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Thomas Jefferson letter discovered in the Rockwood Archives

Introduction

As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Wilmington News Journal, 6abc Action News, and UDaily, UD graduate students Amanda Daddona and Matthew Davis have discovered an 1808 Thomas Jefferson letter to Joseph Bringhurst in the newly acquired Rockwood Archives. During the summer of 2009 the University of Delaware Library received the Archives of the Rockwood Museum as a gift from New Castle County. A press release announcing this gift is available via UDaily, a publication of the University of Delaware's Office of Communications & Marketing.

The Rockwood Museum is a Victorian house museum located on an English-style country estate north of Wilmington, Delaware. The Gothic Revival mansion, with a conservatory and furnishings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is surrounded by extensive Gardenesque grounds. The property is owned by New Castle County.

Spanning the seventeenth century until the late 1970s, the Rockwood Archives document generations of the Shipley, Bringhurst, Hargraves and Sellers families. While much of the material housed in the collection pertains to the generations of these familes that resided in the Rockwood mansion dating from the time of its construction between 1851 and 1854, a portion of the archive also documents the lives of ancestors dating from well before the house was built.

One such ancestor was Dr. Joseph Bringhurst, Jr., patriarch of the prominent Wilmington Bringhurst family, owners of one of the region's first drug stores (circa 1793), which remained open into the twentieth century. A brief biography of Joseph Bringhurst is included below.

In early November the processors of the Rockwood collection discovered a letter, dated February 24, 1808, sent by Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Bringhurst. The letter, which is reproduced on this page, is an eloquent expression of condolence on learning of the death of John Dickinson, a close friend of Bringhurst.

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A Brief Biography of Dr. Joseph Bringhurst
by Lora J. Davis

Dr. Joseph Bringhurst (1767-1834) was born to Philadelphia Quaker James Bringhurst and his wife Anne Pole on October 6, 1767. [1]  Bringhurst was educated at Robert Proud’s Latin Friends School in Philadelphia, where he befriended fellow student Charles Brockden Brown, one of the early Republic’s most influential literary figures. [2]

After completing his education, Bringhurst began to practice medicine in Philadelphia.  In 1793 Bringhurst fled Philadelphia for Wilmington, Delaware, to avoid a yellow fever outbreak afflicting the city.  He resided in Wilmington with his wife, Deborah (Ferris) Bringhurst, for the remainder of his life.

Deborah Ferris and Joseph Bringhurst married in Wilmington on July 11, 1799.  Deborah was the granddaughter of Benjamin Sharpless, of the prominent Chester, Pennsylvania, Quaker Sharpless family.

In Wilmington Bringhurst continued his medical practice, in addition to establishing one of the region’s first drug stores at his residence (located at what is now 317 Market Street). [3]  In 1802 Bringhurst was appointed postmaster of Wilmington by President Thomas Jefferson, a post he maintained throughout the Madison and first Monroe administrations, being succeeded by Nicholas Gilpin Williamson, Esq. in 1820. [4]  Throughout Bringhurst's term as postmaster, the post office also operated out of his home, medical practice, and drug store on Market Street.

Bringhurst was a lifelong student, who read and wrote prolifically throughout his life.  In his genealogy of the Sharpless family of Chester, Pennsylvania, Joseph Sharpless cites Bringhurst as having been, "gifted with an intellect of no common order."  Sharpless continues, explaining that Bringhurst, "had cultivated and improved [his intellect] by extensive reading, and nature had supplied him with an easy elocution, which enabled him to communicate with clearness and facility, and rendered his conversation a source of instruction and pleasure." [5] Early in his life Bringhurst engaged in ongoing printed poetical correspondence with Elihu Hubbard Smith and classmate Charles Brockden Brown in the Gazette of the United States under the nom de plume "Birtha." [6]  At the time of this correspondence in 1791 Brown and Bringhurst were also both members of the Society for the Advancement of Useful Knowledge.

