Skip to main content

This letter was written by an elderly Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Robert Hare on March 12, 1824 concerning scientific equipment for the University of Virginia. Dr. Hare was the longtime Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and was noted for his experiments in chemistry.[1]

The first connection between Jefferson and Dr. Hare came by means of William Short, an American ambassador and longtime friend of Jefferson. In a letter on October 2, 1808, Short explained to Jefferson that, “I gave a letter of introduction to Mr. Robert Hare Jr.—a young man distinguished for his researches by the chemists of Europe.…The one I introduce to you is a man of merit and a particular friend of mine.”[2]At the time, Hare was 27 and still in the early stages of his career.

His professional successes, however, would be greatly assisted by his father, also named Robert, who had served for many years as a trustee for the University of Pennsylvania.[3] When the Professor of Chemistry position opened at the school in 1818,  Robert Hare Jr. allegedly relied upon his family connections in order to get the job over other applicants who were potentially better equipped for the role.

Dr. Hare was criticized for, “gross folly and manifest insufficiency,”[4] and chemist Thomas Cooper begrudgingly noted that, “It being generally understood that the family influence of Mr. Hare was not [to] be resisted.”[5] The choice of Dr. Hare over other candidates seemed to have spawned animosity, with  one observer remarking that, “I have witnessed the injustice done to Mr. Cooper, by preferring to him a man poor in science, and unfit to increase his capital.”[6]

Dr. Cooper himself ended up working closely with Jefferson in the early stages of founding the University of Virginia and even suggested that Jefferson use Hare’s selection as the Professor of Chemistry as a marketing tool. He wrote that:

I think the present opportunity afforded us by Hare’s election ought not to be lost; but the moment should be taken to appeal to the parents in Virginia, on the strange infatuation of sending their children to be educated here, when they [could] have that better done at home; whether for general or medical education.[7]

In 1824, Jefferson wrote this letter to Dr. Hare asking for advice on what type of scientific equipment the University of Virginia would need for chemistry. In full, the letter reads:

Monticello Mar. 12.24.

Dear Sir

We have been some time preparing buildings for an University in this state, and we have now a prospect of being able to open it with the beginning of next year. It’s Chemical school will need an apparatus adapted to the course of experiments necessary in that school. It is necessary therefore for us to provide them in time, and it must probably be from Europe. But what they are I know not, and in my inland situation is no one from whom I can obtain satisfactory information. The family of science through the world is one, and yourself a well-known and liberal member of it. On that ground I presume to request you to sketch for us a list of the articles, such as you think sufficient and necessary for our purpose; and that you will be so kind as to give me some idea of the probable amount of their cost in Europe, where it is necessary we should place the proper sum for their purchase. It will add important value to your favor if I can receive it by the close of this month or the earliest days of the next, so as to lay it before the visitors of the University, who are then to meet. With my apologies for giving you this trouble I pray you to accept the assurance of my great respect and esteem.

Tho. Jefferson

The same year as this letter, Jefferson was elected to a three-year term as a Counsellor in the American Philosophical Society. Dr. Hare had himself been elected the year previous meaning that the two men were co-counsellors together around the same period that Jefferson wrote for direction on chemistry equipment.[8] Ironically, Hare harbored a, “lifelong disdain for Thomas Jefferson.…He viewed him as a demagogue who promoted democracy, which he equated with violence and social anarchy.”[9]

Despite their differences and disagreements, their correspondence was quite cordial. Dr. Hare responded to Jefferson only eleven days later, explaining that:

I have already applied myself to the undertaking thus requested, but find it attended by some perplexity. The articles used by Chemists are very various, & the cost varies with the size & the finish. I use many articles made in my own laboratory of the cost of which I have no account. I will however do the best I can to inform you.[10]

On March 31, Hare sent another letter with the promised list of recommended supplies, noting that, “Upon the whole, I should suppose about $2000 dollars would be a competent provision, for the requisite expenditure.”[11]

On April 10, Jefferson thanked Dr. Hare for his letters saying, “I am very thankful to you, Dear Sir, for the kindness with which you have attended to my late request. I did not mean to give you so much trouble as you have been so good as to take, altho’ it’s fruits are most acceptable and valuable.”[12]

Amazingly, one of the chemistry furnaces built by Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia was rediscovered in 2015 after having been covered up in the 1850s. It is considered to be the, “oldest intact example of early chemical education in this country.”[13]

[1] William Writ, A Discourse on the Lives and Characters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (Washington: Gales & Seaton, 1826), 68. Here.

[2] William Short, “To Thomas Jefferson,” October 2, 1808, Founders Archive (accessed February 16, 2022): 

[3] “Robert Hare, 1752-1811,” Penn University Archives and Record Center (accessed February 1, 2022):

[4] Thomas Cooper, “To Thomas Jefferson,” April 19, 1818, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 12.647. Here.

[5] Thomas Cooper, “To Thomas Jefferson,” September 1, 1818, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 13.255. Here.

[6] José Corrêa da Serra, “To Thomas Jefferson,” September 16, 1818, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 13.284. Here.

[7] Thomas Cooper, “To Thomas Jefferson,” September 3, 1818, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 13.270. Here.

[8] Transactions of the American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge (Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1825), 2.v. Here.

[9] Timothy Kneeland, “Robert Hare: Politics, Science, and Spiritualism in the Early Republic,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 132, No. 3 (July 2008), 247-248. Here.

[10] Robert Hare, “To Thomas Jefferson,” March 23, 1824, Founders Online (accessed February 17, 2022):

[11] Robert Hare, “To Thomas Jefferson,” March 31, 1824, Founders Online (accessed February 17, 2022):

[12] Thomas Jefferson, “To Robert Hare,” April 10, 1824, Founders Online (accessed February 17, 2022):

[13] Matt Kelly, “Jeffersonian-Era Chemistry Hearth Preserved in Rotunda Wall,” UVA Today (October 13, 2015):

Leave a Reply