The Best of Friends


MS 3782_12_76_189 First page

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. William Small, 1775, page 1 [MS 3782/12/76/189]

It was reported by Fox News on 5 July 2016 that a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1815 had been found by a family in the U.S.A. among papers in their attic. It was put up for sale at a price of $325,000.

You do not, however, have to pay anything like that sum to see a letter from Jefferson, as one exists in Birmingham, within the Papers of Matthew Boulton [MS 3782/12/76/189] and it is free to view!

This letter, dated 7 May 1775, accompanied three dozen bottles of Madeira which Jefferson was sending by ship to Dr. William Small in Birmingham.

‘I hope you will find it fine as it came to me genuine from the island and has been kept in my own cellar eight years.’

Jefferson continues with news of continuing warfare between British troops and the fighters for American independence and with the failure of peace negotiations.

He finishes:

‘…but I am getting into politics tho’ I sat down only to ask your acceptance of the wine & express my constant wishes for your happiness…….I shall still hope that amidst public dissension private friendship may be preserved inviolate, and among the warmest you can ever possess is that of…..Th. Jefferson.’

MS 3782_12_76_189 Second page

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. William Small, 1775, page 2 [MS 3782/12/76/189]

Unfortunately, the letter and gift arrived after Small’s death, which had occurred on 25 February 1775, and of which Jefferson was unaware.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (adopted 1785). He was the third President of the United States, 1801-1809. How did he know Dr Small?William Small (1734-1775) was a Scot who had obtained a degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1755 and been appointed as Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at William and Mary College, Virginia, in 1758.

Thomas Jefferson had studied there from 1760-1762 and Small had been his tutor. In his autobiography (1821), Jefferson says of Small:

It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm. Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged & liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed.

Small returned to England in 1764 to purchase scientific instruments for the College. He dispatched barometers, microscopes, an achromatic telescope, prisms, mirrors and ‘an instrument to try the force of falling bodies’ but did not himself return there. He had been suffering from malaria for some time.

In London, he lectured to medical students and was awarded an MD degree from Aberdeen in 1765. As a guest of Benjamin Franklin at a Royal Society meeting in London, Small obtained a letter of introduction from Franklin to Matthew Boulton, with whom he corresponded about electricity and other inventions. He travelled to Birmingham in 1765 and he settled there as a doctor and was physician and close friend to Matthew Boulton.

Small also met James Watt when he visited Birmingham in 1767 and they too became good friends, corresponding frequently. Small was particularly interested in clocks and metallurgy and their letters discussed telescopes, microscopes, barometers, and canal construction, as well as the steam engine.

He was a founder member of the Lunar Society and his early death was much lamented by all his friends. A short elegy by Erasmus Darwin was displayed on an urn placed in Small’s memory in ‘a sepulchred grove’ in Boulton’s garden at Soho.

A full transcript of Thomas Jefferson’s letter can be found here.

Fiona Tait

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