From John Nicholas, Jr.
Wednesday Morning 3d: Feby 1790
John Nicholas’s compliments to Mr. Jefferson, accompanied by the work he did him the honor of suspecting him of composing while he expressed an inclination to possess it. Observing too that the Work is founded on an opinion of a certain Statesman, in the most essential point, similar to that of Mr. Jefferson’s own, the Author might hope the utmost indulgence from that quarter for the lengths he has gone in order to establish that point. Avarice and a love for popularity seem to be the main charges exhibited in that work; and the personal severities into which he entered appear nothing more than a self-defense of his own character which became severely attacked on the score of verasity. An attempt is made on the margin to give Mr. Jefferson some information, which perhaps, only those who were in this Country when the papers were first published, could have at this day.
RC (MoSHi); endorsed by TJ: “Nicholas, John Jr” and as received 3 Feb. 1790; so recorded in SJL. Enclosure is noted below.
There were at least three persons bearing the name John Nicholas with whom TJ had relations. Each of them lived at one time or another in Albemarle county, two of them have been frequently confused even by competent scholars, and it is therefore important to distinguish their identities with as much accuracy as possible. These three John Nicholases are: (1) John Nicholas, Sr., who was clerk of the Albemarle county court from 1750 to 1792. He married Martha Fry of Williamsburg, becoming thereby the son-in-law of the associate of TJ’s father, Joshua Fry. He was usually known as John Nicholas of Seven Islands, but TJ referred to him as John Nicholas, Sr. and he will be so designated in this edition. TJ seems always to have had feelings of respect for him, and their legal and neighborly relations over a period of several decades were evidently amicable. (2) John Nicholas of Stafford county (ca. 1763/1764–1819), who was a son of Robert Carter Nicholas and nephew of John Nicholas, Sr. His widowed mother moved to Albemarle county in 1781, and all of her sons—John, George (who as Patrick Henry’s instrumentality moved the resolution calling for an investigation of TJ’s conduct as governor during the period of Arnold’s invasion), Wilson Cary, and Philip Norborne—became active in politics. John was elected with his brother George to the House of Delegates from Albemarle in 1786–1787 (Madison to TJ, 12 May 1786; Currie to TJ, 9 July 1786). He later removed to Stafford county and served continuously in Congress from 1793 to 1801. He was an ardent supporter of TJ, was effective in legislative debate, and, by a curious coincidence, also employed the pseudonym Decius in his attack on the Jay Treaty (“Reflections on Mr. Jay’s Treaty,” The American Remembrancer, Nos. vi and vii [Philadelphia, Mathew Carey, 1795], ii, 118-40, 154-9). He retired from public life in 1801 and in 1803 removed to Geneva, Ontario county, New York, where he died. TJ’s relations with him as a political ally were cordial, and the two men exchanged friendly communications after Nicholas had retired (Nicholas to TJ, 2 Aug. 1807 and 5 Sep. 1808; TJ to Nicholas, 18 Aug. 1807). (3) John Nicholas, Jr. (ca. 1757/1758–1835), who was a son of John Nicholas, Sr. and author of the above letter. He left school about the age of seventeen, raised a company of volunteers among his youthful companions, and rose to the colonelcy of the 10th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line. TJ signed his commission as lieutenant-colonel on 5 June 1780, and placed him in comand of the troops around Richmond during the invasion by Arnold in 1780–1781. Nicholas was also on duty near Westover at the time of the affair there in the spring of 1781 (Vol. 5: 671–705; Vol. 6: 643). He succeeded his father as clerk of court of Albemarle in 1792 and served until 1815 (CVSP description begins William P. Palmer and others, eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers… Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond, Richmond, 1875–1893 description ends , v, 541; Edgar Woods, Albemarle County, Charlottesville, 1901, p. 289–90). (He in turn was succeeded in this office by his son of the same name, but TJ seems to have had no recorded relationships with this John Nicholas.)
