Isaac Briggs (1763-1825)
MSA SC 3520-15898
Born in Haverford, Pennsylvania in 1763. Son of Samuel and Mary Briggs. University of Pennsylvania, B.A. (1783); M.A., engineering (1786). Married Hannah Brooke on August 27, 1794. Eight children: Anna Briggs (b. 1796); Mary Brooke Briggs (b. 1798); Deborah Briggs (b. 1799); Sarah Bentley Briggs (b. 1801); Isaac Briggs Jr. (b. 1803); Elizabeth Briggs (1807-1865); Margaret Briggs (b. 1812); William Henry Briggs (b. 1815). Died near Sandy Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland, on January 5, 1825.
Isaac Briggs was a nationally renowned engineer, surveyor, and champion of domestic agriculture and manufacturing. He was the Surveyor General of the Mississippi Territory in the first decade of the nineteenth century as well as the chief surveyor of the post road which led from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana. Later, he was one of the chief engineers of the Erie Canal in New York and the James River and Kanawha Canal in Virginia. Briggs was also one of the co-founders of the American Board of Agriculture (the forerunner to the United States Department of Agriculture), along with President James Madison. In addition to this wide scope of employment with the federal government, Briggs also played a crucial role in establishing the mill town of Triadelphia in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Isaac was born in Haverford, Pennsylvania, the son of Samuel and Mary Briggs, both devout Quakers.1 Isaac attended the College of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania), where he studied a wide range of topics including mathematics, engineering, astronomy, and surveying. Isaac was a highly intelligent student. He even received notice in the press for speeches he gave "on the nature of government; illustrating the distinguishing excellencies of [democracy]; with observations immediately respecting the United States." He completed a bachelor's degree in 1783 and a master's of arts degree in 1786.2 The skills that he had developed over the course of his studies were invaluable and would help escalate Briggs into the national spotlight.
Shortly after receiving his master's degree in Philadelphia, Briggs began moving around the country in pursuit of varying business interests. Immediately after his graduation, he relocated to Georgia where he initially worked as a teaching assistant at the Richmond Academy in Augusta.3 Briggs also served as the secretary to the Georgia State Constitutional ratifying convention in 1787, a position which required status and political connections.4 While in Georgia, Briggs also put his bright mind to work helping to develop an early steamboat engine, almost two decades before Robert Fulton famously invented the first steamboat. In 1788, the State of Georgia issued Briggs and a man named William Longstreet a patent for their engine.5 A year later, Briggs ran for election to one of Georgia's seats in the new federal government's House of Representatives. He lost overwhelmingly, receiving only forty-two votes.6 That same year, it appears that Briggs began having money problems: his name appeared on lists of Georgia residents who had failed to pay their debts and some of his lands were seized and sold at auction to account for his missed payments. It was not long after these failures that Briggs moved once more, this time to Georgetown in the District of Columbia.7
While in Georgetown, Isaac became a printer and attempted to invest in a nail factory, a plan which never seems to have come to fruition. His prior lack of success began to change in Georgetown. In 1791, Briggs, along with such famed mathematicians and engineers as Benjamin Banneker, Andrew Ellicott, and Pierre L'Enfant, helped survey and designate the boundaries of Washington, D.C.8 During his stay in Georgetown Briggs became familiar with the local Quaker community in Sandy Spring, Maryland. In April, 1794, he became a member of the community's Quaker meeting at Sandy Spring. While in the area, he met Hannah Brooke, a Sandy Spring member and the daughter of wealthy landowner Roger Brooke IV of Montgomery County, Maryland. The two married on August 27, 1794 and established their family home, Sharon, just outside of Brookeville, Maryland. Briggs' marriage would introduce him into a family with members of great wealth and notoriety, including Caleb Bentley, Thomas Moore, and Richard Thomas Jr., all of whom became Briggs' brothers-in law.9
In 1796, Isaac was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society, an organization dedicated to promoting the inspired ideas of America's elite thinkers as well as recognizing their accomplishments. This organization boasted such members as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Brookeville resident Thomas Moore.10 Isaac's induction into this honorific society provided valuable relationships for Briggs and would afford him several major opportunities throughout his lifetime. During the years after his induction into the American Philosophical Society, Briggs focused much of his attention on the state of agriculture in the United States. Starting in 1797, he began compiling and publishing almanacs and astronomical data for the use of American farmers. These almanacs contained information on astronomy, weather, and new agricultural techniques. They were distributed throughout the country and proved to be very useful for the advancement of agricultural knowledge.11
