1832: James Wadsworth to William Davies Sohier

Dr. Thomas Chalmers, ca. 1845

This lettter was written by James Wadsworth (1768-1844) an influential and prominent 18th and 19th century pioneer, educator, land speculator, agriculturalist, businessman, and community leader of the early Genesee Valley settlements in Western New York State. He was the patriarch of the prominent Genesee Valley Wadsworths. His long and illustrious career is too long to capture here. This particular letter pertains to his interest in social issues and centers upon one of his favorite subjects — political economy, the study of the conditions under which production or consumption within limited parameters is organized. Specifically, the letter contains a reaction to the recently published article written by Dr. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), a Scottish minister, entitled Political Economy, wherein Chalmers argued that “the right economic condition of the masses was dependent on their right moral condition, so that character is the parent of comfort, not vice versa.”

Wadsworth wrote the letter to William Davies Sohier (1787-1868), the son of Edward and May (Davies) Sohier. “He attended Harvard University where he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and graduated with his B.A. in 1805. In 1808, he graduated from Yale University with a master’s degree. Once he had finished college, he joined the same profession as his father and became a lawyer. It is unclear if he had any legal partners at his firm, however there are many documents where he is listed with other lawyers, most notably Edward Tuckerman. He also had direct dealings with Andrew Brimmer and his family.” [Source: Sohier Family Business Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society]

Stampless Letter

Addressed to William D. Sohier, Esq., Boston, Massachusetts

Geneseo [New York]
15 December 1832

Dear Sir,

It has occurred to me that you & Col. Apthorp would be gratified in reading the aricle on Doctor [Thomas] Chalmer’s late work published in the ‘Rochester Republican’ & written by Mr. Whitehouse. To take away all surprise, I will immediately explain how I came by it. On my return from Albany, I fell in company with Mr. White, a parishioner of Mr. Whitehouse & sent by him to the Rev’d Mr. Penney & the Rev’d Mr. Whitehouse ¹ a copy of Dr. Chalmer’s recent work. To my astonishment a few days since, I received a polite note from Mr. Whitehouse with the paper which I enclose to you. The article is certainly written with a good deal of ability for the Order. It shows very commendable research and what is more important, it shows native kindliness of feeling. The Chinese say that constitutional virtues are the best virtues. The manner in which he speaks of A[dam] Smith & [Benjamin] Franklin indicates good temper. Smith has never been forgiven by the Order for speaking the truth of [David] Hume.

If I do not greatly miscalculate, Chalmer’s work will cause a stir in the Episcopalian & Presbyterian camps. The people will not much longer give full credence to the declaration — however fervently repeated — that the machinery of a mill is better for having been made 200 years ago. I should like very much to have the article alluded to published in one of your papers with the words ‘Geneseo’ omitted. It will excite attention to the work which is written with consummate ability, and ought to be read by every citizen of the United States. The Doctor is wrong in several particulars, but it would be cruel to blame him for standing up for his Order. I say to you in entire friendship that, in my opinion, Boston suffers much for not attending more to Political Economy — it is the master science. Political Economy reveals the laws which God has ordained for the government of the secular concerns of man.

You will please return Mr. Whitehouse’s article or send me a copy as I think, when more at leisure, I shall write him an answer. I avail myself of this occasion to present my respectful regards to your lady, Col. Apthorp & your family.

I am respectfully & truly your obediatent servant, — James Wadsworth


Bishop John Henry Whitehouse

¹ This may have been Rev. John Henry Whitehouse (1803-1874) who eventually became a Bishop in the Episcopal Church in Illinois.


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