It is well known that TJ ultimately came to regard John Nicholas, Jr. as a “malignant neighbor” and as a “miserable scribbler” (TJR description begins Thomas Jefferson Randolph, ed., Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, 1829, 4 vols. description ends , iv, 453; TJ to Monroe, 8 Jan. 1811). But this was after the so-called Langhorne incident of 1797 in which Peter Carr sought to draw Washington out and thus gave Nicholas an opportunity to cast suspicion on TJ as the supposed author of the puerile stratagem (Manning J. Dauer, “The Two John Nicholases: Their Relationship to Washington and Jefferson,” AHR description begins American Historical Review, 1895- description ends , xlv , p. 338–53, with texts of Nicholas’ letters to Washington). In the light of this incident, discreditable alike to Carr and to Nicholas, it is difficult not to accept Randall’s characterization of the latter as “a weak-headed, absurd, busybody, with that restless itching for notoriety which renders a man destitute of ability, sense, or delicacy…and banishes all feeble scruples as to the means. He could cringe, swagger, collect and retail private conversations, play the part of a spy, and fawn on those he had injured. His passion was to get into the newspapers and correspond with eminent men” (Randall, Life description begins Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, N.Y., 1858, 3 vols. description ends , ii, 371). Clearly, the character of John Nicholas, Jr. was not as irreproachable as that of his father or of his cousin. Yet it is important to note that, at the time the above letter was written, TJ appears to have had an opinion of him that was very different from Randall’s or indeed from his own later estimate. Twice in 1789 he thought it worth mentioning to Short that Nicholas had married Louisa Carter of Williamsburg and had brought her to Charlottesville to live (TJ to Short, 9 Feb. and 14 Dec. 1789). When, in 1793, Nicholas wrote TJ asking his assistance in the disposal of property of “your friend, my father,” TJ not only complied but responded in terms indicative of an amicable and even affectionate relationship (Nicholas to TJ, 5 May 1793; TJ to Nicholas, 8 June 1793). Further, it is evidence of a continuing note of confidence that TJ trusted Nicholas enough to reveal to him his own opinion of a certain statesman (Patrick Henry)—an opinion that was in fact consonant with Nicholas’ estimate of Henry’s avarice and love for popularity (e.g., TJ to Wirt, 5 Aug. 1815). Even after the Langhorne incident and after 1811 when Nicholas had endeavored to draw TJ into the newspapers over the matter of the Rivanna canal, TJ readily complied with the request of the “miserable scribbler” to support his petition for a pension. On 9 Nov. 1819 Nicholas appealed to TJ for this purpose, assuming that he would not permit “any mere difference of opinion in minor points of policy” to interfere with such a request. In reply to this TJ professed to have left political differences behind “on quitting Washington; where alone the state of things had, till then, required some attention to them.” He then added, perhaps pointedly: “and could I permit myself to believe that with the change of circumstances a corresponding change had taken place in the peace and good will of my fellow citizens generally, it would indeed be a sweet ingredient in the remaining dregs of life” (Nicholas to TJ, 9 Nov. 1819; TJ to Nicholas, 10 Nov. 1819; Nicholas’ petitions to the General Assembly, 9 Dec. 1819 and 15 Dec. 1824 are in Vi; see also The Statement and substance of a memorial of John Nicholas, presented to the Virginia legislature, 1819–1820: now addressed to them at the opening of their session in December, 1820 [Richmond, 1820]; ironically, according to Nicholas’ petition, another John Nicholas, of Dinwiddie, received his own soldier’s bounty for lands). But in thus complying, TJ cautiously avoided entering upon the details of the controverted military events at the time of Arnold’s raid. Nicholas repeated the inquiry, and again TJ plead the excuse of a failing memory (Nicholas to TJ, 25 Nov. 1819; TJ to Nicholas, 28 Nov. 1819). Few incidents of his life were more precisely fixed in memory than this, to which he recurred again and again, refreshing his recollection by reference to the documents (see Vol. 4: 256–77). But it is evident that he did not then trust Nicholas enough to place facts in his hands that might be distorted or misused in such a way as to bring him into public controversy.