In 1803, only a few years after gaining recognition from his almanacs, Briggs became part of a team which would play a major and lasting role in the agricultural sphere. He and other men devoted to the cause of agriculture founded a society to promote their interests. The most-notable figure in this team was future President James Madison, who was Secretary of State at the time. With the ratification of a constitution in January of 1803, Briggs and others founded the American Board of Agriculture (ABA). The ABA was dedicated to advancing agrarian knowledge and skills to what Briggs believed to be a relatively uneducated mass of American farmers who were laden with ignorance and indolence. The organization planned to do this by first compiling volumes of information pertaining to the most-current methods and tools of American farming and making this information publicly available. The board sought to propose new methods which would streamline agricultural production and create better farming techniques.12
In addition to farming, Briggs and the other founders of the ABA hoped that the advancement of American agriculture could lead to the strengthening of domestic manufacturing. Briggs feared that the observed trend towards increased importation of goods from Europe would continue to weaken domestic manufacturing and would eventually cause the United States' economy to collapse completely. Briggs' dedication to domestic manufacturing would continue for many years, and he played roles in founding not only the ABA, but other groups such as the Delaware Manufacturing Society, which was solely dedicated to the advancement of domestic manufacturing.13In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Briggs to be the Surveyor General of the lands newly acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. In this important position, Briggs had the duty of exploring and surveying the lands south of the state of Tennessee: modern-day Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.14 President Jefferson also tasked Briggs with laying out the path for a post road which circumvented the Appalachian Mountains and allowed easy travel from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana.15 Briggs accepted the appointment, although it would prove to be somewhat troublesome over the next several years.16 In addition to Briggs' political and personal difficulties while in the Mississippi Territory, Congress refused to pay him for some of his work and even sued him to repay over $9,000 in expenses from the trip.17 In the midst of this trouble, Briggs' close relationship with Thomas Jefferson proved useful. Jefferson not only paid Briggs $400 out of his own personal accounts, but he wrote to the Treasury Department to settle Briggs' enormous debt.18 Jefferson's freely-given aid is a testament to the intimate relationship between the two men. Isaac continued to correspond with Jefferson on both a personal and business level and was even invited to dine and stay with him on several occasions during and after his presidency. Briggs was also personal friends with President James Madison whose political connections also proved useful.19
Upon his return from the Mississippi venture after 1805, Briggs continued to advocate for domestic industry. In 1808, he wrote to Jefferson, stating that he had been studiously seeking out all of the tools required for cotton manufacturing. Along with his brothers-in-law, Caleb Bentley and Thomas Moore, Briggs founded the mill town of Triadelphia in 1809. The town consisted of a cotton mill, several stores, a blacksmith shop, and several residences for the mill workers and their families.20 Briggs served as the company's first overseer and was one of the venture's most-active partners. The mill at Triadelphia, unfortunately, was generally unsuccessful. Briggs wrote that "the establishment was conducted and managed by me, for no other compensation than a share of the profits. This compensation, at the conclusion of the year 1814 was nothing."21 Briggs was forced to leave his failing business in the hands of Thomas Moore and Caleb Bentley and relocate with his entire family to Delaware, where he worked as superintendent of Thomas Little & Company, a textile mill in Wilmington.22
In 1818, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton appointed Briggs to serve as the chief engineer of the eastern portion of the Erie Canal, which ran from Rome to Utica in New York State. During this period, Briggs spent time conducting both personal visits and business meetings with several prominent figures of the time. He met frequently with Governor Clinton during the canal's construction to give him periodic progress reports and to develop a closer personal relationship. In letters to his family, Briggs described the enjoyable and reminiscent conversations that the two would have about their wives and children.23 Briggs also met with Andrew Ellicott, one of his co-surveyors of the boundaries of Washington, D.C. Ellicott took Briggs on a tour of the West Point Military Academy, which Briggs described as having "the best scientific library, as I believe, in the United States.”24
After his work on the Erie Canal was completed in January of 1819, Briggs returned home to his family, although only for a very short period of time. By March, his friend and neighbor Thomas Moore, then the Principal Engineer of the Virginia Board of Public Works, appointed Briggs as one of the chief engineers of the James River and Kanawha Canal. The canal was intended to stretch from the Ohio River to Richmond, but was laden with trouble from the onset. Although Briggs was appointed Principal Engineer after Moore's death in 1822, he would eventually return home, unsuccessful in completing any major portion of the canal.25
Even though Briggs' work kept him away from his home for
months or even years at a
he had a profound and deep love for every member of his family. Because
of his frequent absence, Briggs implored his family to write him as
as possible, preferably once per week. Briggs wrote often
about the recurring dreams that he would have about his family,
and how it made him pine for the day when he could return home to them.
