Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Noah Webster, Jr., 4 December 1790

To Noah Webster, Jr.

Philadelphia Dec. 4. 1790.


Your favor of Oct. 4. [i.e. 14] came to my hands on the 20th. of November. Application was made a day or two after to Mr. Dobson for the copies of your essays, which were recieved, and one of them lodged in the office. For that intended for myself be pleased to accept my thanks. I return you the order on Mr. Allen, that on Dobson having been made use of instead of it. I submit to your consideration whether it might not be adviseable to record a second time your right to the Grammatical institutes in order to bring the lodging of the copy in my office within the 6. months made a condition by the law? I have not at this moment an opportunity of turning to the law to see if that may be done: but I suppose it possible that the failure to fulfill the legal condition on the first record might excite objections against the validity of that.

In mentioning me in your essays, and canvassing my opinions, you have done what every man has a right to do, and it is for the good of society that that right should be freely exercised. No republic is more real than that of letters, and I am the last in principles, as I am the least in pretensions to any dictatorship in it. Had I other dispositions, the philosophical and dispassionate spirit with which you have expressed your own opinions in opposition to mine, would still have commanded my approbation. A desire of being set right in your opinion, which I respect too much not to entertain that desire, induces me to hazard to you the following observations. It had become an universal and almost uncontroverted position in the several states, that the purposes of society do not require a surrender of all our rights to our ordinary governors: that there are certain portions of right not necessary to enable them to carry on an effective government, and which experience has nevertheless proved they will be constantly incroaching on, if submitted to them. That there are also certain fences which experience has proved peculiarly efficacious against wrong, and rarely obstructive of right, which yet the governing powers have ever shewn a disposition to weaken and remove. Of the first kind for instance is freedom of religion: of the second, trial by jury, Habeas corpus laws, free presses. These were the settled opinions of all the states, of that of Virginia, of which I was writing, as well as of the others. The others had in consequence delineated these unceded portions of right, and these fences against wrong, which they meant to exempt from the power of their governors, in instruments called declarations of rights and constitutions: and as they did this by Conventions which they appointed for the express purpose of reserving these rights, and of delegating others1 to their ordinary legislative, executive and judiciary bodies, none of the reserved rights can be touched without resorting to the people to appoint another convention for the express purpose of permitting it. Where the constitutions then have been so formed by Conventions named for this express purpose they are fixed and unalterable but by a Convention or other body to be specially authorised. And they have been so formed by I believe all the states except Virginia. That state concurs in all these opinions, but has run into the wonderful error that her constitution, tho made by the ordinary legislature, cannot yet be altered by the ordinary legislature. I had therefore no occasion to prove to them the expediency of a constitution alterable only by a special convention. Accordingly I have not in my notes advocated that opinion, tho it was and is mine, as it was and is theirs. I take that position as admitted by them: and only proceed to adduce arguments to prove that they were mistaken in supposing their constitution could not be altered by the common legislature. Among other arguments I urge that the Convention which formed the constitution had been chosen merely for ordinary legislation, that they had no higher power than every subsequent legislature was to have, that all their acts are consequently repealable by subsequent legislatures, that their own practice at a subsequent session proved they were of this opinion themselves, that the opinion and practice of several subsequent legislatures had been the same, and so conclude ‘that their constitution is alterable by the common legislature.’ Yet these arguments urged to prove that their constitution is alterable, you cite as if urged to prove that it ought not to be alterable, and you combat them on that ground. An argument which is good to prove one thing, may become ridiculous when exhibited as intended to prove another thing. I will beg the favor of you to look over again the passage in my Notes, and am persuaded you will be sensible that you have misapprehended the object of my arguments, and therefore have combated them on a ground for which they were not intended. My only object in this is the rectification of your own opinion of me, which I repeat that I respect too much to neglect. I have certainly no view of entering into the contest whether it be expedient to delegate unlimited power to our ordinary governors? My opinion is against that expediency. But my occupations do not permit me to undertake to vindicate all my opinions, nor have they importance enough to merit it. It cannot however but weaken my confidence in them when I find them opposed to yours, there being no one who respects the latter more than Sir Your most obedt. & most humble servt,

Th: Jefferson

RC (NN); at foot of text: “Mr. Noah Webster. At Hartford”; endorsed in part: “Remarks on powers of legislatures, in answer to some principles advanced in my Essays. NW. See page 59 my Essays.” PrC (DLC).

TJ erred in supposing Virginia was the only state that had not had its constitution drawn by a convention especially charged with the task. Of those constitutions drawn during the Revolution, only that of Massachusetts of 1780 had been framed by a constitutional convention. This set the example and when it was reinforced by the immense influence of the Federal Convention of 1787, other states—as Pennsylvania and Georgia had done in 1790-followed the precedent.

