James Madison Papers

To James Madison from John G. Jackson, 4 December 1810

From John G. Jackson

Clarksburg Decr 4th 1810

My dear Sir.

I have for some weeks designed to write you that I may ascertain the practicability of procuring a pair of Merinos, or a Ram only, & the price; and as I know that you delight even in the midst of political engagements to turn your mind from their perplexities, to the more pleasant ones of domestic economy and have the information of all the Gentlemen now at W of that kind: I presume to make the enquiry of you. Doctor Mitchill who hailed “the Modern Jason” when landing with the golden fleece,1 must have an inexhaustible fund of that kind of intelligence: & from the specimen the Doctor gave of his deep science in propagation on the trial of Alexander Whistelo2 I apprehend he can furnish much curious learning on the Merinos. But in sober seriousness I should like to make the experiment of their utility & therefore want to purchase. Tho I confess my patriotism would not make me give many dollars for the means of doing so. I wont ask you for news & prospects; as your address to Congress by next mail will furnish ample scope for conjecture. Surely Florida in Louisiana will be taken possession of. But I forget it is my province to follow not advance before the Government. Dear Sir yours sincerely

J G Jackson


1At Chancellor Robert Livingston’s annual sheepshearing at Clermont in 1810, Samuel Latham Mitchill had celebrated the role of the host in bringing merino sheep to the U.S. with the toast: “The modern Argonautic expedition, whereby our Jason has enriched his country with the invaluable treasure of the golden fleece” (Men and Times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkanah Watson, ed. Winslow C. Watson [New York, 1856], p. 343).

2Jackson referred to testimony given by Samuel Latham Mitchill in The Commissioners of the Alms-house vs. Alexander Whistelo … (New York, 1808; Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols. to date; New York, 1958—). description ends 14750), a paternity case heard before the Mayor’s Court in New York City in August 1808. Lucy Williams, described as a “yellow woman,” had given birth to an illegitimate child in January 1807 and stated that Alexander Whistelo, a “black” coachman in the employ of Dr. David Hosack, was the father. Whistelo denied the charge, and his position was supported by the testimony of a number of prominent New York doctors who declared that the light skin and straight hair of the child was reasonable medical evidence against his having fathered the child. Mitchill, however, seemed inclined to believe the word of the mother, and in opposing the consensus of his colleagues he argued that Whistelo’s paternity by no means violated the rules of “probability” about the outcomes of interracial “propogation” as he explained them to the court. When asked under cross-examination to account for the seemingly “white” characteristics of the child, Mitchill canvassed “with much anecdote and repartee” a wide range of possibilities, including the doctrine of “maternal imagination,” which held that it was possible for the physical characteristics of the fetus to be altered after conception, especially if the mother had experienced some severe shock or injury. That this might have occurred in the case of Lucy Williams was suggested to Mitchill by the fact that she admitted during her own testimony to having had sexual relations with a white man, apparently against her will and at the point of a pistol, although she also steadfastly maintained that this incident could not have led to the conception of the child and that Whistelo was the only possible father. In reaching its decision the court avoided giving an opinion on the medical and physiological issues and acquitted Whistelo of the paternity charge on the grounds that Williams had admitted that she had sexual relations with a white man.

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