George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, 26 September 1785

To Thomas Jefferson

Mount Vernon 26th Septr 1785

Dear Sir,

I have had the honor to receive your favors of the 10th & 17th of July which were committed to the care of Mr Houdon; but I have not yet had the pleasure to see that Gentleman. His Instruments and materials (Doctr Franklin informs me) not being arrived at Havre when they Sailed, he was obliged to leave them; & is now employed in providing others at Philadelphia, with which he will proceed to this place as soon as they are ready.1 I shall take great pleasure in shewing Mr Houdon every civility, & attention in my power during his stay in this Country, as I feel my self under personal obligations to you & Doctr Franklin (as the State of Virginia have done me the honor to direct a Statue to be erected to my Memory) for havg entrusted the execution of it to so eminent an Artist, & so worthy a character.

I have the pleasure to inform you, that the subscriptions to the inland Navigations of the Rivers Potomack & James require no aid from Foreigners. the product of the first when the Books were exhibited at the General Meeting in May last, amounted to £40,300 Sterling, and is since nearly compleated to the full Sum required by Law. That of the latter, of the General Meeting in August, were superabundant. The work of the former began the first of August, & is progressing very well—the latter I am persuaded will do more than keep pace with it, as the difficulties are much less.

I have the further pleasure to inform you (& I should have done it long since, had I not supposed that your information would have been more full & perfect from some of your friends in the Assembly) that a resolution authorizing the Executive to appoint Commissioners to explore & report the best communication between the Waters of Elizabeth River & those of Albemarle passed last Session—That the Commrs have proceeded to the Survey—and have reported in favor of that which will pass through Drummonds pond to the Pasquetank; but what will be the result I am unable to inform you, as I find by some of the principal characters of No. Carolina (Members of Congress) who have called here, that jealousies prevail, & a powerful opposition will be given to any Water Communication between the two States, lest Virginia should derive the benefits arising from their Exports &ca.2

I am very happy to find that your sentiments respecting the interest the Assembly was pleased to give me in the two navigations of Potomack & James River, coincide so well with my own. I never, for a moment, entertained an idea of accepting—the difficulty which laboured in my Mind was how to refuse without giving offence. Ultimately I have it in contemplation to apply the profits arising from the Tolls to some public use—In this, if I knew how, I would meet the wishes of the Assembly; but if I am not able to get at these, my own inclination leads me to apply them to the establishment of two charity Schools, one on each river, for the Education & support of poor Children; especially the descendants of those who have fallen in defence of their Country.3

I can say nothing decis[iv]ely respecting the Western Settlement of this State. The Inhabitants of Kentucke have held several Conventions, and have resolved to apply for a Seperation. But what may be the final issue of it, is not for me, at this time, to inform you—Opinions, as far as they have come to my knowledge, are diverse. I have uniformly given it as mine, to meet them upon their own ground—draw the best line, & best terms we can of seperation and part good friends. After the next Session of our Assembly more may be discovered, and communicated, and if you should not receive it through a better channel, I will have the honor to inform you.4

I am sorry I cannot give you full information respecting Captn Bushnals projects for the destruction of Shipping. No interesting experiment having been made, and my memory being treacherous, I may, in some measure, be mistaken in what I am about to relate.

Bushnel is a Man of great Mechanical powers—fertile of invention—and a master in execution—He came to me in 1776 recommended by Governor Trumbull (now dead) and other respectable characters who were proselites to his plan. Although I wanted faith myself, I furnished him with money, and other aids to carry it into execution. He laboured for sometime ineffectually, & though the advocates for his scheme continued sanguine he never did succeed. One accident or another was always intervening. I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius; but that a combination of too many things were requisite, to expect much Success from the enterprise against an enemy, who are always upon guard. That he had a Machine which was so contrived as to carry a man under water at any depth he chose, and for a considerable time & distance, with an apparatus charged with Powder which he could fasten to a Ships bottom or side & give fire to in any given time (Sufft for him to retire) by means whereof a ship could be blown up, or Sunk, are facts which I believe admit of little doubt—but then, where it was to operate against an enemy, it is no easy matter to get a person hardy enough to encounter the variety of dangers to which he must be exposed. 1[.] from the novelty 2[.] from the difficulty of conducting the Machine, and governing it under Water on Acct of the Currents &ca 3[.] the consequent uncertainty of hitting the object of destination, without rising frequently above water for fresh observation, wch when near the Vessel, would expose the Adventurer to a discovery, & almost to certain death—To these causes I always ascribed the non-performance of his plan, as he wanted nothing that I could furnish to secure the success of it. This to the best of my recollection is a true state of the case—But Humphreys, if I mistake not, being one of the proselites, will be able to give you a more perfect Acct of it than I have done.5 With the most perfect esteem & regard I have the honor to be Dear Sir Yr Most Obedt Servt

Go: Washington

ALS, DLC: Jefferson Papers; LB, DLC:GW.

