Thomas Jefferson Papers

John L. Sullivan to Thomas Jefferson, 17 January 1817

From John L. Sullivan

Boston January 17th 1817


At a period when the importance of internal improvements is peculiarly felt by the most respectable members of the community, it must be unnecessary to apologize for addressing to you a communication on the subject of canals and inland navigation.   Having had some practice in this pursuit, my experience & improvements may possibly become of use in Virginia.—

my Father the late James Sullivan deceased originated the Middlesex Canal which connects Boston harbour with merrimack river; Having paid some attention in Europe to civil engineering, at his request I undertook to complete & put the Canal in operation, and construct some smaller works of the kind at the falls and in the rapids of the merrimack and have at length effectuated the object as far as Concord NH and made it useful especially by means of an Incorporated Company for the purpose of navigating the canal & river systematically, as on the Canals of Europe:—& altho in its infancy, this company carried fifteen hundred tons of merchandize into the country the last summer

While at work on the river, I tried many experiments with a Steam boat of twenty horse power, in towing loaded boats upstream, conceiving that this power might be applied so as to require but a small draft of water, and that some advantage was to be gained from the reaction of the broken water or wake behind the preceeding boats. I was not disappointed in this expectation finding that while the steam boat was going at the rate of three miles an hour, with two boats loaded in tow, a man could draw those in tow up to the steam boat, and hold them there, while it would have required two horses to have carried them as fast separately

Having been at considerable expense; & the laws of the United States, according patents for the application of a known power to a new and useful purpose, I took one out, tho’ not till after the question of right thereto, between the late Mr Fulton & myself, had been settled by arbitration under the authority of the Secretary of State in my favour.—   I have since made several improvements on the steam Engine, as I conceive, rendering it more simple for use on rivers.—

It is obvious that the perpendicular action of the steam engine in common use renders it necessary that the boat should be very strong, and of course heavy—   To get rid of this, I place the Cylinder horizontally—and have devised a way to support the piston in its central situation, to prevent the packing from wearing unequally.—

By this position amongst other advantages, I gain especially that of a direct action of the engine on the bottom of the river where it is Shallow & rapid, by means of poles. I have also several modes of acting upon the water with effect, better adapted to small boats than paddle wheels are—of which I shall take the liberty of forwarding a description.—

The experience of the incorporated company here is in favour of the formation of similar companies for the navigation of the Southern rivers. The capital and intelligence thus brought into this branch of business produces confidence in it—while it enables the proprietors to manage to more advantage.—The use of Steam Engine power, will liberate many men and cattle from the unproductive labour of the roads, giving them back to agriculture. The facility of conveying produce to market of course1 raises its value at the plantation.—Our experience has demonstrated the importance of forming companies for the use of canals & rivers simultaniously with the construction of them—for if the transportation be left to individual enterprize, it will be slow, uncertain & inadequate to the wants of the country. The Income will be Small, & the works meanwhile fall into decay: but if every preparation be made, it is found that they become atonce good property and are kept up.—

The Patent granted to me for the Steam tow boat2 was I conceive wanted as a kind of protection to the undertakers of this new-branch of business, requiring considerable capital, and in the outset incuring some risk.—& I shall be very happy if it prove useful to any part of our common country.—

Fully aware Sir how thoroughly occupied your time must be, I do not expect the honor of your attention to the subject of this letter any further than3 it may in your hands subserve the general object—but I cannot be insensible4 how solicitously you regard the internal improvement of the Country ’tho’ declining an active part in the board of publick-works, created by Virginia for great & important purposes; nor to the eminent degree in which you are competent to judge of the probable utility of discoveries in the use of machinery.—I hope however it may not be incompatible with your active pursuits to bestow as much reflection on this subject as you may think it deserves; and to mention the result of your thought to those of your friends, with whom you may happen to converse on subjects of this nature.—

With the highest respect & consideration

I am Sir Your most Obed Sert

Jno L Sullivan

RC (MHi); endorsed by TJ as received 5 Feb. 1817 and so recorded in SJL. RC (MHi); address cover only; with PoC of TJ to Patrick Gibson, 9 Feb. 1817, on verso; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esq late President of the United States Virginia.” Enclosed in Hugh Nelson to TJ, 30 Jan. 1817.

John Langdon Sullivan (1777–1865), civil engineer, inventor, and physician, was born in Saco, Massachusetts (now Maine), and initially made his living as a merchant in Boston. During this period he traveled to England and France, where he studied modern canal-building techniques. Sullivan joined the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1801 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1810, became an agent and engineer of the Middlesex Canal in 1804, and served as a lieutenant in the Boston militia during the War of 1812. Having patented a “steam tow-boat” in 1814 and other shipbuilding improvements in 1817–18, he worked as an engineer for the national board of internal improvements, 1824–25. During the 1830s, however, Sullivan changed careers. He received a medical degree from Yale University in 1837 and practiced homeopathic medicine for a quarter-century thereafter, mostly in New York City, where he had moved early in the 1840s. Sullivan’s estate was estimated at $100,000 a few years prior to his death in Boston (James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography [1887–89], 5:741–2; The Boston Directory [1798]: 109; [1813]: 237; [1816]: 198; DNA: RG 29, CS, Mass., Roxbury, 1800, 1840, N.Y., New York, 1860; Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings 29 [1894/95]: 94, 95; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Memoirs, new ser., 11 [1882]: 50; John Lathrop, The Gentleman’s Pocket Register, and Free-Mason’s Annual Anthology, for the year of our Lord 1813 [Boston, 1813], 119; 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 , esp. 137, 177, 190, 192, 196–7; Catalogue of the Officers and Graduates of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, 1701–1910 [1910], 257; New York City Directory [1842/43]: 308; [1844/45]: 336).

The Massachusetts legislature created an incorporated company on 21 June 1811 with its “Act to incorporate John L. Sullivan and others, by the name and style of The Merimack Boating Company” (Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, passed at the several sessions of the General Court holden in Boston, begining 31st. May 1809 … [Boston, 1811], 408–10). In February 1816 TJ declined an appointment to the Virginia board of publick-works (Wilson Cary Nicholas to TJ, 16 Feb. 1816; TJ to Nicholas, 29 Feb. 1816 [two letters]).

1Preceding two words interlined.

2Preceding five words interlined.

3Reworked from “expect any more of your attention to the subject of this letter than.”

4Manuscript: “insensble.”

Index Entries

  • boats; steamboats search
  • canals; Middlesex search
  • Fulton, Robert; and steamboats search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; declines appointment as a director of public works search
  • machines; steam engine search
  • Massachusetts; and canals search
  • Merrimack Boating Company search
  • Merrimack River; improved navigation on search
  • Middlesex Canal search
  • patents; of J. L. Sullivan search
  • steamboats; for U.S. river navigation search
  • steam engine search
  • Sullivan, James; and Middlesex Canal search
  • Sullivan, John Langdon; and Merrimack Boating Company search
  • Sullivan, John Langdon; and Middlesex Canal search
  • Sullivan, John Langdon; identified search
  • Sullivan, John Langdon; letter from search
  • Sullivan, John Langdon; promotes inland navigation search
  • Sullivan, John Langdon; steam towboat of search
  • Virginia; TJ appointed a director of public works in search