Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to the Speaker of the House of Delegates, 28 May 1781

To the Speaker of the House of Delegates

Charlottesville May 28th. 1781


Since I had the honour of addressing the General Assembly by Letter of the 14th instant I have received a second Letter from the Honble. Major General Greene on the subject of cavalry and another in answer to one I had written communicating to him information I had recived as to the conduct of a particular officer employed by him in impressing, which I transmit herewith.

I also inclose a Letter which I have received since the same date from the Honble. Dudley Digges resigning the office of Member of the Council of State.

Further experience, together with recent information from the Commanding Officer within this State, convince me that something is necessary to be done to enforce the calls of the Executive for militia to attend in the field. Whether the deficiencies of which we have had reason to complain proceeded from any backwardness in the militia themselves or from a want of activity in their principal officers, I do not undertake to decide. The Laws also to which they are Subject while in the field seem scarcely coercive enough for a state of war.

The Commanding Officer also represents that great evils and dangers are to be apprehended from the total want of authority of the military power over citizens within the vicinities of his and of the enemy’s encampments. Many of them tho’ well disposed are led by an attachment to their property to remain within the power of the enemy, and are then compelled to furnish horses, procure provisions, serve as guides and to perform other offices in aid of their operations: while others of unfriendly disposition become spies and intelligencers and if taken in the very fact are not subject to that speedy justice which alone can effectually deter. He supposes that the lives of our soldiers and citizens entrusted to his care might be rendered much more secure by some legal provision against the unrestrained right of passing to and fro in the neighborhood of the encampments and by subjecting the inhabitants within some certain distance to such immediate trial and punishment for leading attempts against the safety of our army or in aid of that of our enemies, as the rights of the citizens on the one hand and necessities of war on the other may safely admit. I have the honor to be with very great respect Sir your mo: obt & mo: hble. servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (Vi); in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ; endorsed: “Governor’s Letter May 28th: 1781. Stating sundry Matters May 28th. 1781. Referred to Committee of whole on State of Commw.” FC (Vi); at head of text: “The Speaker of the House of Delegates.” Enclosures (now separated from RC): Copies of Nathanael Greene’s letters to TJ of 28 and 30 Apr. 1781 and Dudley Digges to TJ, 14 May 1781.

Since … addressing the general assembly by letter of the 14th instant: This must have been an error on TJ’s part, and may have been caused by the fact that he had before him Digges’ letter of the 14th which he enclosed with this (and the date of which TJ himself inserted, perhaps at this time); he must have been referring to his letter to the speaker of the House of 10 May. Endorsements of both letters (10 and 28 May) show that they were referred to the committee of the whole, but there is a reference to only one letter from TJ in the proceedings of the House of 28 May (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , May 1781, 1828 edn., p. 5), perhaps because the present letter was considered as a supplement to that of 10 May. It is possible that at this time TJ transmitted other letters to the speaker of the House, either as enclosures with the present letter or without covering letters. For example, on 28 May the speaker presented a letter from George Washington; this may have been Washington’s letter of 16 May to TJ (same, p. 4). Also, on the same day, the speaker “communicated to the House a letter from John Walker, Esq. addressed to his excellency the Governor, containing information respecting the enemy, and stating the desire of the honorable Major General Marquis de La Fayette on the subject of impressing horses” (same, p. 4–5). This letter from Walker to TJ has not been found, but it was written on 25 May (see TJ to Lafayette, 29 May). It is possible, too, that TJ’s reference to Further experience, together with information from the commanding officer, meant that he enclosed Lafayette’s letter of 26 May. See Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends x, 411, for an Act establishing martial law within 20 miles of the American army, no doubt adopted in pursuance of TJ’s advice.

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