In addition to his intellectual accomplishments, Bringhurst was also a politically engaged and socially active member of post-Revolution American society. Most notably, he was an intimate friend of fellow Quaker and prominent Revolution-era figure John Dickinson.  Bringhurst was a frequent correspondent of Dickinson’s, and the two often exchanged observations on the state of the burgeoning American nation and the political and social positions of the Society of Friends.  Indeed, in a letter to Bringhurst dated July of 1799 Dickinson expressed concerns about what he perceived to be the narrow and overly cautious education offered to Quaker children in the new nation.  He wrote to Bringhurst that he felt that there existed, "gross ignorance among youth concerning the progress of human affairs." [7]

The Bringhurst and Dickinson families also shared a deep familial kinship, evidenced by Joseph and Deborah Ferris Bringhurst naming their first-born daughter Mary Dickinson Bringhurst (b. July 4, 1806) in honor of Mrs. Dickinson.  When John Dickinson’s health began to fail, Bringhurst became his almost constant companion, writing exhaustive notes of Dickinson’s last words on the nights before his death. [8]  When Dickinson passed on February 14, 1808, it was Bringhurst who wrote to President Jefferson to convey the sad news.  Jefferson responded with an eloquent letter expressing his sadness at the loss, writing to Bringhurst that, "A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us." [9]

Bringhurst’s letter to Jefferson on the occasion of Dickinson’s death was not, however, Bringhurst’s first correspondence with the esteemed President.  The Library of Congress retains within Series I. General Correspondence of The Thomas Jefferson Papers at least two additional letters written to Jefferson from Joseph Bringhurst, as well as an additional letter from Joseph Bringhurst’s father, James, to the President.  James Bringhurst’s letter of January 3, 1805, accompanied his gift, to Jefferson, of a book by a notable Quaker.  At the conclusion of James’s letter, he thanks the President for his kindness to his son Joseph, writing, "I am greatly obliged by thy kindly appointing my Son Joseph to the post office at Willmington [sic] on Delaware." [10]

As an appointee of the Jefferson administration, Bringhurst was an ardent supporter of the nation’s third president.  Bringhurst’s other letters to Jefferson, one written well before Dickinson’s death on July 8, 1803, and another written after, on July 20, 1808, evidence Bringhurst’s service to the president.  Bringhurst’s 1803 letter indicates that Jefferson entrusted the Delaware Quaker to assess the sentiments of the nation’s Friends toward Jefferson’s administration.  Bringhurst wrote to Jefferson that, "during my journey into the State of N York about 100 miles north of that City, I found the majority of Friends, (Quakers) well satisfied with thy administration, and desirous of thy continuance in Office, as a blessing to this Country." [11]  Similarly, Bringhurst’s 1808 letter to the president relayed information about the sentiments of members of the Society of Friends toward the president’s political persuasions.  Bringhurst also enclosed with this letter "an address to the ‘Society of Friends,’ respecting their political conduct," which was delivered by, "a very active and substantial Friend of Chester County Pennsylvania." [12]

Joseph and Deborah Ferris Bringhurst had five children.  Their eldest daughter, as already noted, was Mary Dickinson Bringhurst (July 4, 1806-January 12, 1886).  Their other children included William Bringhurst (September 25, 1800-June 14, 1818), Joseph Bringhurst (September 26, 1807-March 14, 1880), Edward Bringhurst (May 22, 1809-February 8, 1884), and Ziba Ferris Bringhurst (September 19, 1812-March 6, 1836).  Joseph’s fourth son, Edward, married Sarah Shipley, niece of the London financier Joseph Shipley.  Shipley built his grand estate Rockwood north of Wilmington between 1851 and 1854, and upon retirement came home from England to Delaware. [13]


