The Norvell Boys Write to the President

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. The first one was from John Norvell dated May 9, 1807, who wrote in part:

“It is well known that your time is employed in more important and beneficial concerns, but it is fondly hoped, that you will find a leisure moment to confer a benefit and favor on a an individual…

It would be a great favor, too, to have your opinion of the manner in which a newspaper, to be most extensively beneficial, should be conducted, as I expect to become the publisher of one for a few years.”

Today is it hard to fathom anyone writing the President of the United States for career advice, let alone a 17 year old boy from Kentucky. Jefferson’s 1807 response to him focused on the value of the press and was his most famous pronouncement on the role of the press in American democracy. Which he did not hold in high esteem at the time.

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.

“Dear Sir

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,

Joshua Norvell

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. Especially since Joshua implied he was “over the hill.”






About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, American Newpapers, John Norvell, Norvell Family History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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