When Nicholas sent him the above letter with a copy of Decius’s letters on the opposition to the new constitution in Virginia, 1789 (Richmond, Augustine Davis, 1789), however, TJ was eagerly receptive to all information about political discussion that had transpired in his absence. He had evidently discussed the pamphlet with Nicholas when the latter brought his father’s letter to Monticello on 15 Jan. 1790 and, presumably, had guessed Nicholas’ part in its authorship and had expressed a desire to own it. The copy that Nicholas enclosed is in DLC and bears on its title-page in TJ’s hand the following: “written by Dr. Montgomery, except the dedication which was by John Nicholas of Albemarle. M.S. notes by John Nicholas” (Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1959, 5 vols. description ends No. 3152). This comment, while adding nothing to the fact communicated in Nicholas’ letter about the marginal notations, raises doubt about the identity of “Dr. Montgomery,” whose name and supposed connection with Decius’s letters TJ may have obtained from Nicholas or from another source. P. L. Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Letterpress Edition, N.Y., 1892–1899, 10 vols. description ends ed., Pamphlets on the constitution of the United States (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1888), p. 415–7, who was able to locate only TJ’s copy of the original edition of the pamphlet, said that he could “find nothing concerning Dr. Montgomery, except that he was a member of the Virginia Convention.” This seemed to implicate James Montgomery, a member of the Virginia Convention from Washington county. But William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry (New York, 1891), p. 439, pointed out that Montgomery voted with the anti-Federalists; he might have noted also that he was not a doctor. Henry accepted Spencer Roane’s identification of the author as John Nicholas, who, as Americanus, had written in defense of the federal constitution in the Virginia Independent Chronicle of 5 and 19 Dec. 1789; but he was still in doubt as to which John Nicholas was involved, though he thought it “very probable” that John Nicholas, Jr. was responsible. Earl G. Swem, “Bibliography of the conventions and constitutions of Virginia,” Virginia State Library, Bulletin, iii (Oct. 1910), No. 230, lists Decius’s letters under James Montgomery, but queries the attribution. Ford saw John Adams’ copy of the Introduction and concise view of Decius’s letters (Richmond, 1818), a 48-page prospectus of the so-called but never-issued third edition, with a note dated 25 Sep. 1818 by “W. S. Shaw Sec. Bost. Athen.” to the effect that it was written by John Nicholas; but Shaw confused John Nicholas, Jr. with the “member of Congress from Virginia now resident in the State of New York” (Swem, same, No. 233, attributes this prospectus of 1818 to John Nicholas, citing Ford). The authorship cannot, therefore, be precisely determined at present, but in view of the present letter, Spencer Roane’s comment, Nicholas’ undoubted connection with the 1818 prospectus, the style and other internal evidence, the vigor of the attack on Henry, and the notation on TJ’s copy, the Editors are inclined to believe that John Nicholas, Jr. was the principal if not the sole author of Decius’s letters. “Dr. Montgomery,” about whom the medical histories seem to be silent, may have been as pseudonymous as John Langhorne, or even created for a similar purpose. But it is implausible to suppose that Nicholas could have written only the dedication: that part, addressed to the printer of Augustine Davis’ Virginia Independent Chronicle in which Decius’s letters appeared, professed to be, and probably was, written by the actual author: “To the Honorable the Assembly of Virginia, The following few imperfect sheets, which are intended, in these unhappy days of aristocratical invasion, to supply the place of a Bill of Rights, and mark out the boundaries of influential rulers, under their own attachment to the liberty of the press, are, with the utmost deference and highest respect, most humbly inscribed, By their faithful and ever devoted friend and humble servant, The Author.”
