José Correia da Serra (1750-1823) was a Portuguese naturalist and close friend of Thomas Jefferson.
Early in 1812, the Portuguese abbé renowned for his universal learning and epigrammatic wit arrived in the United States. José Correia da Serra was a brilliant member of the international brotherhood of scientific philosophers Thomas Jefferson so valued. One American admirer called him "the most extraordinary man now living, or who, perhaps ever lived."1
Correia was born in Serpa, Portugal, and educated in Italy, where he took holy orders and received a law degree. He established a reputation as a botanist, was an enthusiastic geologist, and helped to found the Academy of Sciences in Lisbon. Forced to leave Portugal in 1795, he settled in London and then Paris, associating with figures like Sir Joseph Banks and the Barons Cuvier and von Humboldt. When Napoleonic France also proved uncongenial, Correia embarked for the United States in 1811.
Bearing letters of introduction from Lafayette, Dupont de Nemours, and Alexander von Humboldt, the Portuguese abbé first met Jefferson on a visit to Monticello in the summer of 1813. His host was captivated by the learned foreigner, calling him "the greatest collection, and best digest of science in books, men, and things that I have ever met with; and with these the most amiable and engaging character."2 A mutual friend reported that Correia "was enchanted with Monticello & delighted with its owner."3
Correia's combination of learning and amiability caused Jefferson to wish for more of his company. "[C]ome and make [Monticello] your home," he wrote in 1816.4 In his nine years in America, Correia visited Monticello seven times, making what he always called his annual "pilgrimage." Books and botanical "rambles," often in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph, were his main amusements.5 Correia's curiosity about American natural history caused him to travel north to the Canadian border, west to Kentucky, and south to Georgia.
In 1816 Correia was appointed Portugal's minister plenipotentiary to the United States. Although diplomatic disagreements somewhat soured his last American years, his friendship with Jefferson was unaffected. After his "farewell visit" to Monticello in 1820, Correia wrote a friend that its residents were "the family I am most attached to in all America."6
Correia left the United States in November 1820.
Primary Source References
1813 August 17. (Jefferson to Caspar Wistar). "I found him what you had described in every respect; certainly the greatest collection, and best digest of science in books, men, and things that I have ever met with; and with these the most amiable and engaging character."7
1813 November 29. (Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours). "[H]e was so kind as to pay me a visit at Monticello which enabled me to see for myself that he was still beyond all the eulogies with which yourself and other friends had preconised him. learned beyond any one I had before met with, good, modest, and of the simplest manners, the idea of losing him again filled me with regret."8
1813 November 30. (Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette). "I thank you for making mr Correa known to me. I found him deserving every thing which his and my friends had said of him, and only lamented that our possession of him was to be so short-lived."9
1813 December 6. (Jefferson to Baron von Humboldt). "... first to thank you for making me acquainted with that most excellent character ... I found him one of the most learned and amiable of men."10
1815 September 14. (Jefferson to Christopher Clark). "mr Correa is one of the most learned men of the age, and particularly fond of botany; one of the best & plainest, unassuming men in the world."11
1815 September 22. (Jefferson to John Milledge). "[Correa is] of the first order of science, being without exception the most learned man I have ever met with in any country. modest, good-humored, familiar, plain as a country farmer, he becomes the favorite of every one with whom he becomes acquainted. he speaks English with ease."12
1815 December 16. (Jefferson to John Oliveira Fernandes). "I have had the happiness of possessing here two or three times your most learned and amiable countryman."13
1820 November 29. (Jefferson to James Madison). "no foreigner, I believe, has ever carried with him more friendly regrets."14
1826 April 27. (Jefferson to John P. Emmet). "[Correa was] a distinguished savant of Europe .... profoundly learned in several other branches of science, he was so, above all others, in that of Botany."15
5. See, e.g., Jefferson to Corrêa, April 19, 1814, in PTJ:RS, 7:301-02 (transcription available at Founders Online); Corrêa to Jefferson, July 12, 1817, in PTJ:RS, 11:526 (transcription available at Founders Online).