William Tatham (1752-1819) and Thomas Jefferson were contemporaries in colonial Virginia, and their paths recurrently crossed during the early national period.
Tatham emigrated from England to Virginia in 1769. He was an energetic young man and successfully found employment as a clerk with Carter & Trent, merchants operating on the James River. Within a few years, Tatham relocated to the Tennessee territory and then moved back and forth among Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. He returned to England in the 1790s, but was again in Virginia by the end of 1805.
Tatham’s employment fluctuated even more than his residence. He became a Revolutionary soldier and a military storekeeper, a North Carolina lawyer and legislator, and an author, engineer, and agriculturist. He served under General Thomas Nelson and was at Yorktown during the American Revolution. During the British invasion of Virginia in 1781, Tatham volunteered as a courier between General Nelson, General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, and Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson.1
Tatham and Jefferson were acquainted as early as 1780, when Jefferson drafted a letter of introduction for Tatham.2 Correspondence between the two men suggests a one-sided relationship – Tatham’s surviving letters outnumber Jefferson’s responses by about twenty to one. Tatham was never hesitant to promote himself for employment or patronage. Upon Jefferson’s appointment as Secretary of State, Tatham offered himself for the diplomatic corps.3 When no appointment was forthcoming, he promptly asked for Jefferson’s support on a publishing project and suggested himself as a surveyor of roads.4 The persistent Tatham then turned to Jefferson’s proposal for a western postal service. He sent his brother to Kentucky to gather information and presented Jefferson with a cost estimate, delivery schedules, and routes.5
Jefferson’s apparent indifference to Tatham’s various schemes raises doubts about the younger man. In a letter to Henry Dearborn, Jefferson enclosed Tatham’s plans for defense of the Chesapeake Bay and provided a candid comment on their author. “[W]e never expect from the writer a detailed, well-digested & practicable plan,” he explained, “but good ideas & susceptible of improvement sometimes escape from him.”6
During his presidency, Jefferson demonstrated a degree of confidence in Tatham by employing him in a number of ad hoc capacities. In 1805, while Tatham was living in England, Jefferson instructed him to purchase a camera obscura and have the device shipped to the United States.7 Tatham fulfilled Jefferson’s request before returning to Virginia later that year.8 Soon after Tatham’s return, Jefferson appointed him as one of three commissioners assigned to survey the North Carolina coast.
In 1807, Tatham offered his services to Jefferson in connection with the Chesapeake Affair. After the British ship Leopard attacked the American Chesapeake, Tatham wrote Jefferson a report on ship movement along the Virginia coastline.9 Jefferson encouraged Tatham to “continue watching” British armed vessels in the Chesapeake region.10 Following a series of detailed updates to the President, Jefferson thanked Tatham for his diligence and released him from his service.11
For the next two years, Tatham continued to solicit Jefferson for a government position and to provide plans for naval defense.12 No employment was offered, and when Jefferson retired from the presidency, Tatham's letters to him ceased. Over the next several years, Tatham maintained a similar one-sided correspondence with President James Madison.13 Finally, in 1817, he secured a federal appointment as a military storekeeper at the U.S. arsenal near Richmond. Tatham was killed in Richmond in February 1819, during Washington's birthday celebrations, when passing, perhaps purposefully, in front of a firing cannon.
1. For an account of Tatham’s exploits during the invasion, see Tatham to William Armistead Burwell, June 13, 1805, in PTJ, 4:273-77. Transcription available at Founders Online.
2. Jefferson to Nathanael Greene, December 27, 1780, in PTJ, 4:240-41. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. Tatham to Jefferson, December 1, 1789, in PTJ, 16:9-10. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4. Tatham to Jefferson, February 17, 1790, in PTJ, 16:185-87. Transcription available at Founders Online.
5. Tatham to Jefferson, August 15, 1791, in PTJ, 22:44. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Tatham to Jefferson, before August 26, 1791, in PTJ, 22:79-85. Transcription available at Founders Online.
7. Tatham to Jefferson, June 15, 1805, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
8. Learmonths & Berry to Tatham, August 19, 1805, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Recipient's copy of letter and of invoice available online. Transcription of invoice available at Founders Online.
9. Tatham to Jefferson, July 1, 1807, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
10. Jefferson to Tatham, July 6, 1807, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
11. Jefferson to Tatham, July 28, 1807, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
12. See, e.g., Tatham to Jefferson, July 2, 1808, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Tatham to Jefferson, November 30, 1808, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
13. See, e.g., Tatham to Madison, December 14, 1811, in The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, ed. J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, Jewel L. Spangler, Ellen J. Barber, Martha J. King, Anne Mandeville Colony, and Susan Holbrook Perdue (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 4:66-68. Transcription available at Founders Online.