The first letter appeared on 1 Dec. 1788, and the author announced his intention of exposing “the treachery, hypocrisy, and deceit of some men’s political lives.” In the next the target was narrowed to the sway “of some little tyrant’s despotism, which lurks under the disguise of republican zeal…some ambitious coward … secret, sly, designing hypocrite [exercising]…that power which intrudes itself through the channel of popular deceit, and low cunning; and which is more to be dreaded than every other kind: For it is much more difficult to become a tyrant in the splendid garment of royalty, than to act the despot under the disguise of republican rags; and a man may impose himself on the world by way of buffoon, who cannot represent the majesty of a king.—Were I to draw the picture of a tyrant for this country, it should be very different from that which some others have sketched out. He should be a man in every instance calculated to soothe, and not to threaten the populace; possessing a humiliating, and not an arrogant turn; affecting an entire ignorance and poorness of capacity, and not assuming the superiorities of the illumined; a man whose capacity should be calculated to insinuate itself into the good esteem of others by degrees, and not to surprise them into a compliance on a sudden; whose plainness of manners and meanness of address, first should move our compassion; steal upon our hearts; betray our judgments; and finally run away with the whole of the human composition. Such a man, if such a one there be, whose surprising property it is, after having catched the friendship of numbers, to fix them by his obsequiousness…his praise, his interest, his personal fatigue, adapting his own nature to the juncture of the times…will act the tyrant of this deluded people.” This thinly-veiled hypothetical demagogue scarcely needed identification for TJ, but Nicholas wrote in the margin opposite this passage: “Henry.” In the same letter, which appeared just at the opening of the legislative session of 1788, Decius aimed two barbs at “the political sons of plunder” led by Henry: first, while patriots labored to unshackle the bonds of a tyrant, others hoped to enjoy “his subjects’ property, by the aid of [this word underscored in ink in TJ’s copy:] confiscation‥‥Whole armies of speculators, in troops advancing from the sovereignty of the state, assembled…to scuffle for that property which a kind of legal injustice had made a warrantable plunder…where those who had condemned became purchasers; and those who were purchasers became auditors, under the unbounded appointment of legislators, and fixed scales of depreciation to square with their own contracts‥‥With a statesman’s hand on one side, and a speculator’s on the other, we have already seen the sinking credit of our country bandied into private wealth by such an one” second, “the back lands, under a pretence of accumulating our public revenue, were made a beautiful field for private speculation. Principalities were obtained, in the western world, by those whose happy fortune it was to be at the helm of affairs, before the speculators of inferior rank were even let into the secrets of the plan.” Decius warned that, though these opportunities were past, others might appear: “The same cat which once turned fine lady in the fable, may again turn cat, when another tempting mouse shall offer to his view.” A footnote at this point alluded to the “propositions for opening the Land-Office” and to the debates of the Virginia convention of 1788. A marginal note by Nicholas identified the author: “Old [George] Mason.” Below this appeared the following, also in Nicholas’ hand: “It is not the act of confiscation which the Author here condemns, but the infamous private uses which were made of that public Act. The great man at whom those letters are principally aimed, had actually formed a design, while the law was under contemplation, to possess himself…[of a?] large tract of valuable lands on [last line (p. 15) missing].” Letter III returned to this theme, accused Henry of becoming “associated with a Scotch tory” in land-mongering, employing “his knowledge in caveats, and skill in chicanery, to make his fortune by dispossessing those wretches of their quiet habitations, whose ignorance of titles had made them the objects of his notice.” In the margin opposite this passage TJ wrote: “[David] Ross.”
