Thomas Jefferson Papers

Jonathan Williams to Thomas Jefferson, 21 October 1814

From Jonathan Williams

Philosophical Hall. Friday Eveng Octor 21. 1814.

Dear Sir

After the Society was adjourned a number of members (all your particular Friends) were conversing on various subjects when the proposed sale of your Library to Congress was mentioned.

It can hardly be supposed, that in this Room surrounded by a Library consisting almost wholly1 of donations, with your almost animated Bust2 looking full in our faces, we could avoid expressing our regret that the rich collection of so many years of scientific research should be devoted to a political Body, where it cannot produce any benefit to them or to the World.—Works of History, Law, Government Finance, political Œconomy, and general Information,3 may with propriety be so deposited; but such Books as would adorn our Library4 and aid this Society in “the promotion of useful knowledge” must there become motheaten upon the Shelves.

I cannot resist an impulse which induces me to communicate this sentiment of regret to you, especially as your own reccollection will assist me in the beleif, that when you were a resident among us, you encouraged the expectation that your last Will would contain a handsome5 increase of our Stock of Science.

If this Letter should offend you I shall be sorry, but I shall console myself in the reflection that it is the effect of an honest zeal, which under opposite circumstances would not offend me.

I am with great respect6 Dear Sir Your obedient Servant

Jon Williams

RC (MHi); at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr President of the American Philosophical Society”; endorsed by TJ as received 15 Nov. 1814 and so recorded in SJL, which mistakenly dates it 28 Oct. 1814. Dft (InU: Williams Papers); endorsed by Williams, in part: “Copy to Mr Jefferson about the sale of his ’Library to Congress.”

The American Philosophical Society had adjourned a meeting on this day (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes [MS at PPAmP]). It acquired a copy of Jean Antoine Houdon’s almost animated bust of TJ in 1811 (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 5 Apr., 20 Sept. 1811; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 37 vols. description ends , 25:31n; Bush, Life Portraits description begins Alfred L. Bush, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, rev. ed., 1987 description ends , 11, 13). The society’s full name was the American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for promoting useful knowledge.

this letter may have inspired a critique published the following year: “Mr. Jefferson, of whose hypocrisy science itself has been the dupe, having declared his intention to bestow a portion, at least, of his books on the American Philosophical Society, of which he was President;—when the proposal to sell his Library to Congress was made public, a letter was addressed to Mr. Jefferson, reminding him of his promise in behalf of the Society, and his Philosophical Highness, with a generosity worthy of himself, sent the Society—his resignation!” (Salem [Mass.] Gazette, 9 June 1815).

1Preceding two words canceled in Dft.

2Reworked in Dft from “Donations, and observed by your <Bust> almost animated resemblance.”

3Word inserted in place of “Knowledge,” erased, and added in margin of Dft in place of “<Science> Knowledge.”

4Preceding two words interlined in Dft.

5RC: “a handsome a handsome.” In Dft Williams here canceled “Legacy to.”

6Dft here adds “& Esteem.”

Index Entries

  • American Philosophical Society; and J. Houdon’s bust of TJ search
  • American Philosophical Society; and sale of TJ’s library to Congress search
  • American Philosophical Society; TJ resigns from presidency of search
  • American Philosophical Society; TJ’s purported offer to give books to search
  • American Philosophical Society; works given to search
  • books; on history search
  • Houdon, Jean Antoine; bust of TJ search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; TJ’s purported offer to give books to American Philosophical Society search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Portraits; J. Houdon’s bust search
  • law; books on search
  • Library of Congress; TJ sells personal library to search
  • political economy; works on search
  • Williams, Jonathan; letters from search
  • Williams, Jonathan; on sale of TJ’s library to Congress search