UC’s First Thesis Comes Home to UC Libraries

Eaton family gives historic documents, including letter from Thomas Jefferson, to UC Libraries

CINCINNATI – Thursday, July 21, 2016 – The University of Cincinnati Libraries today received the thesis of John Hough James, the first graduate of Cincinnati College, now the University of Cincinnati. In addition to the thesis, UC Libraries received associated research materials, including an 1820 letter from Thomas Jefferson. The rare gift comes from siblings Russell Eaton III, James M. Eaton and Frances Eaton Millhouser, the great-great-grandchildren of John Hough James.

“My siblings and I are pleased to present to the University of Cincinnati our cherished family possessions of John Hough James (JHJ), our great, great, grandfather, the valedictorian of the university's first class. These possessions include an 1820 letter from Thomas Jefferson to JHJ containing requested source material for his senior thesis, his hand-written thesis booklet and his membership in a local volunteer fire company,” Russell Eaton said.

The thesis focuses on the life of General Thaddeus Kościuszko, a Polish-Lithuanian military hero who also served on the American side of the American Revolutionary War. Jefferson once wrote about Kościuszko, “He is as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” During his thesis research, James wrote to Jefferson requesting information about Kościuszko and received a one-page letter in response.

“These items are a wonderful addition to the UC Libraries because they represent the important early history of the university as well as Jefferson’s place in the history of the United States,” said Dean and University Librarian Xuemao Wang. “John James’ diploma – the first diploma issued by the university – is on permanent exhibit in the Archives and Rare Books reading room. For us to include Thomas Jefferson’s letter in response to Mr. James’ query about his thesis is a remarkable moment in our heritage.”

The historic materials have resided with the Eaton family for several generations. The treasures now will be preserved in UC’s Archives and Rare Books Library in Blegen Library. The letter from Jefferson is only the second to be housed at UC Libraries.

“We have always considered ourselves, custodians of these items, and we would ultimately return them to the university. We feel strongly that this is the appropriate time for these gifts to be reunited with JHJ's diploma, which our father presented to President Walter Langsam nearly 50 years ago. Furthermore, our enjoyment is complete knowing that all of our gifts are in the university's very safe hands and will be enjoyed by the UC community,” Russell Eaton said.
The collection was officially turned over to UC Libraries during a celebration this morning in Blegen Library. Members of the Eaton family and university leaders were in attendance.

“Thank you to the Eaton family for ensuring the preservation of such a rich piece of the university’s – and country’s – history,” said UC Foundation President Rodney Grabowski. “Their family treasure will be cherished and protected to maintain the legacy of their great-great-grandfather who has the distinction of being UC’s first graduate. The UC community is grateful for their generosity.”

UC Faculty Comment on Significance of Jefferson Letter

“The Jefferson letter reveals to us that the former president, in his late 70s in 1820, was still firmly engaged in scholarship, assisting another historian in his work on a biography of Thaddeus Kościuszko, the Polish general who served ably in the American Revolution,” said John McNay, PhD, department chair and professor of history at UC Blue Ash. “Jefferson's modesty is also apparent as he honestly reports that he had had little personal involvement with Kościuszko during the Revolution and thus could not provide any first-hand knowledge himself. As a figure who has gained almost mythical status today because of his central importance in American history and his work on the Declaration of Independence, there is something very humanizing about his reaching out a helping hand to James, this young student of history.”

“Though he never traveled past Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Thomas Jefferson’s visionary interest in the West was lifelong: framer of the Northwest Ordinance, forger of the Louisiana Purchase, and founder of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” said Christopher Phillips, PhD, history professor and department head at UC. “Ohio served as first bloom of his ambition for an ‘Empire for Liberty,’ and early institutions of higher learning west of the Appalachians among its proudest results, among them OU, Miami, and UC. This letter only cements that historical relationship, and is a treasure among the university's rich archival collections.”

Thomas Jefferson Letter

Thomas Jefferson Letter

Thomas Jefferson Letter

By Caitlin Whitehurst
Associate Director and Senior Writer, Communications and Marketing
UC Foundation

Email Caitlin
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