Decius’ attack was frontal and savage: Henry had given barefaced preference to “the acknowledged enemies to the late revolution” he permitted one political friend to pass a fraudulent account on the state, “while one of the truest patriots in America [in margin in TJ’s hand: “Nelson”]…was ruined for want of a bare reimbursement of what he had actually advanced out of his own private fortune for the promotion of…independence” he “did violence to his natural disposition at the beginning of the war” by taking up arms but soon “withdrew from that unprofitable business” he betrayed “a friendly and confidential correspondence” in the Virginia Convention, employing the “underhanded means…to influence our decisions on this great occasion” by introducing a letter “from Mr. Jefferson to a friend” (see Madison to TJ, 24 July 1788); he had thus basely used the influence of TJ, against whom “he had once stirred up censures and impeachments of the most fatal kind” he had caused a man to be “advanced into the senatorial class of political acquirements, by an anti-federal assembly [in margin in TJ’s hand: “Grayson”], who appears from his own speeches in our state convention to have been only then in the alphabet of his English education” he had caused the Assembly of 1788 to throw obstructions “in the way of a government…adopted by a free and voluntary majority,” thus making themselves “the real enemies of what they would wish to be thought the only friends” he had stood foremost “in opposing the people in their choice of a Madison” by straining invention “to form a district so as to prevent them from choosing him” he and his followers had revealed the principal spring of their opposition to “honest government” by the warmth with which “the payment of the British debts was opposed by some men long before the approach of this new system” that would compel payment, thus provoking the inquiry whether it was “consistent with political or individual honesty for an interested citizen to stand foremost in opposing the payment of those debts” he had shown in the story of “the unfortunate Indian Phoebe and her son” that one who could sell an innocent savage for £100 “would sell the liberties of a whole continent for a larger sum, was it in his power” and, indeed, though “hideous in his outward appearance, but moderate in courage, and slow of motion,” his portrait “might be justly drawn with a fox’s head on a bear’s shoulders, and a mouse’s heart in a wolf’s stomach.” In sum, Henry was “a creature as harmless in reality, as he is vicious in inclination.”
Decius brought other opponents of the new government within the ambit of his attack. One was “a certain gentleman [who] issued his mandates from his own county to another, directing the freeholders how to vote”: he was identified by TJ’s marginalium as “Genl. Edwd. Stephens” and Nicholas amplified the printed information with this note for TJ’s attention: “The Circular Letter alluded to in this paper is said to be one sent by Colo. Wm. Cabell to the freeholders of Albemarle, and the baptist preacher thro’ whom it was made known is said to be a Mr. W. Woods who flattered himself into an opinion of his being a very great man in consequence of the handle which was made of him by certain Leading characters in Virga.” Another passage was, as Nicholas noted in the margin of TJ’s copy, “levelled at Colo. Cabells military son, who since the war has become as consummate a puppy in politics as he was formerly a coward in arms. This Gentn it is said in one of his furious fits of opposition to the new Constitn. most manfully run his sword thro’ the C[onstitution?…].” Decius even aimed a barb at a more elevated opponent of the constitution because he had said that “Speculators, place-hunters, and horse-jockeys composed that infamous body of traitors” who had drafted the federal constitution; in the margin Nicholas wrote: “This part is supposed to be levelled at G. Mayson who in a public speech to the people of Stafford took the method here described to vent his envy and hatred for Genl Washington.”
