To Samuel Phillips Savage Thatcher

    New York City        18 October 1788

    My dear little Philosopher—

    Every day of my life I have reason to regret more & more the want of a detail of the particulars of the actual state of things—From such details usefull knowledge may be drawn; by comparing the state of things at one period, with that of any succeeding, or preceeding one, their actual and comparative situations may be ascertained, while general descriptions leave us in the dark—

    Cities and Towns are generally described by such epithets as these—large, elegant, fine, magnificent &c &c They are sometimes called superlatively, the first as to numbers of Inhabitants—the largest as to extant—the most elegant as to architecture[,] the most magnificent as to its Buildings &c &c in the Kingdom, or nation—or even in the whole world—Houses and other Buildings are not unfrequently depicted by the same terms—But none of these words, or phraises appear to me well calculated to convey any precise or determinate Ideas of the things intended to be described—and consequently very little, if any, information can be gained therefrom—By the various arrangements and composition of these words & phraises, one may make up a very elegant epistle to his friend; but in my humble opinion his correspondent would not be enabled to reason with much precision from the Ideas conveyed therein—I am much inclined to think all descriptions, in vague, general words, have too great a tendency to introduce uncertainty into the mind to be usefull—

    What impression is made upon your mind when you read of Rome’s being the Mistress of the World? or when a pompous declaimer entertains you by telling you the Romans, in the days of the Emperors, were the most luxurious people that ever lived, and the Emperors themselves the most abandonedly cruel? Have you any Ideas of Luxury, or cruelty, from such phraises that you would dare to found an argument upon in reasoning upon the nature of their Government, their Tempers and Dispositions, compared to other Governments and nations?

    Suppose I were to write you, that this is a very large City—its Buildings are elegant and magnificent—that there is an amaising Commerce carried on from this port to the various ports in Europe, India & China—that in its commerce it is second to none upon the Continent except Philadelphia—I repeat my question, what Ideas should you have of this City at this time from the foregoing description? Could you learn the number of its inhabitants—its extant—the number of its Ships—the quantity of their exports or imports—The number, size, or Structure of its houses? Surely no—then wherein are you the more wise for my information? ’Tis true you are informed that there is more commerce carried on from this City than any other, except Philadelphia, in the United States—But of what consequence is this without knowing the details of its Commerce? Would this, of itself, without an accurate knowledge of particulars, influence your plans of Conduct? Can you determine, from this description, the comparative State of this City, its buildings & Commerce at the time of my writing this Letter, and the time of your reading it which will be some where about the year eighteen hundred and four? I again answer—no—Because the same terms, in which I have described it, may then enter into its description, notwithstanding it may, compared to itself, be much larger at one time than the other—

    Since writing the foregoing part of this Letter I have dined, and been over upon Long-Island & walked five, or six miles in the Country & round by the River1—I have drank Tea and it is now half after six—A severe Tempest of Thunder & Lightning is now passing over this City, with Rain—

    On the Island we saw the remains of the War—human bones were strewed over the Ground on several parts of the shore near where the prison Ships were stationed—The skulls were entire2

    Indeed I have almost forgot the subject I was writing upon before I was called to dinner—but I recollect, that when I took my pen and began my Letter I had no other object in view, but to correct an error in the post-Script of a Letter I wrote to your Mamma of the sixteenth instant—I there said there were only eight dwelling houses, in this City, of the heighth of four Story—This is a mistake—there is another regular four story house on the northerly side of Queen street, between Maiden-Lane and Chapple Street—

    You may wonder why I should take the trouble of telling you what number of four-Story-houses there are, at the time of writing this Letter, in this City—especially since it can be of no possible service to you for more than a dozen, or fifteen years hence—But if you are possessed of that kind of curiosity I am—an ardent desire to trace the rise and progress of American Grateness—and to marke the stages of this its advancement at different times, you will set a great value upon the contents of this paper, however trifling it might appear to any at the time of writing it—

    And should this curiosity direct your enquiries to the progress of Luxury in the City of Rome, you will lament that Strabo & Vitruvius3 had not been more particular in their descriptions of the houses of that City, than barely saying they were remarkably high. If Aristides4 had condescended to inform his readers of the number of Stories, and the highth of each Story, it would have afforded more satisfaction to the inquisitive mind, than his hyperbolical description of Rome has done#

    I judge of the estimation you will put upon this Letter & the post-Script. of your Mamma’s of the 16th. instant, by the value I should set upon a similar one wrote twenty, or thirty years ago—

    Adieu, my young Philosopher—from your friend, and Father—

    # Aristides the sophist, in his oration against Rome, sais, that Rome consisted of Cities on the top of cities; and if one were to spread it out, and unfold it, it would cover the whole surface of Italy—See the Note K.K. in Hume’s Essays, Vol. 1.5—a Performance you cannot read with too much attention—And of which, with his other works, ’tis probable I shall say more hereafter—

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    ALS, TFP. Notation in GT’s hand reads, “To Saml P. S. Thatcher / aged 18. or 20—”