Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, 12 November 1816

To William Wirt

Poplar Forest Nov. 12. 16.

Dear Sir

Your’s of Oct. 23. was recieved here on the 31st with the last sheets of your work. they found me engaged in a business which could not be postponed and have therefore been detained longer than I wished. on the subject of our antient aristocracy, I believe I have said nothing which all who knew them will not confirm, and which their reasonable descendants may not learn from every quarter. it was the effect of the large accumulations of property under the law of entails. the suppression of entails reduced the spirit of the rich1 while the increased influence given by the new government to the people, raised theirs, and brought things to their present level from a condition which the present generation, who have not seen it, can2 scarcely believe or conceive. I believe I have named none particularly: that would be wrong. you ask if I think your work would be the better of retrenchment? by no means; I have seen nothing in it which could be retrenched but to disadvantage: and again whether, as a friend, I would advise it’s publication? on that question I have no hesitation, on your own account as well as that of the public. to the latter it will be valuable and honorable to yourself. you must expect to be criticised, and by a former letter I see you expect it. by the Quarterly reviewers you will be hacked and hewed by the tomahawk and scalping knife. those of Edinburgh, with the same anti-American prejudices, but sometimes considering us as allies against their administration, will do it more decently. they will assume as a model for biography the familiar manner of Plutarch, or scanty matter of Nepos, and try you perhaps by these tests. but they can only prove that your style is different from theirs, not that it is not good. I have always very much despised the artificial canons of criticism. when I have read a work in prose or poetry, or seen a painting a statue Etc. I have only asked myself whether it gives me pleasure, whether it is animating, interesting, attaching? if it is, it is good for these reasons. on these grounds you will be safe. those who take up your book will find they cannot lay it down, and this will be it’s best criticism.   You have certainly practised rigorously the precept of ‘de mortuis nil nisi bonum.’ this presents a very difficult question, whether one only, or both sides of the medal should be presented. it constitutes perhaps the distinction between panegyric and history. on this opinions are much divided, and perhaps may be so on this feature of your work. on the whole however you have nothing to fear, at least if my views are not very different from the common, and no one will see it’s appearance3 with more pleasure than myself, as no one can with more truth give you assurances of great respect & affectionate attachment

Th: Jefferson

RC (ViU: TJP); addressed: “William Wirt esquire Richmond.” PoC (DLC); on reused address cover of David Gelston to TJ, 11 Oct. 1816; mutilated at seal, with missing text rewritten by TJ; endorsed by TJ. Tr (MdHi: Wirt Papers). Presumably enclosing the manuscript, not found, of a portion of Wirt, Patrick Henry.

Wirt referred to “the malignity of reviewers” in his former letter to TJ of 10 Sept. 1816. de mortuis nil nisi bonum: “speaking no ill of the dead.”

1Reworked from “their spirit.”

2Word interlined in place of “will.”

3RC: “appeance.” Tr: “appearance.”

Index Entries

  • books; biographical search
  • criticism (art); TJ on search
  • criticism (literary); TJ on search
  • Edinburgh Review; TJ on search
  • Henry, Patrick (1736–99); W. Wirt’s book on search
  • history; TJ on search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; aristocracy search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; art and literary criticism search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; panegyric versus history search
  • Nepos, Cornelius; works of search
  • Plutarch; mentioned search
  • Quarterly Review search
  • Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (W. Wirt); TJ on search
  • Wirt, William; letters to search
  • Wirt, William; Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry search