JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed ("Th: Jefferson") as U.S. Minister to France, to Dr. John Page (1744-1808), Paris, 20 August 1785. 4 full pages, 4to (9 x 7¼ in.), small triangular section torn from page 3-4, affecting approximately six words in three lines of text, that area mended with thin strips of paper, central fold reinforced.
A NEW PLANET, GREEK INDEPENDENCE FROM THE TURKS AND THE PAYMENT OF TRIBUTE TO THE BARBARY PIRATES: "TRIBUTE TO ALL THESE POWERS MAKE SUCH A PROPORTION OF THE FEDERAL TAXES AS THAT EVERY MAN WILL FEEL THEM...WHEN HE PAYS THOSE TAXES. THE QUESTION IS WHETHER THEIR PEACE OR WAR WILL BE CHEAPEST?"
A delightfully relaxed, richly informative letter to one of Jefferson's oldest friends, a former classmate at the college of William & Mary. Jefferson is gratified to have heard from his old friend, whose "correspondance is grateful to some of my warmest feelings," since "the friendships of my youth are those which stick closest to me, and in which I most confide. My principal happiness is now in the retrospect of life." Jefferson congratulates Page for his recent service with Madison on the commission which surveyed a 36-mile section of the Pennsylvania-Virginia border (a portion not surveyed by Mason and Dixon in 1767-68), and expresses the hope that "from yourself, Madison, Rittenhouse or Hutchings I shall receive a chart of the line as actually run."
He writes approvingly of news that William & Mary might employ David Rittenhouse (1732-1796), the eminent mathematician and astronomer: "This would be an immense acquisition and would draw youth to it from every part of the continent. You will do much more honour to our society [a reference to the Society for the Advancement of Useful Knowledge, at Williamsburg] on reviving it, if you place him at it's head and not so useless a member as I should be. I have been so long diverted from this my favourite line [science], and that too without acquiring an attachment to my adopted one [politics], that I am become a mongrel of a decided order, unowned by any, and incapable of serving any..."
Jefferson then offers news of Europe: "The affair of the emperor and Dutch is settled tho' not signed....The alliance of Russia with Venice to prevent his designs in that quarter, and that of the Hanoverian elector, with the K. of Prussia and other members of the Germanic body to prevent his acquisition of Bavaria leave him in a solitary situation. In both he has lost much reputation by his late maneuvers. He is a restless, ambitious character, aiming at every thing, persevering in nothing, taking up designs without calculating the force which will be opposed to him, and dropping them on the appearance of firm opposition. He has some just views, and much activity." He adds interesting observations on the Turkish occupation of Greece: "It is believed that the Emperor and Empress have schemes in contemplation for driving the Turks out of Europe. Were this with a view to re-establish the native Greeks in the sovereignty of their own country, I could wish them success and to see driven from that delightful country a set of Barbarians with whom an opposition to all science is an article of religion. The modern Greek is not yet so far departed from it's antient model but that we might still hope to see the language of Homer and Demosthenes flow with purity from the lips of a free and ingenious people. But these powers have in object to divide the country between themselves. This is only to substitute one set of Barbarians for another breaking at the same time the balance among the European powers."
Mediterranean affairs elicit Jefferson's comments on the payment of tribute. As one biographer has observed, "Jefferson was convinced from the beginning that the cost of peace" with the pirates "would be excessive, and that the wiser policy would be to win it by force of arms (D. Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man, p.27). "...the Emperor of Marocco [sic] has shown a disposition to enter into treaty with us...His dispositions continue good as a p[roof of this] he has lately released freely and cloathed well the crew of an America[n] brig he took last winter; the only vessel ever taken from us by any of the states of Barbary. But what is the English of these good dispositions? Plainly this. He is ready to receive us into the number of his tributaries. What will be the amount of tribute remains yet to be known...It will surely be more than a free people ought to pay to a power owning only 4 or 5 frigates under 22 guns. He has not a port into which a larger vessel can enter. The Algerines possess fifteen or 20 frigates from that size up to 50 guns. Disinclination on their part has lately broken off a treaty between Spain and them whereon they were to have received a million of dollars besides great presents in naval stores. What sum they intend we shall pay I cannot say. Then follows Tunis and Tripolis. You will probably find the tribute to all these powers make such a proportion of the federal taxes as that every man will feel them sensibly when he pays those taxes. The question is whether their peace or war will be cheapest? But it is a question which should be addressed to our Honour as well as our Avarice. Nor does it respect us to these pyrates only, but as to the nations of Europe. If we wish our commerce to be free and uninsulted we must let these nations see that we have an energy which at present they disbelieve. The low opinion they entertain of our powers cannot fail to involve us soon in a naval war." The problem of the Tripolitan pirates and their depredations on merchant shipping would persist well into Jefferson's first term as President.
Jefferson is sending Page "the connoissance de tems for the years 1786 and 1787. You will find in these the tables for the planet Herschel [later renamed Uranus] as far as the observations hitherto made admit them to [calcu]lated....Herschel [1738-1822] was only the first astronomer who disco[vered] it to be a planet, and not the first who saw it. Mayer saw it in the year 1756 and placed it in the catalogue of his Zodiacal stars...A Prussian astronomer in 1781 observed that the 964th star of Mayer's catalogue was missing: and the calculations now prove that at the time...the planet Herschel should have been precisely in the place where he noted that star. I shall send you also a little publication here called the Bibliotheque physico-economique. It will communicate all the improvements and new discoveries in the arts and the sciences made in Europe for some years past. I shall be happy to hear from you often. Details political and literary and even of the small history of our country are the most pleasing presents possible...."
Published in Jefferson, Papers, ed. J.P. Boyd, 8:417-419.
Provenance: Anonymous owner (sale, Swann Galleries, 21 October 1982, lot 113).