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Category Archives: Intellectual pursuits

“It was a dark and stormy night … ”

Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: shew that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man, and be assured that it has not a more sincere votary [adherent] nor you a more ardent well-wisher than Yrs. &c.
To Thomas Paine, June 19, 1792

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Peaceful leaders encourage ideas over coercion.
Jefferson complimented Paine on his 1792 pamphlet, the Rights of Man, written in opposition to monarchies and anti-republican societies. Sixteen years earlier in 1776, Paine had written Common Sense, promoting American independence. In 1794, he wrote The Age of Reason, a dismissal of organized religion in favor of deism.

Jefferson always promoted peaceful change: education and the broad circulation, discussion and debate of ideas as essential for preserving the American republic. Far better to use the written word to convince than the sword to coerce.


Have you heard the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”? It was coined by English playwright and novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton for a 1839 play. The idea was not original with him, though this phrasing was. Others, including Jefferson in this letter nearly 50 years earlier, had expressed the same thought.


Why the title to this post? Just for fun. And because Edward Bulwer-Lytton, not only reinforced Jefferson’s idea of pen vs. sword, also wrote those well-worn words to open his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.

“Your remarks … could not have been more impressive or appropriate … “
Interim Director, MO River Basin Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Nebraska City, NE

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Can there be cooperation in the midst of war?

I mention these things, to shew the nature of the correspondence which is carried on between societies instituted for the benevolent purpose of communicating to all parts of the world whatever useful is discovered in any one of them. These societies are always in peace, however their nations may be at war. Like the republic of letters, they form a great fraternity spreading over the whole earth, and their correspondence is never interrupted by any civilized nation. Vaccination has been a late and remarkable instance of the liberal diffusion of a blessing newly discovered.
To John Hollins, February 19, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders encourage societies for the public good.
Prior to this excerpt, Jefferson described the sharing of seeds, wool, a new weaving machine and a plow between men, himself included, in benevolent societies in different nations. All of these items were for improving the human condition.
Even if tangible items were not exchanged, a regular flow of letters between men in these societies kept their contemporaries in other nations up-to-date with the latest discoveries in the scientific realm. Jefferson himself was president of the American Philosophical Society, America’s premier society of learned men, from 1797-1815. (APS, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, the year of Jefferson’s birth, still thrives today.)
Jefferson extolled the value of such societies, a “great fraternity” which continued its humanitarian efforts even when their nations were at war. They had recently lent their efforts to promoting public health through vaccination.
Jefferson wrote this letter just two weeks before retiring the Presidency. His joy at finally abandoning politics for family, farming, books and science at Monticello must have been palpable!

“We especially appreciated your ability to tailor the presentation
to fit the theme of the conference …”

President, Linn State Technical College

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How HOT was July 1, way back when?

Observations on the weather
Philadelphia 1776
July        hour                      thermom
1              9-0 AM                 81 ½
                7-   PM                 82
Weather Memorandum Book, 1776

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Analytical leaders make tiny observations over a long period of time.
Jefferson recorded thousands of everyday observations in his memorandum books. One of his subjects was weather. July 1, 1776 is the oldest surviving record of his lifelong habit of recording the temperature. Although July 1 didn’t fit the pattern, he tended to note the temperature at dawn, when he arose each day, and again around 4 PM. Those two times he considered to be the low and high temperatures for the day. The link above will take you to this book, and you can see the notations in Jefferson’s handwriting.

This page in his book covers the first 14 days of the month. July 1 had the fewest entries, just two. Most days show three or four measurements. July 8, 10, 13 & 14 have six. He would also note the weather, as when he recorded “rain” on July 13 & 14. The four temperatures for Independence Day were 6 AM – 68, 9 AM – 72 ¼, 1 PM – 76, 9 PM – 73 ½.


Weather freaks can read more about his daily observations and see photos of two of his thermometers.

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we highly recommend him.”
Director of Law-Related Education, The Missouri Bar

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TOO MUCH for an 11 year old?

With respect to the distribution of your time the following is what I should approve.

  • from 8. to 10 o’clock practise music.
  • from 10. to 1. dance one day and draw another
  • from 1. to 2. draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.
  • from 3. to 4. read French.
  • from 4. to 5. exercise yourself in music.
  • from 5. till bedtime read English, write &c.