Such invective contained too much basis in fact—such as the attempt to gerrymander Madison out of Congress; the opposition to payment of British debts; the involvement in land speculation (which had been the subject of such an altercation in the Virginia Convention between Patrick Henry and Nicholas’ cousin George as to indicate “that each had information concerning the investments of the other” [T. P. Abernethy, “George Nicholas,” DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, N.Y., 1928–1936 description ends ]); the appeal to the supporters of paper money; the effort to censure TJ as governor—not to arouse outraged response. Henry treated the letters with silence, but others spoke for him and some, so Decius asserted, spoke “with permission.” A number of these rebuttals were interspersed in Decius’s letters. The first of these was a letter of Juvenal, 20 Jan. 1789, who deplored the “rancour and malevolence” as well as the “indiscriminate slander” of these attacks. In the margin of Juvenal’s reply Nicholas wrote: “Said to be written by a young Irishman in Richmd. who married a niece of Mr. H[enr]y’s.” Juvenal wrote again on 24 Jan. 1789, but Decius was undaunted: he joined his opponents in “lamenting that all virulence and party madness…had not died, as was promised, with the adoption of the Constitution.” “Philo Pat. Pat. Patriae” appeared in defense of Henry in Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, 14 Feb. 1789, and was reprinted in Decius’s letters, where (p. 39) TJ wrote underneath the flattering pseudonym “Patricii Patris” Nicholas added in the margin: “Said to be written by a Mr. J. Pope a kind of mad man, who it is said, by others as well as himself, wrote by Mr. H[enr]y’s particular permission, and who after Decius’s answer to Greenhow’s letter and his xii No. accused his friend of giving him false information and made a recantation in verse in which he acknowledged Decius’s superiority over all his opponents.” Anti-Decius appeared on 10 Feb. 1789, deprecating Decius’ “most wanton, unprovoked, unjust attack on the reputation of an illustrious citizen in this state” in the margin of this rebuttal Nicholas wrote: “Said to be written by John Harvie Esqr.” Letter xix, calling upon Decius to give “a geographical description of the district in which Mr. Madison is chosen,” since according to Decius’ account it must have been distorted “into a thousand excentric angles” this was signed “I W,” which TJ filled out in ink to read “Iohn White” (Letter xxii was also signed “I W” and TJ again completed the name in ink). Junius Brutus attacked Decius as seditious in May 1789, and his piece was printed as Letter xxvi. Neither TJ nor Nicholas identified him in the margin, but the following facts suggest that he may have been William Grayson: (1) Junius Brutus employed a form of argument that Henry had earlier used in a letter to Grayson (quoted below)—that is, that a government should not be judged by the character of the worst elements in society (Junius Brutus had paraphrased this by saying that Henry’s personal characteristics did not suit Decius, and “consequently the federal constitution ought not to be amended, and all the anties are an illiberal, illiterate herd”); (2) Decius had remarked upon Grayson’s illiterate speeches in the Virginia Convention; and (3) Junius Brutus not only hinted that he knew Nicholas was Decius but that—as Henry suggested in the letter to Grayson—his voice was encouraged by others: “you [Decius] are a credit to your country, and ought to be supported from Buckingham, as well as from a country that joins it to the north”—an evident allusion to the county of Nicholas’ birth and to the party of Madison and TJ north of it. Junius Brutus wrote another piece in July 1789 (Letter xxx) and affected not to know or care who Decius was, but at the same time intimated that he did know by expressing doubt concerning Decius’ asserted service in the military during the war and by saying that he as well as others knew how Decius had obtained the story of Indian Phoebe and her son. Philo-Decius wrote in June 1789 (Letter xxix), defending Decius and adding to the list of charges against Henry that of looking favorably upon the idea of a “dictatorial despotism—thinking no doubt that the same favor which made him governor, would shade his brows with a dictator’s laurels” (Philo-Decius is not identified by Nicholas or TJ, and may have been Decius himself).
