Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Wood, 3 March 1797

From James Wood

In Council 3d. March 1797.


I Contemplate with great pleasure the Change which is to take place in the penal Laws of the Commonwealth; and feel Much Anxiety that No time Shou’d be lost in bringing it into Complete Operation. The Law having Confided to the Executive, the purchase of a Sufficient Quantity of Land, and the direction of erecting the Necessary buildings for the Confinement and Accomodation of the Convicts; we feel Ourselves embarrassed from a want of Knowledge in Architecture, to fix upon the proper plan of a building to Answer the purposes of the Law. Our thoughts have turned On you, Sir, as best Qualified to give us Advice and Assistance in the Execution of this business. I do Myself the honor of enclosing the Act of Assembly, and take the liberty of Requesting the favor of you, to turn your thoughts to the Subject, and that you will have the goodness to Suggest to the Board, your Opinion as to the plan, as well as the Quantity of Land which you May deem Necessary for the purpose. I have the honor to be with due Consideration and Sincere esteem. Sir Yr most Obt. & Mo. hble Servt.

James Wood

RC (ViW); at foot of text: “Tho Jefferson Esq”; endorsed by TJ as received 24 Mch. 1797 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Vi: Executive Letterbook). Enclosure: see below.

The enclosed law was “An Act to amend the Penal Laws of this Commonwealth,” passed 15 Dec. 1796, which specified prison terms rather than capital punishment for crimes other than first-degree murder. Prisoners were to labor in a penitentiary during their sentences, and each would spend a portion of the term in solitary confinement. The act authorized the governor to spend up to $30,000 for land and the construction of “a gaol and penitentiary house” large enough “to contain with convenience two hundred convicts at least” (Shepherd, Statutes description begins Samuel Shepherd, ed., The Statutes at Large of Virginia, from October Session 1792, to December Session 1806 …, Richmond, 1835–36, 3 vols. description ends , II, 5–14).

TJ’s own “Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital,” part of the revisal of Virginia’s laws that he, George Wythe, and Edmund Pendleton prepared in 1776–79, would not have ameliorated all of the harsh penalties of the pre-Revolutionary penal code. Nevertheless, TJ concluded that the reason for the bill’s failure in the Assembly by one vote in 1786 was that it was, for its time, too innovative. Having invested considerable effort in the bill and its underlying extensive legal citations, TJ believed that the 1796 measure that George Keith Taylor presented to the Assembly as an original creation was in fact based on TJ’s proposed statute. TJ apparently regarded himself as the one who had introduced Virginia to the innovation of solitary confinement, in the form of a design for a prison he sent from Europe in 1786, before the state’s lawmakers were ready to adopt such a progressive measure (see above in this series at Vol. 2: 492–507; TJ’s summary of public services, [after 2 Sep. 1800], in DLC: TJ Papers, 219: 39161; and Autobiography in Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Letterpress Edition, New York, 1892–99, 10 vols. description ends i, 60, 62–5).

Regarding TJ’s plan of a building for the new penitentiary, see his letter to Wood, 31 Mch. 1797, and enclosures. Three other architects also submitted proposals: George Hadfield, Maria Cosway’s brother and the superintendent of the U.S. Capitol from 1795 to 1798; Samuel Dobie, who had supervised public construction in Richmond, including the state capitol built from TJ’s design; and Benjamin H. Latrobe, whose plan for the penitentiary was adopted (Van Horne, Latrobe description begins John C. Van Horne, ed., The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, New Haven, 1984–88, 3 vols. description ends , i, 50n; Edmund Randolph to TJ, 12 July 1786).

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