… I expect you will write to me by every post. Inform me what books you read, what tunes you learn, and inclose me your best copy of every lesson in drawing. Write also one letter every week either to your aunt[s] … and always put the letter you so write under cover to me. Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word consider how it is spelt, and if you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well. I have placed my happiness on seeing you good and accomplished, and no distress which this world can now bring on me could equal that of your disappointing my hopes.
To Martha Jefferson, Nov. 28, 1783

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Even wise leaders can expect too much!
Eleven year old Martha, Jefferson’s eldest of 3 girls, had been placed in the care of another woman while he was away in Congress, following the death of her mother a year before. The widowed father always put unrealistically high expectations on his children. Here, he dictates her school schedule from 8 AM until bedtime! His final sentence could seem suffocating.
Yet, Martha rose to the challenge. She probably did not follow this rigid schedule as a pre-teen but she lived her life with an intense devotion to her father. She was an extraordinarily accomplished woman. She was well-educated, raised 11 children, often by herself, and managed her household and sometimes her father’s. Her husband was a troubled man, and Martha received inconsistent support from him. That missing support came from her father, the one who had set such high standards for her as a child.

“It is amazing how the thoughts, words and events of over 200 years ago
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Iowa League of Cities
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What’s in your (wallet)? No, library!

I sat down with a design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books to the amount of about 50 lib. sterl. But could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice I could make. Thinking therefore it might be as agreeable to you I have framed such a general collection as I think you would wish and might in time find convenient to procure. Out of this you will chuse for yourself to the amount you mentioned for the present year and may hereafter as shall be convenient proceed in completing the whole.
To Robert Skipwith, August 3, 1771

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders are very well-read!

The recipient was the brother-in-law of Martha Wayles Skelton, whom Jefferson would marry 17 months later. Skipwith had requested a reading list, “suited to the capacity of a common reader who understands but little of the classicks and who has not leisure for any intricate or tedious study. Let them be improving as well as amusing..“ He was willing to spend 50 pounds. (Jefferson would have been wiser still had he applied Skipwith’s self-limitation to himself. Strict when it came to public spending, Jefferson demonstrated little discipline in his personal finances.)
The 28 year old Jefferson could not whittle his reading list to the budget. Instead, he gave a much more extensive list and suggested Skipwith spend 50 pounds on some of these works now and acquire the rest as he was able.
Here is Jefferson’s letter to Skipwith, which includes the list.
Monticello’s web site adds helpful “brief subject categories” to that list.
How much, you ask, is “50 lib. sterl.” In today’s money? Good luck. This article from Colonial Williamsburg explains the difficulty in answering that question. Perhaps it would be $3-4,000 in 2013. (The top photo in this article features Bill Sommerfield, aka George Washington. We presented together five times, four at his invitation, once at mine. He was excellent and greatly encouraging to me! Bill passed away several years ago.)

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We did our part. Now, you do yours.

We have spent the prime of our lives in procuring them the precious blessing of liberty. Let them spend theirs in showing that it is the great parent of science and of virtue; and that a nation will be great in both, always in proportion as it is free.
To Doctor Willard, March 24, 1789

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders understand that freedom is the basis for all other advancements.
Dr. Joseph Willard was the president of Harvard University. Jefferson thanked the University for his honorary degree, and commented on issues in literature, mathematics and chemistry. He wrote about Thomas Paine’s design for an iron bridge and Mr. Rumsey’s for steam powered navigation. He speculated on how much more there was yet to learn, “What a field we have at our doors to signalize ourselves in!”
Jefferson commended Dr. Willard and his institution, “so eminent a seat of science,” for their work in producing young men who would explore such wonders. Then he wrote the sentences above:
1. We gave our best years to procure the “precious blessing of liberty” that allows for such exploration.
2. With this freedom, let your students now labor to develop in both science and virtue.
3. These qualities will flourish only to the degree that freedom flourishes.
4. It is freedom and the advantages that flow from it that truly make a nation great.

Mr. Jefferson will inspire your audience to remain free … and be great!
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Thomas Jefferson on a new patent law

Be it enacted [by Congress] … that when any person shall have invented any new and useful art, machine or composition of matter or any new or useful improvement … and shall desire to have an exclusive property in the same, he shall pay … the sum of __ dollars … shall deposit a description of the said inventions in writing … shall accompany it with drawings and written references and also with exact models … After which it shall not be lawful for any person without the permission of the owner … to make or sell the thing so invented … for a term of 14 years.
… it shall be lawful for the said inventor to assign his title …
… after the expiration of any exclusive right to an invention, the public shall have … access to the descriptions, drawings, models and specimens … to be enabled to copy them …
A Bill to Promote the Progress of the Useful Arts, February 7, 1791
Padover’s The Complete Jefferson, P. 995-997

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson originally opposed all patents, but administering an existing patent law fell to him as President Washington’s Secretary of State. He found it a difficult, hands-on, time-consuming obligation.
He drafted this bill to make patenting more of an administrative function and less of an examining one. An amended version wasn’t adopted until two years later, and it made the granting of patents almost automatic.
Jefferson thought inventions were primarily for the public good, not for the amassing of private gain: “Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.” Still, he recognized the necessary incentive granted by a patent:  “Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done according to the will and convenience of society … ”
(TJ to Isaac McPherson, Aug. 13, 1813, Padover’s The Complete Jefferson, P. 1011-1017)

Monticello’s web site features more information on the subject.
Jefferson was a noted inventor but never patented any of his creations. He might have fared better financially had he done so.

