Letter from Thomas Jefferson (as Secretary of State) to Eli Whitney, Jr. regarding his patent application for the cotton gin, 16 November 1793

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The following letter is Thomas Jefferson’s response to Eli Whitney’s patent application for his gin.  Whitney wrote Jefferson on October 15, 1793:  “It has been my endeavor to give a precise idea of every part of the machine, and if I have failed in elegance, I hope I have not been deficient in point of accuracy.”  Jefferson, as Secretary of State, replied on November 16 that he received Whitney’s “drawing” of the cotton gin and that Whitney need only send a model of his machine to secure the patent.  Jefferson’s letter also revealed his own personal interest in Whitney’s machine, since “one of our great embarrassments is cleaning the cotton of the seed.”  Jefferson asked for more information about the gin and added in the postscript, “is this the machine advertised the last year by Pearce” of New Jersey? Jefferson became very interested in the Pearce gin when he saw them advertised in 1792, so much so that he contacted inventer William Pearce and tried to woo him to Philadelphia, but his letter went unanswered. Jefferson was thus quite excited when he received Whitney's plans.

Whitney’s gin proposed a new design altogether, which contained these three distinct features: 1) wire teeth on one cylinder to tear seeds from the lint; 2) turning brushes on the other cylinder to sweep the cotton out of the teeth; and 3) a slotted guard above the cylinders to sift out loosened seeds.

Jefferson believed in the importance of science and technology to the new republic, and he viewed the new Patent Office, established in 1790, as a symbol of American creativity and national pride.  Jefferson did, however, question the validity of certain patents, such as Oliver Evans’ automated flour mill, which, he complained, borrowed too much from established ideas.  Whitney and his contemporaries, such as Evans, Benjamin Latrobe and Robert Fulton, strived to obtain exclusive rights (and compensation) for their inventions, yet they all faced lawsuits from other inventors claiming the same patents.  Whitney’s patent was no exception, as it stirred a controversy that fueled numerous petitions, court cases, and other challenges that questioned his claim to these exclusive rights.  


Thomas Jefferson to Eli Whitney, Jr., 16 November 1793.  Eli Whitney Papers,             Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.


                        Germantown     Nov. 16, 1793


            Your favor of October 15, inclosing a drawing of your cotton gin, was received on the 6th inst. The only requisite of the law now uncomplied with is the forwarding a model which being received your patent may be made out I delivered to your order immediately.

            As to the State of Virginia, of which I am, carries on household manufactures of cotton to a great extent, as I also do myself, and one of our great embarrassments is the cleaning the cotton of the seed.  I feel considerable interest in the success of your invention for family use.  Permit me therefore to ask information from you on these points, has the machine been thoroughly tried to the ginning of cotton, or is it as yet but a machine of theory?  What quantity of cotton has it cleaned on an average of several days & worked by hand & by how many hands?  What will be the cost of one of them made to be worked by hand?  Favorable answers to these questions would induce me to engage one of them to be forwarded to Richmond for me.  Wishing to hear from you on the subject, I am Sir

P.S. is this the machine adver-             You most obedt servt

tised the last year by Pearce

at the Patterson Manufactory?               Thomas Jefferson

Mr. Eli Whitney.                       Connecticut.  New Haven.

Correlating SC Social Studies Academic Standards:

Standard 3-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the events that led to the Civil War, the course of the War and Reconstruction, and South Carolina’s role in these events.

Indicator 3-4.1 Compare the conditions of daily life for various classes of people in South Carolina, including the elite, the middle class, the lower class, the independent farmers, and the free and enslaved African Americans.  (H, E)

Indicator 3-4.2 Summarize state leaders’ defense of the institution of slavery prior to the Civil War, including reference to conditions in South Carolina, the invention of the cotton gin, subsequent expansion of slavery, and economic dependence on slavery.  (H, E, P)

Indicator 3-4.7 Summarize the effects of Reconstruction in South Carolina, including the development of public education, racial advancements and tensions, and economic changes.  (H, E, P)

Standard 4-6: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the Civil War and its impact on America.

Indicator 4-6.1 Compare characteristics of the regions of the North and South prior to the Civil War, including agrarian versus industrialist economies, geographic differences and boundaries, and ways of life. (G, E, H)

Standard 7-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of political, social, and economic upheavals that occurred throughout the world during the age of revolution, from 1770 through 1848

Indicator 7-3.5 Explain the impact of the new technology that emerged during the Industrial Revolution, including changes that promoted the industrialization of textile production in England and the impact of interchangeable parts and mass production.  (E, H)

Standard 8-2: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the American Revolution—the beginnings of the new American nation and South Carolina’s part in the development of that nation.

Indicator 8-2.5 Explain the economic and political tensions between the people of the Upcountry and Lowcountry, including economic struggles of both groups following the American Revolution, their disagreement over representation in the General Assembly and the location of the new capital city, and the transformation of the state’s economy that was caused by the production of cotton and convinced Lowcountry men to share power with Upcountry men.  (H, G, P, E)

Standard 8-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the American Civil War—its causes and effects and the major events that occurred during that time.

Indicator 8-3.1 Explain the importance of agriculture in antebellum South Carolina including plantation life, slavery, and the impact of the cotton gin. (H, G, E)

Standard 8-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the impact of Reconstruction on the people and government of South Carolina.

Indicator 8-4.2 Summarize Reconstruction in South Carolina and its effects on daily life in South Carolina, including the experiences of plantation owners, small farmers, freedmen, women, and northern immigrants.  (H, P, E)

Standard USHC-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the westward movement and the resulting regional conflicts that took place in America in the nineteenth century.

Indicator USHC-3.3 Compare economic development in different regions of the country during the early 19th century, including agriculture in the South, industry and finance in the North, and the development of new resources in the West. (E, H)

Standard USHC-4:  The student will demonstrate an understanding of the causes and the course of the Civil War and Reconstruction in America.

Indicator USHC-4.1 Compare the social and cultural characteristics of the North, the South, and the West during the antebellum period, including the lives of African Americans and social reform movements such as abolition and women’s rights.  (H, P, G)


Related Documents

Letter from Eli Whitney to his Father, 11 September 1793.

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