Americans today view their president for the most part as a distant figure, protected by the secret service, and for the most part unreachable. It is surprising then to note that in the 19th century, Americans often wrote to the chief executive asking for jobs or advice on how to conduct their lives.
Two such letters were sent to Thomas Jefferson by members of the same family.
In the first case, Jefferson’s 1807 response to John Norvell on the value of the press, became his most famous prouncement on the role of the press in American democracy. Given John’s success in reaching Mr. Jefferson and luck in getting an answer, his younger brother Joshua Norvell wrote to Jefferson in 1808 asking for a job.
To Thomas Jefferson from Joshua Norvell
Lancaster, Kentucky, Nov. 30, 1808.
This may at first excite your surprize: but when you see its contents, I am more than certain that you will feel for my situation.
Knowing that you are about to retire from the cares of the nation; and seek repose and happiness in the bosom of private and rural life, I have taken upon myself to ask a favor; which, if granted, will throw me under every obligation conceivable. Having always had an anxious desire to acquire knowledge, and never yet having had means to effect that desire, I have formed a plan, which if carried into execution, will serve every purpose. As old age and bodily decay have naturrally crept on you, I have thought it probable, that after you remove to Monticello, you may want some person to execute your writing, and other little things which may not be convenient for you to attend to. If this should be the case, I would freely come after the session of congress is over, and assist you in every department of which I am capable; and throw myself into your hands for instruction in such subjects as you thought proper to give it, and such clothing &c. as you deemed necessary. I am, to be sure, blessed with health sufficient to labor for a subsistence; but a bare subsistence is all that can be obtained in this country by labor. Should I live till the next spring, I will be eighteen years of age. My character is untainted as far as I know, for the truth of which you can enquire of Mr Boyle, a member of Congress from this place. The above contains the substance of my request: I submit my case to your own known generosity. That you may always be happy and prosper, is the sincere prayer of your very Humble Servant,
P.S. If you would write as soon as possible, that I may arrange affairs, I would be more than obliged to you.
Is is not known if Mr. Jefferson responded.
Joshua would go on to be a journalist and frontier politician in Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas. Later, his Missouri friends prevailed upon President Monroe to find him a job. He was nominated as consul to St Bartholomew on Jan 22 1821 and confirmed by the Senate on Feb 5 1821. He was sent to St. Bartholomews as U.S. consul and died, possibly of a ruptured spleen or appendix, at Havana on his way there August 12, 1821.