Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Hancock Hall to Thomas Jefferson, 15 July 1818

From John Hancock Hall

Washington 15. July 1818.


Several years since, I formed the resolution of collecting information, from time to time, as opportunities occured, & of acquiring by all proper means a thorough knowledge of every thing relative to the American Militia—with a view to its being instrumental to the public welfare at some future period—At the time of forming this resolution it appeared to me probable that a good system for the American Militia would be established by the Govt. long before my stock of information upon the subject would have become sufficiently complete to be of much publick importance—but as it also appeared to me possible that that event might not thus take place I determined to improve, with prudence, every opportunity for the acquisition of such knowledge which might occur, & have continued1 to do it to this moment—Years have now passed away & so little has yet been effected by the National Govt. in regard to our Militia, that a good system for them is still as much a desideratum as ever—Believing it in my power to contribute somewhat toward effecting this important object—I feel desirous of taking the proper steps in regard to it, & none but those which are proper

& with a view of profiting by your experience, take the liberty of respectfully soliciting your attention to the subject, & your advice in regard to the course best calculated to ensure success,

Being a Stranger to you, it would perhaps not be improper for me to state, that as the perfection of their fire2 arms, especially small arms, constitutes a most important point in regard to our Militia—I have in attending to that subject, succeeded in combining, in one piece, all the advantages of the best rifles & of the best muskets, with other important advantages possessd by neither of those arms, & all this has been effected with great simplicity—

I shall, tomorrow sett off for Harpers’ ferry, Virginia—by the direction of Govt. & shall remain there six weeks or more—& should wish, if agreeable to you to enter into farther communications upon the subject of the American Militia—

Most respectfully I am Sir Your obt. servt,

John H. Hall

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 19 July 1818 and so recorded in SJL. RC (MHi); address cover only; with PoC of TJ to John Barnes, 11 Nov. 1818, on verso; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esq. late President—U.S—Milton Va.”; franked; postmarked Georgetown, 16 July.

John Hancock Hall (1781–1841), inventor, was a native of Maine. By 1803 he was serving in the Portland Light Infantry, and by 1811 he had invented a mechanism for loading rifles at the breech. When he made his patent application later that year, William Thornton, the Patent Office superintendent, claimed to have developed the same technology. Ultimately they agreed to patent the firearm improvement in both their names. Hall spent the next several years trying to secure a position manufacturing his breech-loading rifles for the United States government. In 1819 he was awarded a contract and began working to produce the firearms at the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, where he remained for the next two decades. Hall was an early champion of the efficiency and utility of interchangeable parts, and at Harper’s Ferry he installed machinery and implemented techniques that helped to transform the manufacture of firearms from craft to industry. In 1840 ill health caused him to move to Missouri, where he died (Roy T. Huntington, Hall’s Breechloaders: John H. Hall’s Invention and Development of a Breechloading Rifle with Precision-made Interchangeable Parts, and Its Introduction into the United States Service [1972]; Madison, Papers, Pres. Ser., 3:181; 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 , 98; Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change [1977]; Pittsfield [Mass.] Sun, 8 Apr. 1841).

1Manuscript: “contined.”

2Word interlined.

Index Entries

  • firearms; muskets search
  • firearms; rifles search
  • Hall, John Hancock; identified search
  • Hall, John Hancock; letter from search
  • Hall, John Hancock; on militia search
  • Harpers Ferry, Va.; armory at search
  • militia; J. H. Hall on search
  • militia; organization of search
  • muskets search
  • rifles search