Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Erskine Birch to Thomas Jefferson, [November 1811]

From Thomas Erskine Birch

[Nov. 1811]

Most Respectable sir.

The inclosed volume was committed to the press near the close of your Excellency’s administration. The author saw with superlative pleasure the efforts that you were making to preserve that precious boon, for which, he when but a youth of 19 years of age was contending for with a naval lieutenant’s commission. From 15 to 20 years of age, he was incessantly traversing the seas in search of the enemy, and was assisting at the capture of no less than 47 of their vessels.

The Ode which is dedicated to your Excellency is the only laurel that the author can offer, to your administration

Such as it is—ah might it worthier be,

Its scanty foliage all is due to thee.

With sentiments of high regard and all due consideration, I beg leave to style my self, Sir, Your most obedient and very humble Servant
Thos Erskine Birch
Preceptor of “Anchor & Hope”
Acady, Wythe County, Virga

RC (MHi); undated, with partial date given in Birch to TJ, 1 Jan. 1812; endorsed by TJ as received 22 Dec. 1811 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: Birch, comp., The Virginian Orator: being a variety of Original and Selected Poems, Orations and Dramatic Scenes; to Improve the American Youth in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence & Gesture (Richmond, 1808; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4680).

Thomas Erskine Birch (1763–1821), educator, was born in Saint Christopher in the British West Indies. He served for five years as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. Thereafter, he joined a British privateer, and soon found himself in captivity in Spain. There he joined the American cause and sailed under Alexander Gillon, among other commanders. After the Revolutionary War, Birch was a merchant seaman until about 1793, when he settled in Virginia. In England he also became a Congregationalist minister, and he subsequently officiated as a Presbyterian and a Lutheran. Having taught oratory and belles-lettres near Richmond for a time, Birch ran the Anchor and Hope Academy in Wythe County in the early years of the nineteenth century. While there, he called for the abolition of the property qualification for voting in Virginia. Following stints at Abingdon Academy in Washington County and Amity Hall Academy in Russell County, Birch moved about 1817 to Cynthiana, Kentucky, where he founded the short-lived Washington College (DVB description begins John T. Kneebone and others, eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography, 1998– , 3 vols. description ends ; Bernerd L. O’Neil, The Birch Family History [1998], 51–72 [including dates of birth and baptism from parish registers]; Mary B. Kegley and Frederick B. Kegley, Early Adventurers on the Western Waters [1980– ], 2:143, 249–50; Lexington Presbytery Minutes, 4:155–6 [9 Nov. 1804]; Birch to Samuel Smith, 17 Mar. 1809 [with variant birth year of 1760], and Birch to Paul Hamilton, 17 Apr. 1809 [DNA: RG 45, MLRSN]).

Birch’s claim to have been involved in the capture of forty-seven British vessels probably grew out of his participation with Gillon in the successful Spanish expedition against the Bahamas in 1782. Birch’s ode, entitled “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson, Esq.,” celebrates TJ’s triumph over opposition as president and declares a readiness to fight any power that threatens American naval interests, especially while “Jefferson trims all the sails, With helm in his hand.” The same volume includes two orations by unidentified authors celebrating TJ as he entered retirement (Birch, Virginian Orator, 15–22, 64–6). The lines such as it is—ah might it worthier be, / its scanty foliage all is due to thee were written in 1750 by St. George Molesworth (James Hervey, Meditations and Contemplations [London, 1753], 1:xxv).

Index Entries

  • Bahamas; Spanish expedition against search
  • Birch, Thomas Erskine; identified search
  • Birch, Thomas Erskine; letters from search
  • Birch, Thomas Erskine; The Virginian Orator search
  • Gillon, Alexander; Revolutionary War naval officer search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; works sent to search
  • Molesworth, St. George; quoted by T. E. Birch search
  • poetry; sent to TJ search
  • Spain; expedition against the Bahamas search
  • The Virginian Orator (Birch, comp.) search