The brief exchange with TJ that Noah Webster initiated in the fall of 1790 threw into brilliant relief two opposed and quite irreconcilable concepts of American government (Webster to TJ, 14 Oct. 1790). Both men stood on republican ground and neither yielded an inch to the other. Webster, dogmatic and crotchety, had formed a low opinion of TJ’s compatriots in Virginia that was strengthened by his reading of Notes on Virginia. On his journey through the middle and southern states to lecture, to promote the sale of his Grammatical institute of the English language, and to advocate copyright legislation—a subject on which his views were also antipodal to those of TJ—Webster concluded that “Virginians have much pride, little money on hand, great contempt for Northern people, and amazing fondness for Dissipation.” To these deficiencies he added another of perhaps equal gravity in his eye: “They do not understand Grammar” (E. E. F. Skeel, ed., Notes on the life of Noah Webster, p. 144). In Philadelphia during the meeting of the Federal Convention, Webster borrowed Francis Hopkinson’s copy of Notes on Virginia and spent the next day extracting notes from it (same, p. 218). Four months later, as editor of the short-lived The American Magazine, he opened fire with a series of articles over the pseudonym Giles Hickory (The American Magazine, i [New York], p. 13–15 [Dec. 1787]; p. 75–80 [Jan. 1788]; p. 137–45 [Feb. 1788]; p. 204–10 [Mch. 1788]). These pieces were published over Webster’s own name in the volume that he submitted for copyright under the title A collection of essays and fugitiv writings. On moral, historical, political and literary subjects (Boston, 1790), in which chapters iii–vi form a reprinting with some changes of the 1787–1788 articles (see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 4928). In these essays, which were undoubtedly stimulated in part by Webster’s reading of Notes on Virginia, he pronounced the opinion that bills of right might be proper enough against kings or barons but were an absurdity in a free government; that the supreme power and indeed “all the authority of the State” was, and necessarily had to be, vested in the elected representatives; and that in fact the right of election was “the only legislativ or constitutional act, which the people at large can with propriety exercise” (Essays, p. 45, 49, 59). He admitted, with perhaps less diffidence than his repeated assertion of an idiosyncratic position would seem to warrant, that these views were repugnant to the accepted prejudices and principles of his countrymen and that it was “a favorite idea in this country, bandied about from one demagogue to another, that rulers are the servants of the people (same, p. 45, 49, 80).

The prevailing sentiments of his countrymen that Webster regarded as false, confused, or absurd were grasped by no one more immediately or more tenaciously than by the one whom he selected as his particular target. To Webster’s major contention TJ merely replied that his opinion was against the expediency of delegating “unlimited power to our ordinary governors.” But what really disturbed him, quite understandably, was Webster’s egregious insistence that he had argued for perpetual and unalterable constitutions. The grammarian’s logic that led Webster to classify the author of Notes on Virginia with “other advocates for unchangeable Constitutions” also enabled him to deny that he had made so palpable an error (same, p. 62; Webster to TJ, 12 Dec. 1790). The misconception must have been particularly galling to one who had so recently embraced the doctrine that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living and that it should be made explicit in the fundamental law of the nation (TJ to Madison, 6 Sep. 1789). The brief exchange was futile and TJ sensibly ended it with silence. But it did illuminate brilliantly and with classic simplicity the enduring difference between a doctrinaire schoolman and a realistic statesman. TJ continued to expound and to act upon the principles of his countrymen. Webster, for his idiosyncratic essays, received the high accolade of a modern student of political theory, who declared that he was the one who “grasped more fully the interconnectedness of all the political and constitutional developments of the 1780’s” than any other (Gordon S. Wood, The creation of the American republic [Chapel Hill, 1969], p. 376; emphasis added).

But on one point at least Webster and TJ were in full accord. At Williamsburg, Webster spent a few hours with George Wythe and pronounced him “a great man for Virginia, and a sensible man anywhere” (Skeel, Notes, p. 144n). The first adjective he would never bestow upon TJ, even among Virginians, and he soon earned for himself the unenviable title of being the first Federalist to ridicule him as a man of science (TJ to Madison, 10 Jan. 1791). These and other experiences must have influenced TJ and Madison to make Connecticut one of the primary objects of their northern journey in the spring of 1791 in order to discover from their constituency whether the schoolmen and the members of Congress from that state were truly representative.

1TJ first wrote: “… constitutions: and the people naming Conventions to reserve those rights and to delegate others,” and then altered the passage to read as above.

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