Thomas Jefferson Papers

Jesse Torrey to Thomas Jefferson, 15 August 1815

From Jesse Torrey

Charlottesville, August 15th 1815.

The bearer, and undersigned, of Lebanon Springs, has made choice of this eccentric method of presenting himself to Mr Jefferson; as an enthusiastic Student of Physiology and Philosophy.

At an early period of my life, Sir, I contracted a firm belief, that the same permanent laws, which have been ascertained, by Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, and more recently by Sir Humphrey Davy and others; to govern the composition, decomposition and motion of that portion of the Universe, generally termed inanimate matter, the gravitative and repellent properties of the Electric Fluid &c; might with equal certainty and uniformity, be attached to the art, (which ought to be a science,) of producing and subsisting animal bodies, of their preservation and protection from premature destruction, by other causes than casualties.

Except the sustenance required to my young family, the developement of this proposition, has been the favorite object of my labors, studies, reflections and resources, eight years.

I have availed myself of the earliest opportunity that the indigence of my circumstances would admit of, to visit Monticello, where, I have long been impressed with an opinion, (which is not a solitary one,) that I should meet with the greatest accumulation both of original and acquired, Moral, Political, and Physiological Knowledge etc. at least on this side the Atlantic.

If you were to ask, why I do not propose my subject, to the consideration and patronage, of some of our distinguished practical Chemists and Professors of Philosophy and Medicine, who are actually engaged in the advancement of the art which I wish to improve; I should be obliged to enquire of you, Sir, as Monsieur Volney has probably been a personal acquaintance and friend1 of yours; whether he offered his genuine transcript, of those fundamental laws, which God has imprinted in his constitution (edition) of this Globe in legible characters; for the government and happiness of Mankind;—to the consideration and patronage of a Pope or a Bishop; or whether Thomas Paine solicited the opinion of Monarchs or Princes on the Rights of Man.—

If my sentiments, on the identity of those Laws, which predominate in the organization and disorganization, of Animal, Vegetable, or inanimate bodies; receive your approbation; I will furnish, in a subsequent memorial, some facts in confirmation of the principle; and a proposition for your consideration and encouragement, of a plan, tending eventually, to a complete developement and establishment of it; by means of collecting the facts in point, which, already, have existed, and may be selected from the experience on record, from the time of Hippocrates, of Galen, of Sydenham, of Brown & Darwin; to some ingenious writers and Practitioners of the present day; and from the experience, also, of many, not on records of paper;—and by means, also, of a series of future experiments directly to the purpose, which will require ample collections and distributions of the necessary materials; the results of which, can be previously estimated with considerable exactness, provided the Laws mentioned before, are carefully consulted.

Accept, if you please, Sir, the tribute of my high estimation and respect, and of my friendly attachment.

Jesse Torrey Jnr

RC (MHi); at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr &c.”; addressed: “Mr Jefferson present”; endorsed by TJ as received 16 Aug. 1815 and so recorded in SJL.

Jesse Torrey (b. 1787), physician and reformer, established a free library in 1804 for adolescent residents of his hometown of New Lebanon, Columbia County, New York. By December 1814 he had established a medical practice in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Late in the spring of 1815 Torrey quit this practice and set out on a journey to promote the creation of public libraries. He used observations from his southern tour to write A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States (Philadelphia, 1817). Torrey subsequently wrote books for schoolroom use and A Dissertation on the Causes, Preventives, and Remedies of Plague, Yellow Fever, Cholera, Dysentery, and Other Pestilential, Epidemic, or Contagious Diseases (1832), and he advocated for government support of free, public education. In 1829 he patented a bookbinding machine, and the following year he opened an “American Specimen Book Store and Publishers’ Exchange” in Philadelphia. In 1835 Torrey began the short-lived Poughkeepsie Herald of Reason and Common Sense, and Advocate of Equal Rights and Free Discussion. He was residing in Newburgh three years later when he petitioned the New York state legislature to ban the manufacture and sale of strong liquors (Torrey, The Intellectual Torch; Developing an Original, Economical and Expeditious Plan for the Universal Dissemination of Knowledge and Virtue; By Means of Free Public Libraries, 2d ed. [Ballston Spa, N.Y., 1817; repr. with biographical introduction by Edward Harmon Virgin, 1912]; Pittsfield Sun, 1 Dec. 1814, 8 June 1815; Wilhelmus B. Bryan, “A Fire in An Old Time F Street Tavern and What It Revealed,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 9 [1906]: 204–13; Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 23 Sept. 1829; Torrey to James Madison, 19 Oct. 1829 [DLC: Madison Papers]; List of Patents description begins A List of Patents granted by the United States from April 10, 1790, to December 31, 1836, 1872 description ends , 389; Philadelphia Mechanic’s Free Press, 27 Feb. 1830; Washington Daily National Journal, 14 May 1830; New-York Spectator, 13 July 1835, 26 Feb. 1838).

During Torrey’s brief visit to Monticello, TJ declined to collaborate with him in any physiological studies (Torrey to TJ, 6 Apr. 1816). The genuine transcript by the French scholar Constantin François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, was published in English as The Law of Nature, or Principles of Morality, Deduced from the Physical Constitution of Mankind and the Universe (Philadelphia, 1796). For the original 1793 Paris edition that Volney sent to TJ and the extensive correspondence that ensued, see 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 , esp. 27:390–1.

1Preceding two words interlined.

Index Entries

  • Brown, John (physician); medical theories of search
  • Darwin, Erasmus; medical theories of search
  • Davy, Sir Humphry; scientific theories of search
  • Franklin, Benjamin; science of search
  • Galen (Greek physician) search
  • Hippocrates (Greek physician); medical theories of search
  • medicine; theories of search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); Visitors to; Torrey, Jesse search
  • Newton, Sir Isaac; genius of search
  • Paine, Thomas; Rights of Man search
  • physiology; study of search
  • Priestley, Joseph; mentioned search
  • Rights of Man (T. Paine) search
  • Sydenham, Thomas; medical theories of search
  • The Law of Nature, or Principles of Morality, Deduced from the Physical Constitution of Mankind and the Universe (Volney) search
  • Torrey, Jesse; identified search
  • Torrey, Jesse; letters from search
  • Torrey, Jesse; physiological studies by search
  • Torrey, Jesse; visits Monticello search
  • Volney, Constantin François Chasseboeuf, comte de; The Law of Nature, or Principles of Morality, Deduced from the Physical Constitution of Mankind and the Universe search