UVa Library Press Releases 1997 - 1998
ANONYMOUS GIFT TO ALDERMAN LIBRARY:
U.VA. ACQUIRES ANOTHER LETTER WRITTEN BY JEFFERSON
Contact: Michael Plunkett, director of Special Collections at (804) 924-3998 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., Oct. 31 --Thomas Jefferson was, indeed, a man of many letters. In his lifetime, it is said that the founder of the University of Virginia was the scribe of more than 19,000 missives, and while many of them are in the hands of collectors or institutions, a few that are in private holdings are beginning to be returned to the author's home institution.
Without fanfare, someone who wants to remain anonymous has stepped forward and handed Alderman Library a one-page holograph, complete with Jefferson's signature and seal. The page is browning on the edges, ink is smeared on several words, and the Jefferson seal is cracked. Nevertheless, the Aug. 8, 1787 letter Jefferson authored from Paris, France, to John Churchman in Philadelphia, is in good condition, says Michael Plunkett, director of special collections for the University library system.
In his communique, Jefferson refers to Churchman's plans to use magnetic variations to determine longitude. A method to accurately determine longitude had long eluded navigators, and Churchman, a land surveyor and cartographer, discovered what he thought was an ideal solution.
At the time of his writing, Jefferson was winding down his duties in Paris as Minister to France for the United States. In a June 8 letter, Churchman asked Jefferson to use his influence in helping him register his proposal with the Academie Royale des Sciences. The Academie also had received a request from Churchman. In his reply, Jefferson tells Churchman "your ideas were not conveyed so explicitly as to enable them to decide finally on their merit," and goes on to encourage the inventer, telling him, "I shall be happy that our country may have the honour of furnishing the old world what it has so long sought in vain. I am with much respect Sir Your most obedient humble servt."
That was the end of Jefferson's letter, but not the end of Churchman's quest to make something of his proposal, which had subsequently been dismissed by others, according to historian Silvio Bedini, in his book "Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science." Undaunted, Churchman later asked the U.S. Congress to fund a scientific voyage that would test his theories. Congress also rejected that proposal, but it was Jefferson who later approved the first government supported scientific explorations when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their travels in 1804.
Receipt of the Churchman letter adds to U.Va.'s extensive Jefferson collection. With more than 4,700 items, most of them original documents, the University is home to one of the primary research collections on Jefferson in the United States, standing third behind the Library of Congress and the Massachusetts Historical Society. And, according to Plunkett "we are interested in Jefferson's private life and we are always excited to add more materials to our collection."
Last year, U.Va. acquired an important 18th century compilation of personal Jefferson letters that includes correspondence from Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and to noted beauty Angelica Schuyler Church, Hamilton's sister-in-law. That collection, which includes 77 letters and documents, was in private hands and was purchased by U.Va. through the generosity of an anonymous donor who paid the bulk of the $275,000 cost. The Churchman letter is also part gift, part purchase.
From the Jefferson chronicles, one soon learns that the nation's third president kept copies of most of his exchanges. That Jefferson should make copies of his letters and record his activities so methodically is a practice that was quite unusual for someone of his day, says Merrill Peterson, a U.Va. professor emeritus of history, who has penned several texts on Jefferson, including "The Jefferson Image in the American Mind," and "Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography."
"It was unusual for someone to be so conscientious," adds Peterson. "Jefferson was fascinated by ways you could make copies of things, and he made it part of his business in life to keep copies. Some people in New England kept letter books, but Jefferson did not do that, he used the technology that was available."
A published version of Jefferson's letter to Churchman appears in volume 12 of Princeton University's edition of "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson." A number of Jefferson's original letters have come up for sale in recent years, and according to Peterson, the prices are so high, they are often difficult to purchase.
Book appraisers say that Jefferson letters during his Paris years have been fetching up to $40,000, depending on the content and the recipient. Since the Churchman letter was from an anonymous donor, officials will keep all details on the genealogy of its previous owner just that -- anonymous.
October 30, 1997
For more information, contact Michael Plunkett, director of special collections, University of Virginia Library at (804) 924-3025.