Jefferson’s docket of the letter indicates that it was delivered to him by Houdon on 30 December.

2As early as 9 Jan. 1785, James Madison wrote Jefferson of the appointment of commissioners “to survey the ground for a canal between the waters of Elizabeth river and those of N. Carolina, and . . . to concert a joint plan and report the same to the next Session of Assembly” (Rutland and Rachal, Madison Papers, description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends 8:226). For the report of the commissioners, see Patrick Henry to GW, 11 Nov., n.2. See also Patrick Henry to GW, 10 June, n.2.

3For GW’s earlier references to the disposition of the stock in the James River and Potomac River companies given to him by the state, see note 3 in Jefferson to GW, 10 July. For GW’s formal refusal to accept the stock for his personal profit, see his letters to Madison and Gov. Patrick Henry of 29 October.

4Although Kentucky formally remained a part of Virginia until 1792, a Kentucky convention on 28 Oct. submitted a petition to the Virginia legislature calling for the constitutional separation of the Kentucky district from Virginia. A bill to authorize the separation of the Kentucky district from Virginia was introduced in the Virginia house of delegates in December 1785 and was passed by the Virginia legislature in early 1786 (“Act Concerning Statehood for the Kentucky District,” 22 Dec. 1785, ibid., 450–53). Madison wrote Jefferson on 27 April of the first of several Kentucky conventions, which he expected “would be the mother of a separation,” a development which would have Madison’s support (ibid., 265–72).

5In his biography of Israel Putnam, David Humphreys gave this description of David Bushnell’s submarine in action: “It was the latter end of June, when the British fleet, which had been at Halifax waiting for reinforcements from Europe, began to arrive at New-York. To obstruct its passage, some marine preparations had been made. General Putnam, to whom the direction of the whale-boats, fire-rafts, flat-bottomed boats, and armed vessels, was committed, afforded his patronage to a project for destroying the enemy’s shipping by explosion. A machine, altogether different from any thing hitherto devised by the art of man, had been invented by Mr. David Bushnell, for submarine navigation, which was found to answer the purpose perfectly, of rowing horizontally at any given depth under water, and of rising or sinking at pleasure. To this machine, called the American Turtle, was attached a magazine of powder, which it was intended to be fastened under the bottom of a ship, with a driving screw, in such sort, that the same stroke which disengaged it from the machine, should put the internal clock-work in motion. This being done, the ordinary operation of a gun-lock at the distance of half an hour, an hour, or any determinate time, would cause the powder to explode, and leave the effects to the common laws of nature. The simplicity, yet combination discovered in the mechanism of this wonderful machine, were acknowledged by those skilled in physics, and particularly hydraulics, to be not less ingenious than novel. The inventor, whose constitution was too feeble to permit him to perform the labour of rowing the Turtle, had taught his brother to manage it with perfect dexterity; but unfortunately his brother fell sick of a fever just before the arrival of the fleet. Recourse was therefore had to a sergeant in the Connecticut troops; who, having received whatever instructions could be communicated to him in a short time, went, too late in the night, with all the apparatus, under the bottom of the Eagle, a sixty-four gun ship, on board of which the British Admiral, Lord Howe, commanded. In coming up, the screw that had been calculated to perforate the copper sheathing, unluckily struck against some iron plates where the rudder is connected with the stern. This accident, added to the strength of the tide which prevailed, and the want of adequate skill in the sergeant, occasioned such delay, that the dawn of day began to appear, whereupon he abandoned the magazine to chance, and after gaining a proper distance, for the sake of expedition, rowed on the surface towards the town. General Putnam, who had been on the wharf anxiously expecting the result, from the first glimmering of light, beheld the machine near Governor’s-Island, and sent a whale-boat to bring it on shore. In about twenty minutes afterwards the magazine exploded, and blew a vast column of water to an amazing height in the air” (Humphreys, Life of Putnam, description begins David Humphreys. An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel Putnam. Boston, 1819. description ends 108–12). See also David Bushnell, “General Principles and Construction of a Submarine Vessel,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 4 (1799), 303–12.

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