Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Richard Peters, 6 March 1816

To Richard Peters

Monticello Mar. 6. 16.

Dear Sir

I have to thank you for the copy of your Discourse on agriculture which you have been so kind as to send me. I participate in all your love for the art,1 and wish I did also in your skill. but I was never but an amateur, and have been kept from it’s practice until I am too old to learn it. we are indebted to you for much of our knolege as to the use of the plaister, which is become a principal article of our improvements, no soil profiting more from it than that of the country around this place. the return of peace will enable us now to resume it’s use. my son in law, Colo Randolph is perhaps the best farmer of the state, and by the introduction of the horizontal method of ploughing, instead of straight furrows, has really saved this hilly country. it was running off into the vallies with every rain; but by this process we now scarcely lose an ounce of our soil.

a rafter level traces a horizontal line around the curve of the hil[l] or valley at distances of 30. or 40. yards, which is followed by the plough; & by these guide-lines the ploughman finishes the interval by his eye, throwing the earth into beds of 6.f. wide, with large water-furrows between them. when more rain falls than can be instantly absorbed, the horizontal furrows retain the surplus until it is all soaked up, scarcely a drop ever reaching the valley below. some 2. or 3. years ago, I mentioned to mr Peale this method of ploughing, and I think he has informed me of his having since practised it with satisfaction. it is probable therefore you may have heard of it from him, if not thro’ some other channel.

Mr Randolph has contrived also, for our steepest hill sides, a simple plough which throws the furrow always down hill. it is made with two wings welded to the same bar, with their planes at a right angle with each other. the point and heel of the bar are formed into pivots, & the bar becomes an axis, by turning which, either wing may be laid on the ground, and the other then standing vertically, acts as a mould board. the right angle between them however is filled with a sloping piece of wood, leaving only a cutting margin of each wing naked, & aiding in the office of raising the sod gradually, while the declivity of the hill facilitates it’s falling over. the change of the position of the share at the end of each furrow is effected in a moment by with-drawing and replacing a pin. the little paper model inclosed may help out my description of the share.

I must now ask whether time has not commenced it’s inroads on you? whether your farming activity does not abate, and the bodily faculties begin to blunt a little? these decays however are less to be regarded if the blessing of health continues: and that it may long continue with you is the prayer of one who has never ceased to respect and esteem you affectionately.2

Th: Jefferson

PoC (DLC); on reused address cover of Joseph C. Cabell to TJ, 14 Feb. 1816; damaged at seal, with most of the affected text rewritten by TJ; at foot of first page: “Richard Peters”; endorsed by TJ. Printed in Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, Memoirs 4 (1818): 16–7.

Richard Peters (1744–1828), public official, judge, and experimental farmer, graduated from the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) in 1761. He was admitted to the bar in 1763 and began practicing law. Prior to the commencement of the Revolutionary War, Peters acted as Pennsylvania’s register of admiralty. After serving briefly as a militia officer, in 1776 the Continental Congress elected him secretary of the board of war, and he served until late in 1781. The following year Peters was elected to the Continental Congress for a one-year term. After a period of European travel, he returned to Pennsylvania, where he was a member of the unicameral General Assembly, 1787–90 (concluding with service as Speaker), and he served as the first Speaker of the state senate, 1791–92. In 1792 Peters was appointed judge of the United States district court of Pennsylvania, an office he retained for the rest of his life. He made significant contributions to maritime law and was the author of Admiralty Decisions in the District Court of the United States, for the Pennsylvania District, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1807). Peters was keenly interested in agricultural research and engaged in experiments at Belmont, his Philadelphia estate. He served as president of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, contributed many papers to its Memoirs, and wrote Agricultural Enquiries on Plaister of Paris (Philadelphia, 1797; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 745) and A Discourse on Agriculture (Philadelphia, 1816; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 6 [no. 270]) (DAB; Washington, Papers, Confederation Ser., 6:142–3, and Pres. Ser., 9:426, 11:451–2; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 38 vols. description ends , 5:239–40, 10:416–7; Simon Baatz, “Venerate the Plough”: A History of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, 1785–1985 [1985]; Philadelphia Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 23, 25 Aug. 1828).

A rafter level is a “levelling instrument consisting of an A-frame made of long spars of wood with a pendulum suspended from the apex, used to ascertain the differences of level in a piece of land” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ). TJ described this method of ploughing in a letter to Charles Willson Peale, 17 Apr. 1813. Peale wrote of his satisfaction with the technique in a letter to TJ of 28 Dec. 1813. The enclosed little paper model of Thomas Mann Randolph’s “Hill-side Plough” has not been found, but see Peters to TJ, 28 June 1817, and note.

1Remainder of sentence and succeeding sentence not in Memoirs.

2Paragraph not in Memoirs.

Index Entries

  • A Discourse on Agriculture (R. Peters) search
  • agriculture; contour plowing search
  • agriculture; implements of search
  • agriculture; use of gypsum in search
  • gypsum (plaster of paris); used as fertilizer search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; contour plowing search
  • Memoirs of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture search
  • Peters, Richard; A Discourse on Agriculture search
  • Peters, Richard; health of search
  • Peters, Richard; identified search
  • Peters, Richard; letters to search
  • Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture; Memoirs search
  • plows; T. M. Randolph’s hillside search
  • Randolph, Thomas Mann (1768–1828) (TJ’s son-in-law; Martha Jefferson Randolph’s husband); hillside plow of search
  • Randolph, Thomas Mann (1768–1828) (TJ’s son-in-law; Martha Jefferson Randolph’s husband); uses contour plowing search
  • tools; rafter levels search