Thomas Jefferson Papers

William A. Burwell to Thomas Jefferson, 29 December 1809

From William A. Burwell

Washington December 29th 1809—

Dr Sir,

Some days Since I received a letter from the Son of Genl Lee requesting me to apply to the P’t of the US. upon the Subject of a Medal voted his Father for his Services by the old Congress, which has never been presented; he said you were entrusted with procuring it while minister in France, but had left the Country before the Medal was completed;

I stated these circumstances to Mr Madison, who said it would be the duty of the Secretary of State to make the necessary enquiry, but expressed a wish I would write you myself upon the Subject supposing it would answer equally as well as if Mr Smith should write—Your answer will enable the Executive to carry the vote of Congress into effect if that has not been already done—If Genl L was the only person concerned I should feel no anxiety; But his Son who is a young man of good Talents & amiable character wishes very much to obtain this testimony of his claim upon the community—particularly as he can derive little consolation, or consideration from the unfortunate course of his father’s latter days.—

the public papers & the information derived from this place furnish you with every thing important—I can only add that so far as I am able to Judge the prospect indicates nothing flattering to those who wish to see measures pursued of a connected & consistent character—

the indecision, & shameful waste of time in C—gs will evidently render us imbecile & contemtible to the lowest degree unless checked by some means— instead of laying down some definite & useful plan, & moving steadily towards its execution, whole weeks, nay months are wasted by speeches which are neither heard by the house or read in the Nation with Interest—five weeks of the present Session have elapsed, & I venture to1 4 or 5 more will elapse before the nation will be able to discern the tendency of our proceedings—One who reads the debates will imagine the temper of the majority inclines strongly to war, yet there is not the most distant intention of such a Step—

why not then at once Seriously conform to the course which will ultimately prevail? would it not be more wise to rescind all our restrictions upon commerce & thus test the effect & extent of those imposed upon it by the nations of Europe?

Such a course should be immediately accompanied by preparations to meet the consequences which would result from the2 practical operation of the most unprincipled system of plunder ever enforced against us Since the declaration of Independence

After I left Montilo Mrs Burwell was taken Sick & detaind me 4 days at Dctr Willis’s—She has since recoverd from the effects of the Journey—we will both feel obliged to remember us affectionately to Mrs Randolph—& believe Dear sir yours Sincerely

W. A Burwell

RC (DLC); addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Monticello Near Milton (Va)”; endorsed by TJ as received 3 Jan. 1810 and so recorded in SJL.

William Armistead Burwell (1780–1821), a Mecklenburg County native, attended the College of William and Mary in 1798, represented Franklin County in the Virginia House of Delegates, 1804–06, and served intermittently as TJ’s private secretary during the same two years, with duties primarily consisting of running errands and entertaining guests at the President’s House. Burwell represented a four-county district that included Bedford as well as Franklin in the United States House of Representatives from 1806 until his death. A strong Republican, he corresponded regularly with TJ and stayed at Monticello during his trips to and from Washington (DVB description begins John T. Kneebone and others, eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography, 1998– , 3 vols. description ends ; Leonard, General Assembly description begins Cynthia Miller Leonard, comp., The General Assembly of Virginia, July 30, 1619–January 11, 1978: A Bicentennial Register of Members, 1978 description ends , 235, 240, 243; Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , 4:421; MB description begins James A. Bear Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 2:1132; Burwell to TJ, 21 July 1813; Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 17 Feb. 1821).

Henry Lee (1787–1837) was seeking the gold medal voted to his father, Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee (1756–1818), by the Continental Congress on 24 Sept. 1779 in honor of his successful assault on Paulus Hook, New Jersey. Lee’s name was, however, mistakenly omitted from the list of medals that TJ was expected to procure while on diplomatic duty in France. When Lee later applied for his medal TJ, then secretary of state, commissioned it from the Philadelphia engraver Joseph Wright. Unfortunately, the die of the reverse broke while hardening, Wright died in 1793, and the medal was not completed until the 1870s (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 , 16:56, 66, 77–9, 27:650; Joseph F. Loubat, The Medallic History of the United States of America, 1776–1876 [1878], 1:xlvii–xlix, 29–36).

The elder Lee’s health and finances had taken an unfortunate course, and earlier this year he was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ). The Burwells were detaind at the Orange County home of John Willis and Nelly Conway Madison Willis, James Madison’s niece and former ward (Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography [1971], 460, 616; Dolley Madison, Selected Letters description begins David B. Mattern and Holly C. Shulman, eds., The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison, 2003 description ends , 416).

1Thus in manuscript.

2Word interlined in place of “occurrences incident.”

Index Entries

  • Burwell, Letitia McCreery (William Armistead Burwell’s wife); health of search
  • Burwell, William Armistead; and H. Lee’s medal search
  • Burwell, William Armistead; identified search
  • Burwell, William Armistead; letters from search
  • Burwell, William Armistead; visits Monticello search
  • Congress, U.S.; and foreign affairs search
  • Congress, U.S.; and H. Lee’s medal search
  • Congress, U.S.; debates in search
  • Declaration of Independence; mentioned search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as minister to France search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as secretary of state search
  • Lee, Henry (1756–1818); medal voted for search
  • Lee, Henry (1787–1837); and father’s medal search
  • Madison, James; and H. Lee’s medal search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); Visitors to; Burwell, William A. search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); greetings to search
  • Smith, Robert; and H. Lee’s medal search
  • Willis, John search
  • Willis, Nelly Conway Madison (John Willis’s wife) search
  • Wright, Joseph search