James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Samuel Stanhope Smith, 26 March 1789

From Samuel Stanhope Smith

Princeton March 26th 1789

Dr Sir,

The bearer Mr Jno. Churchman believes he has made a discovery of some consequence for readily ascertaining the longitude. He wishes his principles to be examined by capable mathematicians in the vicinity, &, if possible, under the direction of Congress. If they should prove as valuable as he supposes, I shall be happy that rude genius in our countryman may meet with proper encouragement. Dr Minto, our professor of Mathematics,1 & myself have given them a transient inspection. And we have concluded that if he had data sufficient to ascertain the regular rotation of the magnetic poles round the poles of the earth, & could also construct an instrument of sufficient accuracy to shew the variation at sea, his discovery would be useful, as his calculations appear to be just.

If it is proper for Congress to take up an affair of this kind at present I know no person to whom he can be introduced with so much advantage as to yourself, or who will be so capable to encourage merit if it is real.

Mr Churchman is a stranger to me. He comes here recommended by Dr Rush And from the short observation of a Few hours I have formed a favourable opinion of his modesty & mathematical capacity.2 I am, Dr Sir, Yr. Mo. hble. servt

Saml S Smith

RC (DLC). Addressed by Smith. Docketed by JM.

1Walter Minto (1753–1796).

2John Churchman (1753–1805) had been promoting his scheme for determining longitude since 1777. Although the American Philosophical Society dismissed his theory, Churchman sought financial aid from Congress for an experimental expedition to Baffin Bay. JM supported his petition (see JM’s first speech, 20 Apr.), but the House, citing the “present deranged state of our finances,” postponed consideration of it and finally rejected the proposal in January 1791 (Hindle, Pursuit of Science, pp. 350–51; Silvio A. Bedini, Thinkers and Tinkers: Early American Men of Science [New York, 1975], pp. 349–51, 501; DHFC description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds., Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America (3 vols. to date; Baltimore, 1972—). description ends , III, 22, 28–29, 634, 689).

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