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Nice Work If You Can Get It

July 2024
1min read

When John Trumbull, the celebrated artist of the American Revolution, was living in London in 1789, he received this pleasant message from an acquaintance in Paris: “If he [William Short] goes, would you like his office of private secretary? It’s duties consist almost solely in copying papers, and were you to do this yourself it would only occupy now and then one of your evenings: and if you did not chuse to do it yourself, you can hire it for so many sous a sheet. … The salary is 300 pounds sterling a year which is paid by the public. I have given Mr. Short his lodgings and board, and should do the same to you with great pleasure. I think it will not take a moment of your time from your present pursuit. Perhaps it might advantage that by transferring it for a while to Paris, and perhaps it may give you an opportunity of going to Italy; as your duties performed by another during your absence would cost a very little part of your salary. Think of this proposition, my dear Sir, and give me your answer as soon as you can decide to your satisfaction. …”

The writer of this “proposition” was Thomas Jefferson, then United States minister to France—a man not usually given to regarding a public office as a public trough, yet withal a realist and, obviously, a generous friend. Trumbull was never to enjoy the proffered plum, however: William Short—perhaps because he had fallen madly in love with the young wife of an amiable duke, or perhaps because Jefferson had made him realize the remarkable merits of his positionstayed on.

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