He often expressed his
desire for his wife Hannah to come visit and lamented that he could not
home for even a brief time. When Briggs wrote to his children, he
always provided them with
valuable life lessons. He stressed the importance that every
child attend school and stay up to date with their learning, made sure
that his sons were working hard on the farm, and
ensured that his family was well provided for. One of the most
frequently occurring pieces of advice that Isaac would
offer his children was to remember their faith and to practice it to
the best of their abilities.26
Briggs was an extremely devout member of the Society of Friends. In his personal correspondence he frequently included passages from the Bible as well as his own thoughts on Quaker theology. In keeping with Quaker ideology, Isaac was an avid supporter of abolitionism. Briggs never owned slaves, and in his youth, he wrote that, "I have but one reason... against slavery and that is I would not be a slave myself, if I could avoid it; & was it my hard fortune to be made a slave of, I would make use of... the first means in my power to liberate myself."29 While young Briggs' anti-slavery rational is not typical of the morality arguments generally penned by Quakers, his faith certainly influenced his opinion of slave holding. Briggs was a member of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and of an anti-slavery society in Wilmington, Delaware, in which he actively supported freed members of his community who were at risk of being kidnapped and sold back into slavery.28
Like other Quakers, Briggs greatly valued the importance of thrift and simplicity, reminding his family to spend as little money as possible. The house that Briggs built on his family estate, known as "Sharon," was rather small compared to the homes of his colleagues, who were equally as wealthy as he was. This moderation was seemingly intentional, as Briggs was a firm believer in avoiding excess and vanity.
Briggs was not a perfect Quaker, however. Despite the religious meeting's recommendation that its members refrain from participating in politics, Briggs was an active political commentator and lobbyist. And as "a sound republican," Briggs violated the meeting's prescriptions in a serious way. In 1823, he explicitly disregarded the Society's rules against running for, or holding public office when he ran for a spot in the Montgomery County delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates. Briggs, a Democratic-Republican lost that election to Federalist candidates who had carried elections in Montgomery County for previous decades.29 Even though Isaac's campaign for office violated the meeting's rules, the Sandy Spring meeting never punished him for his actions, perhaps indicating the influence he held in his community.
Another quality that Isaac possessed which was somewhat contradictory to Quaker ideals was his propensity towards self-righteousness. There were numerous instances in his correspondence that have a distinct air of egotism, where he vaunted of the respect he had earned through his publications, as well as his reputation as a renowned man of science. In one particular letter to his wife, he boasted that his employees at the Erie Canal, "mostly made up of Irishmen... all love me as a father, and are never so happy as when they have an opportunity of waiting on me."30
While working on the canal in Virginia, Isaac fell ill with what is presumed to be typhoid fever. By the summer of 1824, he was confined to a home in Waterford, Virginia, essentially unable to remove himself from his bed. Eventually, he was able to return to his home and family at "Sharon," where he died on January 5, 1825.31 By the time of his death, Briggs had become highly respected not only by his community, but by the inner circles of the Founding Fathers of the United States and several nationally renowned individuals as a highly skilled, extremely intelligent, kind, and generous person. His obituary venerated him in a very suitable manner, describing him as "a man of a strong mind much improved by a sedulous devotion to scientific subject; clear in his conceptions, and simple in his style of expression; in his manner, kind and [understanding]."32
Kyle Bacon, DAR Research Fellow, 2012; Megan O'Hern, 2013.
to Isaac Briggs' Introductory Page
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