Endnotes

[1]
Josiah Granville Leach, History of the Bringhurst family (Lippincott, 1901), 39.
[2]
University of Central Florida, "The Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive and Scholarly Edition," http://www.brockdenbrown.ucf.edu/index.php.
[3]
Leach, History of the Bringhurst family, 39.  Interestingly, this drug store, which remained in the Bringhurst family for over a century, was ultimately dismantled and reassembled at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, to serve as the apothecary shop in their reproduction nineteenth century village.  For more information see the Mystic Seaport website at: http://www.mysticseaport.org.
[4]
Ibid.
[5]
Joseph Sharpless, Genealogy of the Sharpless family, descended from John and Jane Sharples, Settlers near Chester, Pennsylvania, 1682 (Philadelphia: Published and sold by the author, No. 30, Arch Street, 1816), 390.
[6]
Charles E. Bennett, "A Poetical Correspondence among Elihu Hubbard Smith, Joseph Bringhurst, Jr., and Charles Brockden Brown in 'The Gazette of the United States'," Early American Literature 12, no. 3 (Winter 1977): 279-80.
[7]
Quoted in Milton Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary (Charlottesville: Published for the Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion by the University Press of Virginia, 1983), 287.
[8]
Leach, History of the Bringhurst family, 40.
[9]
Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Bringhurst, February 24, 1808, University of Delaware Library, Special Collections.
[10]
James Bringhurst to Thomas Jefferson, January 3, 1805, The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence, 1651-1827, Library of Congress.
[11]
Joseph Bringhurst to Thomas Jefferson, July 8, 1803, The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence, 1651-1827, Library of Congress.
[12]
Joseph Bringhurst to Thomas Jefferson, July 20, 1808, The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence, 1651-1827, Library of Congress.
[13]
Leach, History of the Bringhurst family.
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Annotated Bibliography of Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Bringhurst Sources
by Lora J. Davis

Selected Published Sources

Bennett, Charles E. "A Poetical Correspondence among Elihu Hubbard Smith, Joseph Bringhurst, Jr., and Charles Brockden Brown in 'The Gazette of the United States'." Early American Literature 12, no. 3 (Winter 1977): 277-285.

This article documents the poetical correspondence published in 1791 by Joseph Bringhurst, Elihu Hubbard Smith, and Charles Brockden Brown, in the Gazette of the United States.  The trio published 35 letters in the Gazette under the assumed names Ella (Smith), Birtha (Bringhurst), and Henry (Brown).  The author of this article details the scholarly investigation that went into unearthing the identities of the correspondents.  Additionally, the article provides valuable insight into the relationship between Bringhurst and Brown. 

Bergh, Albert Ellery. The writings of Thomas Jefferson. Issued under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1907.

Jefferson's letter to Bringhurst on the occasion of Dickinson's death is transcribed in full on page 445 of volume 11 of this twenty volume set.   This transcription was almost certainly copied from the earlier compilation of Jefferson letters edited by H.A. Washington in 1853-54.

Flower, Milton. John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville: Published for the Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion by the University Press of Virginia, 1983.

This biography of John Dickinson cites at least one letter from Dickinson to Joseph Bringhurst.  The biography also elaborates on the Dickinsons' place within Wilmington Quaker society.

Holmes, John R., and Edwin J. Saeger. "Charles Brockden Brown and the 'Laura-Petrarch' Letters." Early American Literature 25, no. 2 (1990): 183-186.

This article investigates the "Laura-Petrarch" correspondence housed in Special Collections at Bowdoin College.  The letters in question in this article were sent by an author writing under the pen name "Petrarch" to the recipient "Laura."  While earlier investigation had properly discerned the identity of "Laura" to be Deborah Ferris of Wilmington, the authors of this article argue that, while for much of history "Petrarch" was presumed to be Charles Brockden Brown, this presumption was incorrect.  Rather, the authors explain, "Petrarch" was Joseph Bringhurst.  As such, this discovery identifies a large collection of letters between Bringhurst and his future wife, Deborah Ferris.  The article also underscores how interconnected the lives of Brown and Bringhurst were at this time.

