Thomas Jefferson Papers

James Breckinridge and Chapman Johnson to John H. Cocke, 5 April 1821

James Breckinridge and Chapman Johnson to John H. Cocke

Staunton 5th April 1821.

Dear Sir,

We returned yesterday from the University, where we regreted your absence very much, and were the more concerned to hear that indisposition had prevented your attendance—

We had a bare quorum, Mr Cabell and Genl Taylor being also absent—the latter had not been heard from,—the former like yourself was prevented from attending, by sickness—

Want of information of the state of our finances, left us very much at a loss how to proceed, in relation to our buildings—The first thing to be attained, in relation to them, was the completion of the buildings commenced, and the erection of the Western range of hotels and dormitories,—the next the erection of the large rotunda for the library &c—We considered it an object of primary importance not to contract engagements, which our present resources, without further legislative aid, would not certainly meet;—for we believed it to be very clearly the expectation of the Legislature that no further application was to be made to them, for aid in erecting the buildings,—and we thought it more than doubtful, whether any application for material aid for that object would be successful—We therefore wished estimates to enable us to ascertain how far we could safely go—They were laid before us, and they indicated our ability to do all we wished—But we were by no means satisfied with these estimates—They dealt in generals, avoiding all the details necessary to give confidence in their accuracy—. The accounts of the proctor never having been settled, and the accounts of the undertakers never having been liquidated, and not a single building being entirely finished, it was found wholly impracticable to give us those details which would have been necessary to satisfy us, of the true state of our funds—

In this state of things, the question occurred, whether we should postpone all contracts for the library till our next meeting, and, in the mean time, require the settlements and details necessary to correct information,—or, relying on the correctness of the estimates submitted to us, authorise contracts immediately,—or, taking the middle course, devolve the duty of procuring the settlements and details, upon the committee of superintendance, and refer the contracts to their discretion under certain limitations—Mr Jefferson felt great confidence in the correctness of the estimates, and he and Mr Madison were willing to act immediately upon their faith—We were unwilling to act upon their faith and differed only as to the prudence of deferring the contracts till the next meeting or referring the subject to the committee—The majority of the board, acting under the old prudential maxim ibis in medio tutissimus, concurred in a resolution, by which it is made the duty of the committee of superintendance to ascertain, as accurately as may be, the true state of our resources, and by which, they are authorised, to enter into contracts for the building of the library on the plan submitted, provided they are fully satisfied, that the funds of the University are adequate, to the completion of the buildings already begun, to the building of the western range, and to the building of the library, so far at least, as to put up the walls cover it in, & render it secure and fit for use—in which security and fitness for use, are contemplated at least doors, windows, floors, and stair cases—

On leaving Monticello, we at the suggestion of Mr Jefferson called at the University to converse with the proctor, and to stimulate him to prepare for a settlement of the accounts and for the immediate exhibition of such statements and estimates in detail, as will be a safe guide, in ascertaining our resources, & the demands upon us, and in deciding on the propriety of entering into the proposed contracts—

We saw the proctor, and endeavoured to impress him with the necessity of making the preparations above indicated as speedily1 and accurately as possible—we suggested to him particularly the propriety of, at once, settling all his accounts with the workmen, for the work already done, of ascertaining as accurately as possible, what would yet become due for the work contracted for, and of receiving propositions for the work to be undertaken, especially for the work, on the library so as to enable him with some degree of accuracy to estimate the costs of the building not yet contracted for—We hope that nothing will be wanting on his part to prepare such information, as will enable you to survey accurately the ground on which we are—But our conversations with him lead us to fear, that he had not been very particular in that department of his duty which relates to the accounts, and that his information in relation to the actual cost of the work done and contracted for is too imperfect, to justify2 much reliance on the estimates which have been submitted to us—Our enquiries too, and some rough calculations made by ourselves induce us to fear, that after completing the four ranges of buildings, making the garden walls, privies &c—necessary to the plan exclusive of the library, there will be scarcely a dollar left, for the library—

We sincerely hope that the result of your investigations will prove these fears to be groundless;—but we think them so well founded, and we think it so vitally important that no material error should be made in the estimates, & that we should not again be brought before the legislature, with contracts unfulfilled, with foundations not built upon, with naked walls or useless hulls, demanding to be protected or threatening to perish, or be a monument of our want of foresight and our unprofitable expenditure of public money,—that we have considered it our duty to communicate to you, what we have done, and3 what we think most desirable to be done on the occasion—We are sure you will excuse us the liberty—

