Jefferson Praises the Spirit of Innovation
Jefferson gives succinct expression to some of the prevailing impulses of the Enlightenment – confidence in the future, curiosity, and innovation – in this letter to inventor and entrepreneur Robert Fulton. “I am not afraid of new inventions or improvements, nor bigoted to the practices of our forefathers.... Where a new invention is supported by well known principles & promises to be useful, it ought to be tried. Your torpedoes will be to cities what vaccination has been to mankind. It extinguishes their greatest danger.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON. Autograph Letter Signed to Robert Fulton, March 17, 1810, Monticello. 1 p., with autograph address leaf, free franked (“Th: Jefferson”). 7¾ x 9¾ in. #21474 $50,000
Monticello Mar. 17. 10
I have duly recieved your favor of Feb. 24 covering one of your pamphlets on the Torpedo. I have read it with pleasure. This was not necessary to give them favor in my eye. I am not afraid of new inventions or improvements, nor bigoted to the practices of our forefathers. It is that bigotry which keeps the Indians in a state of barbarism in the midst of the arts, would have kept us in the same state even now, and still keeps Connecticut where their ancestors were when they landed on these shores. I am much pleased that Congress is taking up the business. Where a new invention is supported by well known principles & promises to be useful, it ought to be tried. Your torpedoes will be to cities what vaccination has been to mankind. It extinguishes their greatest danger. But there will still
be navies, not for the destruction of cities, but for the plunder of commerce on the high seas. That the tories should be against you is in character, because it will curtail the power of their idol, England.
I am thankful to you for the trouble you have taken in thinking of the belier hydraulique, to be put into motion by the same power which was to continue it’s motion was certainly wanting to that machine as a better name still is. I would not give you the trouble of having a model made, as I have workmen who can execute from the drawing. I pray you to accept the assurances of my great esteem & respect.”
[address leaf:] Free / Th: Jefferson / Milton March 20 / Robert Fulton esq. / New York
One characteristic of Thomas Jefferson’s personality was his propensity for tinkering, fed by a natural curiosity and a keen intellect. This, when added to his political beliefs, marked him as a figure of the Enlightenment. Jefferson was an amateur architect who designed his famous home, Monticello, and furnished it with such innovative devices as mechanical dumb waiters, a spherical sundial, and a revolving book stand. On his grounds, Jefferson developed an improved mouldboard plow. He also met and corresponded with many of the great scientists and inventors of his day, including Robert Fulton.
Fulton is best known for inventing the practical steamboat – Fulton’s Clermont debuted in August 1807, traveling from New York City to Albany, during Jefferson’s second term as president. Fulton’s partner and patron in this enterprise was New York grandee Robert R. Livingston, a Jeffersonian politician and Minister to France. Joined in Paris by James Monroe, and charged with inquiring with Napoleon and his Foreign Secretary, Talleyrand, about possible terms for purchasing New Orleans, Livingston successfully negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Approved by the Senate in 1804, the treaty doubled the territory of the United States. Though Livingston and Fulton cooperated on a vessel to ply the Hudson, and would enjoy a monopoly of this service for many years, many believed that the real money could be made using steamboats on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, in the new Louisiana Purchase. The spirit of innovation marched hand in hand with the spirit of expansion in Jefferson’s America.
Fulton never abandoned his commitment to the innovation of torpedo warfare. He was the first to use the term “torpedo” to describe a means of attacking using a floating explosive charge. Fulton used a submarine to tow the torpedo, submerging it beneath the target vessel. He had tried unsuccessfully, partly due to lack of funding and interest, and partly due to his own mechanical failures, to test torpedoes for British and French officials, respectively, during the Peace of Amiens. When he returned to America, he hoped to find patronage from the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Fulton wrote to Jefferson on February 24, 1810: “as soon as I published my pamphlet on Torpedoes at New York, I sent 12 of them to Mr [President James] Madison, begging of him to forward one to you. I have the pleasure now to send you four copies for yourself…” In the midst of lobbying for congressional aid, and having won the support of the Secretary of the Navy, Fulton felt “all my courage and hope revived.” But Fulton felt he needed Jefferson’s support against “the Tories and Marine navy men” wary of threats to conventional tactics.
Fulton’s book, Torpedo War and Submarine Explosions, was published in January with the subtitle The Liberty of the Seas will be the Happiness of the Earth, which certainly appealed to Jefferson’s sentiments. On March 30, 1810, Congress voted to supply $5,000 to Fulton for another public demonstration of underwater mines. In September, after delays, Commodore John Rodgers set up nets and sail booms to defend the brig, and Fulton declined to test his weapon, making himself a target for public ridicule.
Jefferson also mentions the “belier hydraulique,” a hydraulic ram using a cyclic water pump powered by water to pump water to a higher elevation that its source.
Robert Fulton (1765-1815) was born in Pennsylvania and viewed Watt’s steam engine on a visit to England to study art in 1786. Fulton is widely credited with developing the first commercially successful steam-powered boat. In 1797 he went to France and began experimenting with submarine torpedoes and torpedo boats; in 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned him to design Nautilus, the first practical submarine in history, but neither France nor Britain were interested in purchasing his vessel. While in France, he met and secured the patronage of American ambassador and New York grandee Robert R. Livingston. In 1807, Fulton and Livingston built the first commercial steamboat, the Clermont, which carried passengers between Albany and New York. They then secured a monopoly of the right to conduct this service on the Hudson River, a right invalidated in the Supreme Court case of Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824.
Robert Fulton to Thomas Jefferson, February 24, 1810.
Kirkpatrick Sale, The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream (New York, 2001).
Condition: Moderate staining from being pressed against an engraving of Jefferson.