William Burwell (Physiognotrace)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Artist/Maker: Charles Fevret de Saint-Memin (1770-1852)[1]

Created: 1806

Materials: engraving

Dimensions: 5.7 (2 1/4 in.)

Provenance: Library of Congress

Historical Notes: Jefferson's secretary William Burwell, a Virginian native, was part of the Presidential "family" from 1804 until 1806. Jefferson described the position as "more in the nature of an Aid de camp, than a mere Secretary."[2] Burwell needed to do very little writing since Jefferson wrote his own letters and copied them b aid of a polygraph. The secretary assisted with the care of his company, the execution of commissions in Washington, messages to Congress, and meetings with particular members of Congress. Burwell was promised a salary of $600 year, a servant to answer his needs, and a horse for his use kept in the stables at the President's House.[3]

Burwell left Jefferson's employ because of his poor health and commitments as a member of Virginia's General Assembly.[4] In 1806 he won a seat in Congress, where he served until his death in 1821. Burwell's support for Jefferson was steadfast, and he led Jefferson's defense in 1805 against the accusations of the journalist James Callender.[5] Jefferson and Burwell maintained a warm personal and political correspondence for years after Jefferson's departure from the President's House.


  1. This article is based on Stein, Worlds, 206.
  2. William Burwell to Thomas Jefferson, September 15, 1805. Thomas Jefferson Papers. Library of Congress. Recipient copy available online. Jefferson to William Burwell, Washington, March 26, 1804. Ibid. Polygraph copy available online.
  3. Jefferson to Burwell, Washington, March 26, 1804. Ibid.
  4. Burwell to Jefferson, January 18, 1805. Recipient copy available online.
  5. Specifically Burwell helped refute accusations surrounding the "Walker Affair." See Malone, Jefferson, 5:14-16. For details on about the affair see Ibid, 1:153-155, 1:447-151, and 4:217-218.

Further Sources