JEFFERSON, THOMAS, President. Autograph letter signed ("Th: Jefferson" in the third person), to Dr. [Samuel L.] Mitchill [or Mitchell], Monticello, 20 February 1817. 1/2 page, 4to, integral address leaf with panel in Jefferson's hand, WITH HIS FREE FRANK: "Free Th:Jefferson," and original postmark. Fine condition.
"UNINTELLIGIBLE" ASIATIC ANTIQUITIES
"Th:Jefferson returns his thanks to Dr. Mitchell [sic] for the print of Asiatic antiquities he has been so kind as to send him, which, however unintelligible to him, is still a curiosity. He is happy in the occasion it has prescribed of a mutual recognition of former fellowship in service, and of renewing to him the assurance of his constant esteem & respect."
Dr. Mitchell, who greatly esteemed Jefferson, presented him with a succession of reports, addresses and other items (see the calendar of Jefferson's correspondence). In this case, in his letter of 10 February, he has sent Jefferson a "print of the characters distinguishable on the Chaldean bricks lately brought to New York," which "asiatic antiquities," Jefferson apparently found rather baffling. Interestingly, Dr. Mitchill sent the same or a similar print to former President John Adams at about the same time, which Adams acknowledged in a letter dated 17 February, calling it "as inexplicable as anything in antiquity," and asking Mitchill about a monument to Daniel which it depicted: "If, by the Jews...would not the inscription have been in Hebrew?," and wondering whether Mitchill could "account for the total loss destruction and annhilation and annhilation of all languages excepting the Hebrew and the interpretation of the Hyeroglyphicks, antecedent to the Greek?" Adams's letter, in private ownership, is docketed "Bablyonian bricks," perhaps a clue to what the print sent to Jefferson respresented.
Samuel Latham Mitchill (1764-1831), Columbia College professor, physician, chemist, and peripatetic investigator of nature and ancient history, was a curious polymath who has been described as "a chaos of knowledge," "remembered more for the goodness of his heart than for the strength of his head" (-DAB); he carried on scientific arguements with Joseph Priestley and others, was one of the first to investigate Saratoga water, and experimented with gunpowder, fertilizers, soap and other industrial products. In 1801 (during Jefferson's first term) he resigned from Columbia to serve as a Congressman, later in the Senate (1804-1809) and returned to the House in 1810-1813. He served on Fulton's committee to construct a steam warship (see lot ) and when the College of Physicians and Surgeons was founded, he served successively as professor of chemistry, natural history, botany and materia medica; then in 1826 helped establish Rutgers Medical College. In 1826 he published A Discourse on the Character and Services of Thomas Jefferson More Especially as a Promoter of Natural and Physical Science. Henry Adams stated that Mitchill "supported the Republican Party because Jefferson was its leader and supported Jefferson because he was a philosopher."