We know Mr Jefferson’s great zeal in the prosecution of the interesting plan which has been committed to our care—We have heard him already express his confidence in our ability to do what we wish upon this subject—and we fear he will be too easily satisfied of this ability, too difficult to persuade4 that there is any danger in proceeding—Having been ourselves members of several past Legislatures and having seen much of the temper manifested towards the university in that body, we wish you to be fully persuaded5 of the ill effect it is likely to have upon our interests, if we commit any material blunder, in the work now to be engaged in—and we cannot hesitate to say that we think it much better to lose a season, in the building of the Library, than to encounter any Serious risk, of entering into contracts for it, which we may be unable to fulfil—

We think it of very great importance, that the proctor should be required immediately to settle all accounts with the undertakers, and that too before any new engagements are entered into, as in for the western range—The undertakers will be more easily brought to settlements while they are expecting new contracts, than after they have been made—These settlements will not only guide you in judging of the estimates of work to be done hereafter, but will enable us probably, at the fall meeting, or at the end of6 the year to make such an exhibit,—as will Shew accurately, the whole extent of what will be required for the completion of the buildings—and we think that the proctors department should hereafter be conducted, as it should indeed have been heretofore7 conducted, with a view to such exhibit whenever it should be required—

These suggestions will probably suffice to explain the reasons which induce a wish on our part to impress you with the necessity, of requiring full and clear evidence of our ability to meet our engagements before you suffer contracts to be entered into for other buildings—and of enjoining it on the proctor so to keep his accounts in future, as to render them at all times, easy of settlement—

We would suggest an enquiry, how far, it is prudent for the proctor to supply the lumber for the buildings, and whether it would not be better that the undertakers should themselves supply it, and be, therefore, interested in its careful preservation and use, and in its judicious purchase—

There is one other subject only we will trouble you with—We are decidedly of opinion that the hotels ought to be two storied buildings, instead of one—Single stories will furnish very inadequate accomodation for genteel families, who would be desirous of occupying8 these buildings as boarding houses, often for the convenience of educating their children—And whenever familes occupied them who could spare any of the rooms they would furnish very desirable accomodations to such students, as might desire to be alone, and retired—If the institution flourishes there must be many rooms of this kind wanting—and they surely cannot be built so œconomically, any where else, as in the second story of these hotels—As to symmetry of plan and beauty of appearance, we think nothing will be lost by making the hotels in the western range two storied buildings—For ourselves we prefer them not only for oeconomy and convenience but for beauty—We therefore strongly recommend that they should be so built—

with great respect & regard—yours Truly—
James Breckinridge
C Johnson

RC (ViU: JHC); in Johnson’s hand, signed by Breckinridge and Johnson.

The University of Virginia’s committee of superintendance consisted of TJ and Cocke. ibis in medio tutissimus is a slight variant of “medio tutissimus ibis” (“in the middle is the safest path”) in Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2.137 (Ovid, trans. Grant Showerman, Frank Justus Miller, and others, Loeb Classical Library [1914–29; rev. George P. Goold, 1977–79], 3:68–9).

1Manuscript: “spedily.”

2Here “any” is canceled.

3Preceding five words interlined in place of “on.”

4Manuscript: “persaude.”

5Manuscript: “persauded.”

6Manuscript: “the end of the end of.”

7Manuscript: “herefore.”

8Manuscript: “occuping.”

Index Entries

  • Breckinridge (Breckenridge), James; as member of University of Virginia Board of Visitors search
  • Breckinridge (Breckenridge), James; letter from, to John H. Cocke search
  • Brockenbrough, Arthur Spicer; as University of Virginia proctor search
  • Cabell, Joseph Carrington; as member of University of Virginia Board of Visitors search
  • Cabell, Joseph Carrington; health of search
  • Cocke, John Hartwell (1780–1866); as member of University of Virginia Board of Visitors search
  • Cocke, John Hartwell (1780–1866); health of search
  • Cocke, John Hartwell (1780–1866); letter to, from J. Breckinridge and C. Johnson search
  • Johnson, Chapman; as member of University of Virginia Board of Visitors search
  • Johnson, Chapman; letter from, to J. H. Cocke search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); as member of University of Virginia Board of Visitors search
  • privies; at University of Virginia search
  • Taylor, Robert Barraud; as member of University of Virginia Board of Visitors search
  • Virginia, University of; Administration and Financial Affairs; funding for search
  • Virginia, University of; Board of Visitors; committee of superintendence search
  • Virginia, University of; Board of Visitors; meetings of search
  • Virginia, University of; Books and Library; plans for search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; building costs search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; building materials for search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; dormitory rooms search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; gardens search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; hotels search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; privies search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; progress of search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; Rotunda (library) search
  • Virginia, University of; Construction and Grounds; wages for workmen search
  • Virginia, University of; Establishment; and General Assembly search
  • Virginia, University of; Establishment; opinions on search
  • Virginia; General Assembly search