Thomas Jefferson Papers

Elkanah Watson to Thomas Jefferson, 24 April 1817

From Elkanah Watson

Albany. 24th Ap 1817


Knowing You are already Sufficiently oppress’d with numerous correspondence—and probably Some unprofitable Ones, It is Sir with No Small diffidence I presume to intrude myself: I Stand pledg’d however to confine myself to a Specific object, in which I am well convinc’d, we have congenial feelings, and views.

You have doubtless been informed of1 the Successfull efforts, & progress of the Berkshire Agricultural Society—its objects—its practical usefullness, & extending a Salutary example throughout the Union.   It was my good fortune to originate, and conduct the whole machinery for Several years; I therefore make free to introduce myself to your Notice, as the late President of that institution—and author of a Tour in Holland in 1784, which I am told is hon’d with a place in your library.

Haveing Sold my estate in Pittsfield and returned again to my former residence in this dignified State and being principally absorbed in promoting the Great Canals, and the progress of the territory of Michigan where I have purchased all the estates formerly Govr Hull’s, I have taken my Leave forever of Berkshire, and the persuits of Agriculture as a practical2 farmer.   Thus much premis’d—I will Now Sir come to the express object of this communication

Being for many Years deeply impress’d with the Salutary effects of well organiz’d Agricultural Societies, I had often witnessd by a long residence in Europe, especially in England, and the wonderful effects of our experiment in Berkshire even without Means I suggestd to Our Mutual friend Genl Mason of3 Georgetown (who did Me the honor to Spend a week at my house in Pittsfield, with his charming Lady & daughter in attending Our cattle Show in 1814) the importance of the institution of a National bord of Agriculture—he fully accorded with Me, and Knowing that my mind had been absorbed in these Views for Several years, he requested I would digest, and bring forth a project he would Support.   The Result of the outlines of a System, for that great National Object are published in Niles Register the 19th Instant page 126—to which I beg leave to refer with all its crude imperfections together with the annex’d remarks also pen’d by Me.

Haveing recently indirectly learn’t that your patriotic mind had Also taken a direction in the Same channel and that the public were about being benefitted by the result of your reflections in publication, which would4 have appeard in a periodical work in this City conducted by an eccentric Quaker—who has recently been compel’d to Suspend that work; under these circumstances, If I am correctly informed, I rejoice to find a Gentleman of your preeminent Standing in the great American family, So usefully, and in the evening of your invaluable Life, So patriotically imployed.

To conclude, and to relieve you from this long letter, I beg Sir you will accept my Services in co’operating zealously with you in these Northern States to diffuse as far as my limitted influence May extend, a deep impression on the public Mind, preparatory to the next Meeting of Congress.—So as to bring the great object into immediate View—that we May before we leave the theâtre of Our beloved Country enjoy the Satisfaction of Seeing Some of its usefull effects realiz’d before we depart hence and thus Also, holding into View a prominent link in the great Chain leading to the high destinies which a’wait our blessed Country & posterity.

Permit Me respected Sir to add One more Suggestion—Should Mr Munro fortunately be fully impress’d with the important object—& thus be induced to Make it a prominent feature in his first communication to Congress I have No doubt under your transcendant influence, & example—aided by the labours of Genl Mason—& my utmost efforts—the establishment of a National bord of Agriculture—liberally endowed, would be the certain result.   I am Sir—with profound respect and esteeme. Your Obt St

Elkanah Watson

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “The Honbl Thos Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 4 May 1817 and so recorded in SJL.

Elkanah Watson (1758–1842), merchant and agriculturist, was born and educated in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Following a six-year apprenticeship with a prosperous merchant in Providence, Rhode Island, he sailed for Europe in 1779. Watson there entered into a business partnership in Nantes, France, and traveled widely in England, France, and the Netherlands. Returning to the United States late in 1784, he visited George Washington at Mount Vernon and settled for a time in North Carolina. Watson relocated in 1789 to Albany, New York, where he helped found several banks, supported the construction of turnpike roads and canals, and fought for free public education. In 1807 he retired to a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and devoted himself to scientific agriculture. One of the founders of the Berkshire Agricultural Society, he served as its first president, 1811–15. Watson returned to Albany in 1816 and moved in 1825 to Essex County, New York, where he died. Watson was an early supporter of the construction of the Erie Canal and the movement to establish local fairs and agricultural societies (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; N: Watson Papers; Boston Independent Ledger, and the American Advertiser, 29 May 1780; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 3872; Washington, Papers, Confederation Ser., 2:456–8; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 40 vols. description ends , 37:526–7; New-York Journal, & Patriotic Register, 20 June 1792; New York Daily Advertiser, 14 July 1792; Albany Gazette, 6 May, 6 June 1805; Watson, History of the Rise, Progress, and Existing State of the Berkshire Agricultural Society, in Massachusetts [Albany, 1819], esp. 9, 14, 29; Pittsfield Berkshire Reporter, 20 July 1811; Pittsfield Sun, 8 Feb. 1816; New-York Spectator, 14 Dec. 1842).

