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Featured Letter: A Surprising Departure

Thomas Jefferson regularly sought to persuade artisans and tradesmen in a wide variety of fields to move to Charlottesville, assuring them in glowing terms of its advantageous location and bright future. Late in 1816 he thought that his efforts to attract a watchmaker to the town were on the verge of success. Jefferson had asked his old friend Charles Willson Peale, the artist, inventor, and Philadelphia museum proprietor, to recruit someone in this craft to come to Virginia. At Peale’s behest Joseph E. McIlhenney, a clock- and watchmaker, contacted Jefferson and duly came to town. As recounted below, a delighted Jefferson invited him to Monticello, found him a suitable shop to rent, guaranteed his room and board for the first year, recommended him to potential customers, and asked him to return to Monticello promptly to work on several repair projects. Scared off by a potential rival, McIlhenney instead stunned Jefferson by taking the first coach headed north and failing to return. He prospered in Philadelphia as a clockmaker and dentist, leaving Charlottesville to the mercies of a watchmaker whom Jefferson roundly condemned as a “bungler.” Fortunately, Jefferson’s next attempt to obtain a suitable artisan to repair his and the town’s timepieces ended happily a few months later with the arrival of Louis A. Leschot, a Swiss craftsman who sold Jefferson some watches and repaired others. Leschot became an American citizen and was buried at Monticello more than a decade after Jefferson’s death.

 

 

To Charles Willson Peale
 
Dear Sir
Monticello Dec. 24. 16.

I recieved in October a letter from mr McIlhenny whom you were so kind as to recommend as a watchmaker, informing me he would come on to establish himself at Charlottesville as soon as he could hear from me. I was just about setting out on a journey to Bedford, and answered him therefore by advising him to postpone his coming till my return. he did so, and arrived in Charlottesville by the stage on Wednesday last. Thursday was rainy. on Friday he came here, I kept him all night, and on Saturday morning went with him to Charlottesville presented & recommended him to the principal persons there, procured him a shop in the very best and most public position, under took to the landlord for his year’s rent & board, and assuring him of all other necessary aid until he could stand on his own legs, I left him in charlottesville, on his promise to come to Monticello Monday mornin[g] to repair 3. or 4. clocks & as many watches which we had needing it, while his landlord would be fitting up the room for him. on Sunday morning without a word of explanation, as far as I have learnt, to any body, he got into the stage with all his baggage and went off. I can conjecture no cause for this. a watchmaker in Stanton (40. miles above this) who had recieved some work from this quarter, heard that I was procuring a person of that trade to come here. mr McIlhenny coming thro’ Stanton called at that watchmaker’s (Logan’s) and Logan discovered th[at] he was the person. he instantly put one of his men into the same stage which brought McIlhenny, who on his arrival in Charlottesville engag[ed] a house. but the remoteness of this and the entire patronage of the place which I had ensured to McIlhenny, with his excellent stand left him nothing to fear from that competition. I have thought it best to state these things to you lest his friends might think I had not1 fulfilled my proffers of aid to him, or discoragement be produced to any other real master of the business who might be disposed to come and relieve us from the bungler whom this incident has brought upon us. it is an excellent stand for a sober, correct & good workman. I am not the less thankful to you for the trouble you were so kind as to take in relieving our wants. something erratic & feeble in the texture of this young man’s mind will I suspect prevent his becoming stationary & industrious any where. I salute you with affection and respect

Th: Jefferson

 

 

 


PoC (MHi); on reused address cover of Elizabeth Ticknor to TJ, 10 Sept. 1816; mutilated at seal, with one word rewritten by TJ; edge trimmed; at foot of first page: “Mr Peale”; endorsed by TJ.

1 Word added in margin.

 

 

Posted October 2015. Reprinted from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, 10:606–07.


 

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