The number and character of the rebuttals show that Decius’ barbs found the mark, though they failed in the polemicist’s determined effort to draw Henry himself into combat. In Letter xxx Decius declared that Henry’s cause was “not quite so bad as his advocates had made it; and as his own silence now proves it to be.” Henry, he said, had caused applications to be made at the printer’s office for Decius’ name; he had been “obliged to ask a certificate of his character of a poor little storeboy” (Greenhow); he had applied through a relation for “a certificate about his conduct towards the Indians” he had employed “anti-federal bullies…to affright” the author. But “By what rule of human dignity and refinement,” asked Decius, “will they point out the propriety of their being engaged as seconds in a cause which is too dirty for the principal to engage for himself? To that gentleman only therefore, I can ever communicate my real existence…I have no personal or private enmity to that gentleman. I am one of those who have been converted from an admiration of him…by a thorough conviction of his faults‥‥When the Constitution made its appearance, and I saw him the first to oppose it in all its stages, without lending his aid to amend it in any, I began to look about for the causes of this strange and singular behavior. And by comparing that Constitution with the general tenor of his politics, I began to spy out the secret causes of the whole. The payment of the British debts; the final adieu to paper money; the speedy administration of justice; and the mournful diminution of state authorities, which that Constitution held out, began to stare his whole political system full in the face; and pointed out the causes of his opposition to a government he would neither assent to as it stood, nor endeavour to improve in its passage.” Henry, writing to Grayson on 31 March 1789 when the uproar created by Decius was at its height, said: “What Decius says of me and others say for me the Gazettes have told you. I have not seen them except a few numbers (about 5). In these he was not lucky enough to hit upon one charge that is warranted by Truth. How lucky it is that he knew me no better, for I know of [so] many Deficiencys in my own conduct, that I can easily conceive myself an unprofitable Servant. But alas! how difficult it is for human pride to submit to that appellation from others! It is not candid to characterize a system of Government from the men who will ever form the fag end of human society—from the political understrappers who ever follow the footsteps of power and whine and fawn or snarl a[nd] bark as they are bid; who ape their Betters and are content with their Leavings, as the wages of the dirty Work assigned them, such men are found in most Govern’ts and no doubt in the American. But whether their superiors will be of a more tolerant spirit is yet to learn. That dirty scribblers will be disowned by their own party I doubt not—But that they are encouraged also as little doubt” (VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893– description ends , xiv , 203–4). Decius had drawn blood, clearly, but the deepest wound must have been the accuracy of his prophecy about the impending decline when the promises held out by the federal constitution “began to stare his whole political system full in the face.” This was a pivotal fact that Henry must have been astute enough to realize could not be argued out of existence by the pens of Junius Brutus and others.
The importance of Decius for TJ lay not in its raking over of incidents in Henry’s past, certainly not in its personal invective, but in its central point, stated by implication in Letter xxxi. There Decius quoted Henry as saying in the General Assembly of 1788 that “it is better for Virginia to stand upon her own legs, than to remain in the confederacy—should a convention to amend be denied.” The point was reinforced by the inclusion of Honestus’ address to the people of Virginia (Letter xxxiv), published just before the meeting of that session. Honestus, who was probably Decius, warned that the general government had come into existence after “a full and fair discussion … by the will of a free and voluntary majority,” whence followed the duty of all to support it; that the “very reasons for which some have opposed it, are now turned into the strongest arguments for their protecting it; since the principle of governing by the majority is the very essence of that republicanism for whose dear existence sake they had once contested its passage” and that, finally, “Some men in this and other states still dissatisfied at not having been noticed in the appointments of the late continental convention, may now propose the destruction of the new government under the pretence of an attempt to amend it.” Elsewhere Decius had referred to attempts, such as the gerrymander effort against Madison, to thwart the decision of the “natural majority.” The existence of the agitation for a second convention, set in motion primarily by the Henry and Clinton forces in Virginia and York, demonstrated that Decius, for all of his polemics and personal invective, was giving public warning of a political actuality. TJ, in his progress through Virginia from Norfolk to Monticello shortly before he read Decius’s letters, discovered for himself that “Antifederalism is not yet dead in this country,” and that Henry, “higher in public estimation than … ever,” was the avowed foe of the national government (TJ to Short, 14 Dec. 1789).
Knowing the influence that could spread from this quarter, TJ must have read Decius’ warning with attention, carefully noting the supposed names of Henry’s defenders. A few days later, occupying a far more elevated ground, he, too, chose as his theme the duty of acquiescing in the decisions of “the majority, the Natural law of every society” (see under 12 Feb. 1790). Nicholas—if he was Decius—would not again have the power to affect the tenor of TJ’s thought, though it seems probable that he did so on this occasion. He could have done this, however, only by underscoring the magnitude of the danger that TJ had observed for himself: he could have added little but detail to TJ’s knowledge of Henry’s character, and nothing whatever to his deep-rooted sense of “the Natural law of every society.”