Letter to Mr. Mumford, Monticello
By: Thomas Jefferson
Published: 06/18/1799
Uploaded: 05/02/2008
Uploaded by: Pocket Master
Pockets: Gottesman Libraries Archive, Manuscript Group 1
Tags: Math, Monticello, Sciences, Thomas Jefferson

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Description/Abstract: Jefferson begins this letter considering "which of his acquisitions in science have been really useful to him in life, and which of them have been merely a matter of luxury."

Jefferson goes on to describe the state of various sciences as he sees them. (abstract in progress)

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Eric Strome    Jun 16 2009, 3:31 pm
Another version, transcribed from this document for Princeton's series on Jeffersons writings, is here: http://www.princeton.edu/~tjpapers/munford/munford.html .
Eric Strome    Jun 16 2009, 2:08 pm
The full text is below, for reference while reading. Jefferson's spellings and capitalizations are inconsistent at times and different from modern use; I have tried to retain the original and note the difference, but there are probably instances where Word's auto-corrections have escaped my notice. There are also a few places where I could not decide on a definite word, noted with a (?) in the text. Ecs
Eric Strome    Jun 16 2009, 2:08 pm
Dear Sir,
I have to acknoledge [sic] the receipt of your favor of May 14, in which you mention that you have finished the 6 first books of Euclid, plane trigonometry, surveying & algebra and ask whether I think a further pursuit of that branch of science would be useful to you. There are some propositions in the latter books of Euclid & some of Archimedes, which are useful, & I have no doubt you have been made acquainted with them. Trigonometry, so far as this, is most valuable to every man, there is scarcely a day in which he will not resort to it for some of the purposes of common life. The science of calculation also is indispensable as far as the extraction of the square & cube roots; algebra as far as the quadratic equation & the use of logarithms is often of value in ordinary cases; but all beyond these is but a luxury; a delicious luxury indeed; but not to be indulged in by one who is to have a profession to follow for his subsistence. In this light I view the conic sections, curves of the higher orders, perhaps even spherical trigonometry, algebraical operations beyond the 2nd dimension, and fluxions. There are other branches of science however worth the attention of every man. Astronomy, botany, chemistry, natural philosophy, natural history, anatomy. Not indeed to be a proficient in them; but to possess their general principles & outlines, so as that we may be able to amuse and inform ourselves further in any of them as we proceed through life & have occasion for them. Some knowledge of them is necessary for our character as well as comfort. The general elements of astronomy & of natural philosophy are best acquired at an academy where we can have the benefit of the instruments & apparatus usually provided there: but the others may well be acquired from books alone as far as our purposes require. I have indulged myself in these observations to you, because the evidence cannot be unuseful to you of a person who has often had occasion to consider which of his acquisitions in science have been really useful to him in life, and which of them have been merely a matter of luxury.
I am among those who think well of the human character generally. I consider man as formed for society, and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society. I believe also, with Condorcet, as mentioned in your letter, that his mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception. It is impossible for a man who takes a survey of what is already known, not to see what an immensity in every branch of science yet remains to be discovered, & that too of articles to which our faculties seem adequate. In geometry & calculation we know a great deal. Yet there are some desiderata. In anatomy great progress has been made; but much is still to be acquired. In natural history we possess knowledge; but we want a great deal. In chemistry we are not yet sure of the first elements. Our natural philosophy is in a very infantine state; perhaps for great advances in it, a further progress in chemistry is necessary. Surgery is well advanced, but prodigiously short of what may be. The state of medicine is worse than that of total ignorance. Could we divest ourselves of every thing we suppose we know in it, we should start from a higher ground & with fairer prospects. From Hippocrates to Toroun (?) we have had nothing but a succession of hypothetical systems each having itís [sic] day of vogue, like the fashioned fancies of caps & gowns, & yielding in turn to the next caprice. Yet the human frame which is to be the subject of suffering & torture under these learned modes, does not change. We have a few medicines, as the bark, opium, mercury, which in a few well defined diseases are of unquestionable virtue: but the residuary (?) list of the material medica, long as it is, contains but the charlataneries of the art; and of the diseases of doubtful form, physicians have ever had a false knowledge, worse than ignorance. Yet su