Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark


Letter from John Ledyard to Thomas Jefferson

John Ledyard to Thomas Jefferson, July 1788
Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress
The renowned explorer shares his thoughts on racial/ethnic differences, and the possibility of Noah's Flood as an explanation for human diversity.

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To his Excellency Thomas Jefferson Esquire Embassador for the United States of America

When men of genius want matter of fact to reason from it is bad; though it is worseto reason without it: it is the fate of genius not to make, or to misapply this reflexion, and do it from theories: humble minds admirethese theories because they cannot comprehendthem & disbelieve them for the same reason.

Simplify the efforts & attainments of all the antient worlds in science & it amounts to nothing but theory: to a riddle: the sublime of the antient wisdom was to form a riddle & the Delphic god bore the palm: men had then greatencouragement to do something were made priestsprophets, kings & gods. & when they had gainedthese distinctions by riddles it was necessary by riddles to question them.

Men have since tho but very lately& not yet universally sought impartially for truth& we now a days seek truth not only for its ownenchanting beauty, but from a principle tho notmore valuable yet more generous viz the pleasure of communicating it to one another. The soothsayers, magicians, prophets, & princes of old would think us as errant fools as we think them knaves.

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In my travels I have made it my rule to compare the written with the living history of Men, & as I have seen all kinds of men so I have not hesitated to make use of all kinds of history (yrs I am acquainted with) in the comparison: & I give in many cases as much credit to traditions as to other history: implicit credit to none nor implicit credit to inferences that I myself draw from this Comparison except rarely:& thenI am as sure as I want to be. Thus I know & feel myself above prejudice: Moses, Albrigassi, & the writers of the last 20 years are all alike to me as to what I am seeking for: I would only understand if I cauld what man has been from what he is: notwhat he may be hereafter tho all mention the tale I would also know what the earth has been from observinghow it is at present: not how it may hereafter be, thoall mention also this tale. You know how ignorant& plain a man I am, but I declare to you that in this temper of mind & from this information incident to the extent & nature of my travels I find myself at my ease concerning things which some cannot & others will not believe that are of considerable importance: & I will tell you in avery few words what some of them are I wish I had time to mention them all, or if I do that it was more in detail.

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Sir I am certain (the negroes excepted because I have not personaly visited them) that the differences in the colour of man is the effect of natural causes. Sir I am certain that all the people you call red people on the continent of American & on the continents of Europe & Asia as far south as the southern parts of China are all one people by whatever names Distinguished & that the best general one would be Tartar.

I suspect that all red people are of the same family. I am satisfied myself that American was peopled from Asia & had some if not all its animals from there. I am satisfied myself that the great generalanalogy in the customs of man can only be accounted for but by supposing them all to compose one family : & by extending the Idea & uniting Customs, traidtions & history I am satisfied that this common origin was such or nearly as related by Moses & commonly believed among all the nations of the earth.

There is a transposition of things on the globe that must have been produced by some cause equal to the effect which is vast & curious: whether I repose an argument drawn from facts observed by myself.

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or send imagination forth to find a causethey both declare to me a general Deluge.

I am yr Excellency's most humble& most gratefull friend