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Thomas Jefferson on establishing a public library

… every year there shall be paid out of the treasury the sum of two thousand pounds, to be laid out in such books and maps as may be proper to be preserved in a public library … at the town of Richmond.
The two houses of Assembly shall appoint three persons of learning and of attention to literary matters, to be visiters [Webster’s 7th Collegiate: “one that makes formal visits of inspection”] … to receive the annual sums before mentioned, and therewith to Procure such books and maps as aforesaid, and shall superintend the preservation thereof … Whensoever a keeper shall be found necessary they shall appoint such keeper, from time to time, at their will, on such annual salary (not exceeding one hundred pounds) as they shall think reasonable.
If during the time of war the importation of books and maps shall be hazardous … the visiters shall place the annual sums … in the treasury until fit occasions shall occur of employing them.
It shall not be lawful for the said keeper, or the visiters themselves, or any other person to remove any book or map out of the said library …but the same shall be made useful … within the said library, without fee or reward …
The visiters shall annually settle their accounts with the Auditors and leave with them the vouchers for the expenditure of the monies put into their hands.
From the Report of the Revisors, 1779
Taken from Padover’s The Complete Jefferson, P. 1054 – 1055

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson spent the Revolutionary War years helping revise Virginia’s statutes. Promoting an educated citizenry was one of his passions. The entire statute was less than 400 words and fit on one page of paper. Its key provisions:
1. The Legislature shall fund a public library with 2,000 pounds per year. (A search of multiple web sites gave me no clear idea how many dollars that was in 1779 or an equivalent value in 2012.)
2. A board of three visiters (Jefferson’s spelling), learned and literary men, shall govern all aspects of the library.
3. A librarian may be appointed, whose maximum salary shall be no more than 5% of the annual budget.
4. During wartime, the annual appropriation may be escrowed until the money could be safely spent.
5. This was not a lending library. All books and maps were to be used on-site only, without expense to the user.
6. The visiters were responsible for an annual accounting of library funds.
Jefferson’s proposal was not adopted.

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Thomas Jefferson on reading novels

Read any good books lately?
A great obstacle to good education is the ordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.

Thomas Jefferson to N. Burwell, 1818, 2390

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
On the surface, this one is bound to rankle readers of fiction. This is undoubtedly what Jefferson meant by “novels,” fiction rather than fact. He was all about facts, and had no room for fiction that did not inspire the reader to something greater. These novels would have been ones for entertainment only, with no redeeming characteristics.
This letter was written when Jefferson was 75. A more complete view comes from a letter he wrote in 1771, at age 28, to Robert Skipworth (2994): “…the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant … But wherein is its utility? … I answer everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue.”
Later in this excerpt, Jefferson praises a certain kind of fiction over nonfiction: “We are, therefore, wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written. This is my idea of well written Romance, of Tragedy, Comedy and Epic poetry.”
Perhaps as an old man, Jefferson was dismayed with a preoccupation with fiction that only entertained and served no greater purpose.

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Thomas Jefferson on new words … & ideas

Do you speak with an American accent?
I am no friend therefore to what is called Purism, but a zealous one to the Neology which has introduced these two words without the authority of any dictionary. I consider the one as destroying the nerve and beauty of language, while the other improves both, and adds to its copiousness … the Edinburgh Reviewers, the ablest critics of the age, set their faces against the introduction of new words into the English language; they are particularly apprehensive that the writers of the United States will adulterate it. Certainly so great growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will, therefore, be formed; so will a West-Indian and Asiatic, as a Scotch and an Irish are already formed. But whether will these adulterate, or enrich the English language? Has the beautiful poetry of Burns, or his Scottish dialect, disfigured it?

Thomas Jefferson to John Waldo, 1813, 5828

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Purism in this instance meant words had fixed meanings only. Neology is the use of new words and expressions or the use of current ones in new ways or with new meanings. Jefferson encouraged new ideas, knowledge, inventions, interpretations … and words … as healthy for a growing and enlightened people. Failure to adapt and grow were signs of a stagnant society.
He goes on in this passage to ask whether noted classical Greek writers disfigured or beautified their language with their dialects. He answered firmly for beauty and its enriching influence.
In architecture, Jefferson was partial to standards established over centuries of use and acceptance. Even so, the classic style had to be adapted to modern usage. Monticello is a good example … the best from the past, he might have thought, made even better by rational improvements dictated by the present. Language was no different.
I don’t know what “two words” Jefferson meant. If you’d like to figure it out for yourself, here’s the full text. Good luck, especially with the Latin preceding this excerpt.

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