pamphlet Letter to Henry Gregoire … in reply to his letter on The Columbiad (Washington, 1809).

Grégoire’s book was De la Littérature des Nègres (Paris, 1808; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 1398). TJ, who also owned Grégoire’s Lettre aux Philanthropes, sur les malheurs, les droits, et les réclamations des Gens de couleur de Saint-Domingue (Paris, 1790; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 1388), was clearly unconvinced by Grégoire’s favorable assessment of the intellectual capacity of blacks (Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson [2001], 164–6). Benjamin banneker was a free African American who taught himself astronomy and, with the encouragement of George Ellicott and Elias Ellicott, members of the Maryland Society for the Abolition of Slavery, prepared an ephemeris for 1791. The Ellicotts’ cousin Andrew Ellicott, a prominent surveyor, brought Banneker’s mathematical accomplishments to TJ’s notice. Banneker’s long letter to TJ of 1791 enclosed a second ephemeris (Banneker to TJ, 19 Aug. 1791, and TJ to Banneker, 30 Aug. 1791, PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 31 vols. description ends , 22:49–54, 97–8; Silvio A. Bedini, The Life of Benjamin Banneker [1972], 72–102, 152–9, 280–3). TJ sent Grégoire his very soft answer on 25 Feb. 1809 (DLC).

TJ had taken up the fifth volume of John Marshall’s Life of George Washington (Philadelphia, 1804–07; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 496). He believed this biography to be overly partisan and unsuccessfully sought to persuade Barlow to counter Marshall’s Federalist interpretation by writing a competing Republican history of the United States during the early national period (Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , 5:356–9; TJ to Barlow, 3 May 1802 [DLC]).

Index Entries

  • astronomy; and B. Banneker search
  • Banneker, Benjamin search
  • Barlow, Joel; identified search
  • Barlow, Joel; letters to search
  • Barlow, Joel; Letter to Henri Gregoire search
  • Barlow, Joel; Oration delivered at Washington, July Fourth, 1809 search
  • Barlow, Ruth Baldwin (Joel Barlow’s wife); health of search
  • Critical Observations on the poem of Mr. Joel Barlow, The Columbiad (Grégoire) search
  • De La Littérature des Nègres (Grégoire) search
  • Ellicott, Andrew (1754–1820); and B. Banneker search
  • Ellicott, Elias search
  • Ellicott, George search
  • Grégoire, Henri; Critical Observations on the poem of Mr. Joel Barlow, The Columbiad search
  • Grégoire, Henri; De la Littérature des Nègres search
  • Grégoire, Henri; on Notes on the State of Virginia search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; intellectual capacity of blacks search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; J. Marshall’s Life of George Washington search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes on the State of Virginia search
  • Letter to Henri Gregoire (Barlow) search
  • Life of George Washington (J. Marshall); TJ on search
  • Marshall, John; Life of George Washington search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); H. Grégoire on search
  • Oration delivered at Washington, July Fourth, 1809 (Barlow) search
  • Saint Domingue; blacks in search