Thomas Jefferson Papers

Constantine S. Rafinesque to Thomas Jefferson, 16 September 1819

From Constantine S. Rafinesque

Transylvania University Lexington Ky 16th Septr 1819.

Respected Sir!

I hope that no apology will be needful, for taking the liberty of adressing you in the character of one of the Trustees of the Central University of Virginia. If any was requisite I would endeavour to bring to your recollection, the interview I had with you, at Washington City in 1804, when I was introduced to you by Genl Dearborn, & the kind invitation you proferred to visit you at Monticello, which I regret it was never in my power to do.

The motive which now prompts me to write you, is to let you know that having heard that the Central University of Virginia, will Soon go into operation, on the wise & liberal plan which you have Suggested, I wish to be considered as a Candidate for the professorship most congenial to my pursuits, & beg you accordingly to lay before the board of Trustees, the annexed Letter, which States Such a desire.

It may be proper, while I offer myself for this appointment, to explain what are my qualifications & motives. This I mean to do by the following private explanations, of which you are at liberty to make the needful use, & to communicate any part thereof, or the whole, to any other Member of the Board.

I was born in Europe, my father was a frenchman, my mother a german. From my earliest youth I have felt an innate taste for natural history & natural Sciences. I came at an early age in the U. St. of America. I lived Since many years in Italy & Sicily, and I returned to America in 1815 with the intention of residing altogether in the U. St. I have travelled in them (often on foot) from Vermont to Virginia & from Connecticut to Illinois. I have discovered an immense number of new Plants, Fishes, Shells, fossils &c and even Some new Quadrupeds! Some of my American & european discoveries are published, many are yet in manuscript. I have published several Works & many tracts in the English, french, italian & latin languages. My flora of Louisiana was sent you by mail. You will find many of my late Tracts in the American Journal of Science, the American Monthly Magazine & the Western Review. I have been elected member of Several learned Societies, and if it should be necessary to exhibit Certificates of my abilities, I could produce those of my worthy friends Dewitt Clinton, Dr. Sam. L. Mitchill, Zaccheus Collins & many more.

I am now well situated in this town; but Some untowards Circumstances in this University, might1 induce me to prefer a more eligible Situation elsewhere, & nearer from the Atlantic Shores.

If in the infancy of your University, it might become needful or desirable to acumulate Several departments on one professor, as you have already united the different branches of Natural history in one professorship, I might undertake to teach at the same time the following branches, (which I am fully competent to teach), provided a small additional compensation might be allowed: they are, the french & italian languages, Materia medica, Natural philosophy, Geometry, Map drawing, Natural history drawing, Political Economy &c.

I have an extensive & rich herbarium of American plants, a Small library &c, which would be deposited in the University. I might be willing to Set apart annually one fourth or one third of my emoluments for the purchase of books, to increase the library of the Univy

I am imperfectly acquainted as yet with the new arrangements & dispositions taken by your board, except what has been published in the Newspapers. I dont know when & how the Univy is to be fully organized, nor what allowances will be made—I shall merely add that my expectations are moderate; but my zeal very great. It would be gratifying, if you could let me know at your leasure how the Univy progresses, adding any needful explanations, & asking freely any additional details from me.

I have the honor to be respectfully—Sir Your Obedt St

C. S. Rafinesque

RC (ViU: TJP); with enclosure on verso of address cover; addressed: “Honble Thomas Jefferson Monticello Near Charlotteville Albermale County Virginia”; stamped; postmarked Lexington, 16 Sept.; endorsed by TJ as received 6 Oct. 1819 and so recorded in SJL.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783–1840), naturalist and educator, was born near Constantinople (later Istanbul), but he spent his early years in Marseille, where his father was a merchant. Educated by private tutors, in 1802 he came to Philadelphia and served an apprenticeship with the Clifford Brothers mercantile firm. During this first sojourn in the United States, Rafinesque also traveled and studied the flora and fauna of the mid-Atlantic region. He met TJ in 1804 but soon left for Sicily. Rafinesque served there as secretary and chancellor to the American consul at Palermo, and he continued his studies of and published on natural history. He returned to the United States in 1815 and four years later became a professor of botany and natural history at Transylvania University. In 1826 Rafinesque left Kentucky for Philadelphia, where he spent the rest of his life. He published extensively on subjects ranging from scientific classification to Native American linguistics, and his methods of natural classification, which many contemporary scientists scorned, later gained a measure of acceptance and won him a favorable mention from Charles Darwin (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 ; DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends ; Charles Boewe, The Life of C. S. Rafinesque, A Man of Uncommon Zeal [2011]; Rafinesque, A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe [1836]; PPAmP: Rafinesque Papers; Rafinesque to TJ, 23 July 1804 [ViW: TC-JP]; Rafinesque’s naturalization records, Oct. 1832 [DNA: RG 21, NPEDP]; Philadephia Public Ledger, 23 Sept. 1840).

1Word interlined.

Index Entries

  • Clinton, DeWitt; as reference for C. S. Rafinesque search
  • Collins, Zaccheus; as reference for C. S. Rafinesque search
  • Dearborn, Henry; mentioned search
  • Florula Ludoviciana; or, A Flora of the State Of Louisiana (C. S. Rafinesque) search
  • French language; collegiate education in search
  • geography; collegiate education in search
  • Italian language; collegiate education in search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; letters of application and recommendation to search
  • Louisiana (state); works on search
  • mathematics; geometry search
  • medicine; education in search
  • Mitchill, Samuel Latham; as reference for C. S. Rafinesque search
  • natural history; collegiate education in search
  • natural philosophy; collegiate education in search
  • patronage; letters of application and recommendation to TJ search
  • political economy; collegiate education in search
  • Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel; Florula Ludoviciana; or, A Flora of the State Of Louisiana search
  • Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel; identified search
  • Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel; letter from search
  • Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel; seeks professorship search
  • Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel; TJ invites to Monticello search
  • Virginia, University of; Board of Visitors; and faculty recruitment search
  • Virginia, University of; Books and Library; professors’ libraries search
  • Virginia, University of; Faculty and Curriculum; faculty applicants search