Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas McAuley to Thomas Jefferson, 19 May 1819

From Thomas McAuley

Union College New York State 19th May 1819

Most Excellent Sir

The Brethren of the New York Alpha of the Phi Beta Kappa Society have directed me to request of Your Excellency the communication of any information you may be in possession of, in relation to the Introduction of said Society into this country, as it has been told to the Society, that you first brought the charter from Oxford or Elsewhere to William & Mary College in 1776 or thereabouts, as it is natural for the children to enquire into the pedigree &c of their parents we Trust Sir you will pardon the Liberty we take, in thus approaching their reputed patron with the Language of enquiry—permit me to say that there are now 4 Alphas, that of Mass—Con—New Ham1 & New York—

    Connecticut has 627  members
Mass. 489
N. H. 421
N. Y. 155

We trust the Society has a very healthfull influence on the minds of youth—and will be salutary to the community—We will thankfully receive any communication on this subject—

And while I am before you Sir permit me to enquire whether in your philosophic recreations you have observed that Electricity passed along a wire of one or more miles in length becomes a deep orange colour, is diminished in its apparent Volume, But Exceedingly increased in its intensity and influence on the nervous system? in my course of Experiment last season I am fully satisfied of these facts, but am yet unable to account for them and would most willingly be instructed.

I am Sir with the profoundest respect for your many public & private virtues & Elevated Standing in the republic of letters,

Your very Humble Servant
Cor. Sec. of New York A. A

Printed in George P. Coleman, ed., The Flat Hat Club and the Phi Beta Kappa Society: Some New Light on their History (1916), n.p.; at foot of text: “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson.” Recorded in SJL as received 13 June 1819.

Thomas McAuley (1778–1862), Presbyterian clergyman and educator, was a native of Ireland. By 1799 he had immigrated to the United States and served as a frontier missionary. McAuley lived in Salem, New York, before attending Union College in Schenectady, from which he graduated in 1804. He then remained at the college as a tutor, 1805–06, lecturer in mathematics and natural philosophy, 1811–14, and professor of the same, 1814–22. In 1818 McAuley was ordained a Presbyterian minister, and in 1822 he became the pastor of the Rutgers Street Church in New York City. Moving to Philadelphia in 1827 to officiate at the Tenth Presbyterian Church, he returned to New York in 1833 as pastor of the Murray Street Church. McAuley helped found Union Theological Seminary in 1836 and served as its first president and professor of pastoral theology until 1840. He remained a director of the seminary until 1845, when he gave up that post and retired from his pastorate. McAuley died in New York City (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Ezra H. Gillett, History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America [rev. ed., 1864], 2:244–5, 247, 501–2, 505–6; A General Catalogue of the Officers, Graduates and Students of Union College, from 1795 to 1854 [1854], 7, 13; Albany Gazette & Daily Advertiser, 18 July 1818; The General Catalogue and Early Annals of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New-York, 1836–1876 [1876], 3, 7; New-York Times, 13 May 1862).

In 1776 students at the College of William and Mary founded phi beta kappa, originally a literary society of a type then common at American colleges. The William and Mary chapter became dormant in 1781 and was not revived until 1851 (Richard Nelson Current, Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years [1990]).

1Printed text: “New Haven.”

Index Entries

  • electricity; study of search
  • McAuley, Thomas; and Phi Beta Kappa Society search
  • McAuley, Thomas; identified search
  • McAuley, Thomas; letter from search
  • McAuley, Thomas; on electricity search
  • Phi Beta Kappa Society search
  • schools and colleges; literary and fraternal societies at search
  • William and Mary, College of; Phi Beta Kappa Society at search