Jefferson, Thomas. Calendar of the Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson. Burt Franklin bibliography & reference series 310. New York: B. Franklin, 1970.

This record of Thomas Jefferson's correspondence cites both Jefferson's 1808 letter to Joseph Bringhurst upon the death of John Dickinson, as well as Jefferson's earlier 1805 letter to Joseph's father, James, which was written to thank him for the gift of a book.

---. Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies: From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Charlottesville [Va.]: F. Carr, and Co, 1829.

This volume, edited by Jefferson's grandson and executor Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was the first published record of Jefferson's correspondence.  The volume does not contain mention of Jefferson's letter to Joseph Bringhurst.

---. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Letter-press ed. New York: Putnam, 1893.

---. The writings of Thomas Jefferson being his autobiography, correspondence, reports, messages, addresses, and other writings, official and private. Edited by H.A. Washingon. Washington  D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853.

Jefferson's letter to Joseph Bringhurst is transcribed on page 249 of the fifth volume of this compilation of Jefferson correspondence.  This volume, which was the first produced after the federal government purchased the public papers of Thomas Jefferson, contains the first printed reference of Jefferson's letter to Bringhurst.

Jefferson, Thomas, and John P. Foley. The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia. Funk & Wagnalls company, 1900.

This cyclopedia contains an excerpted transcription of Jefferson's letter to Bringhurst under the heading "DICKINSON (John), Character."  The excerpt was adopted from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson edited by H.A. Washington.

Leach, Josiah Granville. History of the Bringhurst family. Lippincott, 1901.

This beautiful and exhaustive family genealogy of the Bringhurst family was written under the commission of Captain Robert Ralston Bringhurst of Philadelphia.  The information contained within the volume is invaluable to any researchers hoping to learn more about this prominent family.  The volume spends several pages on Joseph Bringhurst, and reproduces many important documents formerly belonging to Bringhurst, including an original letter sent to Bringhurst from Dickinson congratulating him and Deborah on the birth of their first daughter, Mary Dickinson Bringhurst, and the 1808 letter sent to Bringhurst from Thomas Jefferson which is now housed in Special Collections.

Sharpless, Joseph. Genealogy of the Sharpless family, descended from John and Jane Sharples, Settlers near Chester, Pennsylvania, 1682. Philadelphia: Published and sold by the author, No. 30, Arch Street, 1816.

This genealogy of the prominent Sharpless family of Chester, Pennsylvania, includes several references to Joseph Bringhurst.  Bringhurst's wife, Deborah Ferris Bringhurst, was the grandaughter of the Sharpless family patriarch Benjamin Sharpless.

Stillé, Charles Janeway. The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732-1808. Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891.

This biography of John Dickinson, published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, reproduces Jefferson’s letter to Bringhurst in full on pages 336 -337.

Selected Finding Aids

Ferris Family Papers. RG5/040. Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. http://www.swarthmore.edu/Library/friends/ead/5040ferr.xml. (accessed November 10, 2009).

The papers of this Wilmington, Delaware, Quaker family contain several letters from Joseph Bringhurst.  Bringhurst's wife, Deborah Ferris Bringhurst, was the granddaughter of the family patriarch, John Ferris.

Charles Brockden Brown Papers, 1792-1821. George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives. Bowdoin College. http://library.bowdoin.edu/arch/mss/cbbcl.shtml#001 (accessed November 10, 2009).

This collection of Brown's personal papers includes several letters from Joseph Bringhurst, his one-time schoolmate and lifelong friend.

Matson, Cathy, and Wendy Woloson. PEAES Guide: Historical Society of Delaware. http://www.librarycompany.org/Economics/PEAESguide/dhs.htm (accessed November 10, 2009).

This online research guide documenting select holdings of the Historical Society of Delaware was produced by the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Included in the guide is a reference to HSD's Bringhurst Papers, an 8-folder manuscript collection primarily documenting the financial and business dealings of the Bringhurst family.

The Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

This manuscript collection, housed at the Library of Congress, is the largest collection of original Thomas Jefferson documents in the world.  Series I. of the collection, which contains general correspondence, includes several letters to or from Joseph Bringhurst.  Microfilm copies of the documents within the collection have been digitized and are available online from the Library of Congress’ American Memory website.

Jefferson-Bringhurst Correspondence

Bringhurst, James. Letter to Thomas Jefferson, January 3, 1805. The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress. Available online via the Library of Congress American Memory project at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jeffersonpapers/index.html (accessed November 10, 2009).

This letter was written by James Bringhurst, father of Joseph Bringhurst, to accompany a book he sent to the president.  James addresses the president with sincere respect writing that he has endeavored to, "take my pen to address thee with a few lines, and wish to do it with that real Respect which is Due to the first Ruler of a great People…"  James closes his letter by thanking the president for appointing his son, Joseph, postmaster of Wilmington.

Bringhurst, Joseph. Letter to Thomas Jefferson, July 8, 1803. The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress. Available online via the Library of Congress American Memory project at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jeffersonpapers/index.html (accessed November 10, 2009).

In this 1803 letter to Jefferson, Bringhurst reports on the political sentiments of New York Quakers toward the Jefferson administration.

---. Letter to Thomas Jefferson, February 16, 1808. The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress. Available online via the Library of Congress American Memory project at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jeffersonpapers/index.html (accessed November 10, 2009).

Bringhurst sent this letter to the president to notify him of the death of John Dickinson.

---. Letter to Thomas Jefferson, July 20, 1808. The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress. Available online via the Library of Congress American Memory project at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jeffersonpapers/index.html (accessed November 10, 2009).

Bringhurst wrote this letter to the president to accompany a pamphlet he was sending.  The pamphlet, purportedly by a prominent Chester, Pennsylvania, Quaker, spoke of the political views of the Society of Friends as they related to the Jefferson administration.

Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to James Bringhurst, January 9, 1805. The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress. Available online via the Library of Congress American Memory project at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jeffersonpapers/index.html (accessed November 10, 2009).

This form-type thank you letter was sent from Jefferson to James Bringhurst to thank him for his gift of a book.

---. Letter to Joseph Bringhurst, February 24, 1808. The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress. Available online via the Library of Congress American Memory project at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jeffersonpapers/index.html (accessed November 10, 2009).

This Jefferson letter was written to Joseph Bringhurst in response to the news of the death of John Dickinson.  The letter housed in the Library of Congress is Jefferson's copy of the letter, the original of which is now housed in Special Collections.

---. Letter to Joseph Bringhurst, February 24, 1808. University of Delaware Library, Special Collections.

This is the original letter sent to Joseph Bringhurst by Thomas Jefferson upon hearing the news of the death of John Dickinson.  This eloquent letter expresses Jefferson's sorrow, with the president writing that, "A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us."

Electronic Databases and Resources

University of Central Florida. "The Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive and Scholarly Edition." http://www.brockdenbrown.ucf.edu/index.php.

This electronic archive aims at preserving, documenting, and bringing together in one place all the extant writings of Charles Brockden Brown. The site, which is maintained by the University of Central Florida, is still a work in progress, but it does contain a brief biography of Joseph Bringhurst, including details on his relationship with Brown.

Oberg, Barbara B., and J. Jefferson Looney, eds. "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson." Online database available at http://rock.ei.virginia.edu:8080/founders/default.xqy?keys=TSJN-print&mode=TOC (accessed November 10, 2009).

This online subscription database reproduces transcriptions of Jefferson's correspondence as published in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.  The print edition of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson has been an ongoing project of Princeton University Press since 1950.  To date the thirty-three published volumes have only reached the year 1801, thus the Bringhurst-Jefferson correspondence is not included in this collection.  However, as volumes are added to both the print and online holdings, this work is sure to become the preeminent source for Jefferson letters.

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03/31/11

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