Watson drafted an earlier version of this letter dated Albany, 2 Jan. 1817, expressing as his object the establishment of a national board of agriculture; seeking the support of TJ and President James Monroe for such an institution; noting that George Washington “recommended the measure in his inaugural Speech” and that Watson himself, as president of the Berkshire Agricultural Society, had petitioned Congress on the subject in 1814; stating that he has communicated with James Madison, who “highly approves of the plan”; fearing that constitutional difficulties will be a barrier to success; noting that when Representative John Hulbert spoke in favor of the petition in Congress he was “ridiculed, & laugh’d at for urging the Matter especially by southern Members”; noting that John Mason, of Georgetown, “has promis’d me to bring all his influ[e]nce to bare—to promote the object”; and concluding by expressing his pleasure at learning that TJ also intends “to Sustain it with zeal—and to furnish the public with your views on the Subject” (FC in Lb in N: Watson Papers; entirely in Watson’s hand; one word editorially corrected; at head of text: “Letter to Thomas Jefferson”; at top of second page: “National bord of Agriculture”; adjacent to signature in parentheses: “Vide his answer page 79”; date reworked to 24 Apr. 1817 in an unidentified hand; this version not recorded in SJL and probably never received by TJ).

Watson’s book, A Tour in Holland, in MDCCLXXXIV (Worcester, 1790; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 3872) was in the library TJ sold to Congress.

The outlines of a system appeared in an article entitled “A Board of Agriculture proposed,” which laid out a twelve-point organizational plan that accompanied the petition of the Berkshire Agricultural Society to Congress and concluded with the “Remarks of a Correspondent” [Watson], who asserted that such a society would “tend as a cement to the union, by assimilating our agricultural habits, by uniform excitements and competitions; thus rousing and bringing into activity a laudable and useful spirit of emulation in every section of this great republic” (reprinted from the Albany Argus in the Baltimore Niles’ Weekly Register, 19 Apr. 1817).

The eccentric quaker was Horatio G. Spafford. mr munro: James Monroe.

A letter from Thomas Melvill (Watson’s successor as president of the Berkshire Agricultural Society) dated 10 Jan. 1816 and TJ’s 6 Feb. 1816 response , both previously noted here, were located after print publication of this volume, have been added digitally, and will appear in the concluding supplement to the print edition.

1Manuscript: “off.”

2Watson here canceled “man.”

3Manuscript: “off.”

4Word reworked from “Should.”

Index Entries

  • agriculture; Berkshire Agricultural Society search
  • agriculture; national board of proposed search
  • Albany Argus search
  • American Board of Agriculture; founding of search
  • American Magazine; edited by H. G. Spafford search
  • A Tour in Holland, in MDCCLXXXIV (E. Watson) search
  • Baltimore, Md.; newspapers search
  • Berkshire Agricultural Society; E. Watson as member of search
  • cattle; in agricultural shows search
  • Congress, U.S.; petitions to search
  • Hulbert, John; and proposed national board of agriculture search
  • Hull, William; governor of Mich. Territory search
  • Library of Congress; TJ sells personal library to search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); and American Board of Agriculture search
  • Mason, John (of Georgetown); and national board of agriculture search
  • Mason, John (of Georgetown); family of search
  • Monroe, James; and proposed national agricultural board search
  • newspapers; Albany Argus search
  • newspapers; BaltimoreNiles’ Weekly Register search
  • Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore newspaper) search
  • Spafford, Horatio Gates; as editor ofAmerican Magazine search
  • Washington, George; on board of agriculture search
  • Watson, Elkanah; A Tour in Holland, in MDCCLXXXIV search
  • Watson, Elkanah; identified search
  • Watson, Elkanah; letter from search
  • Watson, Elkanah; national board of agriculture proposed by search