As I have worked on my family history for many years now, it has been fun to come across those biographical subjects again – sometimes right in the midst of my own family. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have been counted among the intimate friends of two different branches of my family – the Flemings and the Frys. The Fry – Jefferson Map, published in 1755 by my grandfather Joshua Fry and his friend Peter Jefferson (father of the president), is a frequently referenced historical document. But, the friendship of Thomas Jefferson and my grandfather William Fleming is a bit more obscure.
I recently had the opportunity to read through more than twenty letters exchanged between my grandfather William Fleming, and the statesman and US president, Thomas Jefferson. These were located at the Founders Online website. Several of the Fleming – Jefferson letters have been reprinted in the past - in “The Southern Literary Messenger” and in the Virginia Magazine of History.
The earliest letters, dated in 1763-64, followed shortly after their graduation from William and Mary College. William Fleming was an older student of the college, being about age twenty-six when he finished his course of study. These early letters point to the close friendship that existed between them:
From a crowd of disagreeable companions, among whom I have spent three or four of the most tedious hours of my life, I retire into Gunn's bedchamber to converse in black and white with an absent friend. I
heartily wish you were here that I might converse with a Christian once more before I die: for die I must this night unless I should be relieved by the arrival of some sociable fellow, but I will now endeavor to forget my present sufferings and think of what is more agreeable to both of us.
Jefferson goes on to tout the fine qualities of several lovely ladies he has recently visited. Both men are still bachelors in 1764. But, Tom has a proposal for Will Fleming:
dear Will I have thought of the cleverest plan of life that can be imagined, you exchange your land for
Edgehill, or I mine for Fairfields, you marry S — y P — r, I marry R — a B — l [Rebecca Burwell], join and get a pole chair and a pair of keen horses, practise the law in the same courts, and drive about to all the dances in the country together. How do you like it? . . . I am dear Will
A similar letter follows a few weeks later, mentioning an upcoming Ball, a silk suit from Tom Randolph, and again - the romances among their friends, and the ladies William Fleming is “courting”.
No further letters appear in the archives until almost ten years later, in 1773. By this point in time, the two friends have wed, become fathers, and are establishing homes – Jefferson at Monticello and Fleming at Summerville, outside of Richmond Virginia. Both men are serving in the Virginia House of Burgess, and will go on to serve in the Continental Congress. They continue a correspondence throughout their joint lifetimes, but the tenor of their later letters is less intimate, and relates to their shared interest in the direction of their state and nation, and the various tasks before them.
William Fleming and Thomas Jefferson were both avid readers, and the letters suggest that Fleming regularly moved, loaned, or secured books for Jefferson :
[Williamsburg, June 1776] Purdie has promised to pack up your books, and Colo. Tom to carry them to Tuckahoe. He this day told me you desired him to enquire, of me, something about Vatels law of nations. You did not mention it in your letter to me. I can lend you a copy for a few months when you return to Virginia. I am Dr. Sr. yr. friend & serv., Wm. Fleming
[Philadelphia, August 1779; in the hand of William Fleming] I have procured all the books you wrote for except Erasmus, which is not to be had in this place. They will be sent to Wmsburg. I shall remain here ’til the 15th. of Sept. and hope to be favored with a letter by the gentleman who will be the bearer of this. I enclose for your amusement Dunlap’s paper of yesterday which contains some important news, and much private Scandal.
Letters in 1781 and 1809 mention William Fleming’s planned visits to Monticello, and we know from other sources, that both men exchanged visits in the home of the other. Martha Markham, a grand-daughter of William Fleming, supplies a brief story in her 1904 letter:
Summerville was the name of his [William Fleming’s] home twelve miles from Richmond. The day that Cornwallis reached Richmond, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were dining with my grandfather, just as they were seated at the table a courier arrived announcing the arrival [illegible phrase]. My mother said all the gentlemen dropped knives and forks and rushed on to that place.
In the year 1796 William Fleming sent Thomas Jefferson his reflections on a trip he made to Kentucky:
I herewith send you a geographical sketch of the several counties in the state of Kentucky, in which, I doubt not, there are many inaccuracies, as I had but little leisure to attend to the subject . . I was at eleven of their county courthouses, and at Danville, where one of their district courts is held; and what is stated from my own observation, I think, tolerably correct . . .
A few years later, in 1809, William Fleming sent along another treasure, and Jefferson responded from Monticello:
I send you by mail the rattle of a snake which capt Mann, who presented it to me, said was six feet and a half long; and, from the length of the rattle, I have no doubt but his information was correct . . .
I have recieved safely the extraordinary rattle of the rattle snake, as also the leav foliage of the Alleghaney Martagon - a plant of so much beauty & fragrance will be a valuable addition to our flower gardens.
The friendship of William Fleming and Thomas Jefferson existed over a period of almost sixty-five years. It came to a close when William Fleming died in February of 1824. Jefferson died two years later in 1826.
The final documented letter of William Fleming to Thomas Jefferson was exchanged in July of 1823. Fleming compliments Jefferson on the establishment of the University of Virginia:
I rejoice to hear of the prosperous advancement of the University; and earnestly hope that the legislature of Virginia will never suffer so noble, & interesting an institution to languish, through prejudice, or parsimony: though, being in the eighty eighth year of my age, I shall probably not live to witness the consummation of the establishment: but it will undoubtedly prove a great blessing to our posterity; and may possibly tend in a measure, to preserve, & perpetuate the union of the States; and it will, at least, reflect honour on the Ancient Dominion; and especially on its founders, who have hitherto been, & will no doubt, continue to be its Zealous patrons . . .
I have the honour to be, with the highest consideration and regard, dear sir, your Old friend, & obedient servt
Wm J. Fleming
For more details on William Fleming, visit his page at the Markham of Chesterfield website.
Founders Online is an official website of the U.S. government, administered by the National Archives and Records Administration through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), in partnership with the University of Virginia Press, which is hosting this website.
The Journal of Gilcrease Museum,16.2; Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Thomas Jefferson, Kimberly Roblin. The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, owns a manuscript letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Fleming written on July 1, 1776, when Jefferson was attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Jefferson met Fleming when they roomed together at the College of William and Mary and they maintained a lifelong friendship and correspondence.
About the photo:
"The presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress."; Edward Savage, engraver, based on painting by Robert Edge Pine; Library of Congress.
Moving back in time: Aubin Markham Fry, 1877 > Eliza Brooks Hutchins, 1844 > Aubin Maria Markham, 1817 > Lucy Champe Fleming, 1776 > William Fleming, 1736.
William Fleming is my 5th great-grandfather.