Thursday, May 8, 2008

One Missed Parchment Letter Delivered by a Slave


[To Robert Skipwith]

Monticello, 3 Aug. 1771

I sat down with a design of executing your request to form a catalogue of books to the amount of about 50 pounds sterling. But could by no means satisfy myself with any partial choice I could make. Nor could I extort a smile from the face of gravity once a most troublesome tableau manifested to me a providential warning. What virtue, indeed what wisdom lies in this vision? The inquiry has plagued my sleep, such that I could not receive Sally but twice these last severall evenings.

I hold this truth, that everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we imagine any atrocious deed, such as I saw the other night, we are disgusted by its deformity, and conceive an abhorrence of vice.

For in this vision, your face was twisted inward and foul, a sight nearly as deathly and detestable as Benj. Frankl.’s derrière. I saw it but for a moment; — but mortality’s intimation persuaded me of the urgency to communicate it. As Vitruvius noted, death follows its preconception like a good slave to the garden bell. Therefore dear Bob, take caution whereupon Redcoats or agents of the Netherworld are concerned, — and if you receive a threat by letter, do confirm by discourse and study that the message did not come from inside the house.

PhotobucketAs regards a gentleman’s proper syllabus, we must begin with memory and imagination. Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. We are therefore wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. 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. — Of Politics and Trade I have given you a few only of the best books, as you would probably chuse to be not unacquainted with those commercial principles which bring wealth into our country, and the constitutional security we have for the enjoiment of that wealth.

Bear my affections to Wintipock clothed in the warmest expressions of sincerity; and to yourself be every human felicity. Adieu.

[Th. J.]


Anonymous said...

I am LIVING for this.

B. said...

This was based on a real letter by Jefferson, answering a request from Skipwith, his brother-in-law, to recommend titles for a "gentleman's library." (Original here.) At least one scholar sees in it a kernel of the ideas that would later be developed into the Jefferson Bible.

Anonymous said...

I liked it better when I thought you took the time to fabricate it from whole cloth. I take it Sally was all you.

B. said...

If it's any consolation, George Washington's letter is all me.