Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Lovell, 8 January 1803

From James Lovell

Boston January 8th. 1803.

To the President
of the
United States

Self Interest once forced me to intrude upon the busy moments of your Excellency, for the purpose of showing how much it was my own choice to hold a Commission “during the Pleasure of the President of the United-States for the time being.”   A more generous motive leads me to intrude a second time, for the purpose of proving how much I am convinced that my watchful concern for my own official-Integrity is, in fact, a just tribute due to the Reputation of Him who continues to me the same Patronage which I enjoyed under the two former Persons of a Trinity of Presidents.

I have exhibited to the Comptroller of the Treasury my annual-account of Fees, according to two Laws, and his particular Instructions. It differs, in a single Item, from any of my former accounts, tho’ it resembles those of all other Officers in the same line of employment, and is as solemnly true.   I shall not condescend to point out and explain the difference to any one but my Patron; and no one else, perhaps, will happen to perceive it.   The inclosed memoranda will suffice to elucidate it, after one additional declaration that “I am conscientiously free to take credit for less than my actual Expenditures, tho’ I shall ever scorn to insert more, be the provocation to do it ever so great.”

In amusing myself with “canonical” books and making observations upon real-life I have found that “the most subtle of all the Beasts of the field,” tho’ he eats eggs & flesh in common with Foxes and Monkies, yet picks his Dessert among Flowers of the “best-characters,” just as another kind of Glutton culls a whole garden bed to find his peculiar “best-sort” of Lettuce. If it was that Beast’s “Taste” for fruits in-general or “apples” in-particular which in “good old times” procured him the Crown of “Subtlety,” yet, it is funfull to guess why, in later times, he should be quoted as a “wise”-model for Men’s imitation, and be recommended jointly with the “harmless”-Dove.

When Legislators in Massachusetts, not long ago, borrowed Shears from the Parcæ to cut the Fees of the naval-office of Boston alone, the glaring-Injustice of the action bewildered all search after the Wisdom of their motives: But, when the Legislators of the United-States borrowed those same Shears last April, from laudable motives, doubtless, tho’ inscrutable by my small mental-abilities, They handled the instruments with so many appearances of Impartiality, and with such demonstrations of some rule of equity, within their own minds, that the principal-Officers in some of the principal-Districts will, naturally, correct any past too-niggardly Propensities, towards their Deputies and other necessary-assistants, in the expenditure of their own lawful & righteous Earnings.

Whoever boasts of living under “a government of Laws” ought to know that the “liberty of the press” is most intimately connected with his Ground of boasting.

At present, the “Licentiousness” of the press is so fully engaged against the executive-part of our Governments that the legislative-parts cannot be complimented with any due Specimens of its “Liberty”-from want of spare-types and impartial-printers.

Thus, from some Charity to myself and much Devotion to your Excellency, I have penned a few additional-traits of the principles the conduct and the conscience of an obedient Fellow-citizen, who is also

Your obliged and very humble Servant

James Lovell
Navl. Off

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 19 Jan. and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures: (1) Lovell to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, dated Boston, October 1792, acknowledging the directions contained in his circular letter of 31 Aug. regarding an order of the United States Senate of 7 May and enclosing the demanded account; Lovell hopes “that my statements may not prove injurious to such Officers as have had usual & necessary Assistance of Clerks, without being driven to devote their own Nights as well as days to their Offices. Adversity has formed but few such callous Drudges as myself in a similar-Line of life.” (2) “Notes to the Comptroller” accompanying Lovell’s account of 1795, “the sentiments of which have governed all my after Exhibits until July 1st of the past year”; Lovell’s notes maintain that the “voluntary assistance of Sons whom I maintain” cannot be considered as hired clerks, nor can “Douceurs-ad-libitum” be considered as “other official expences” according to the Treasury Department forms used to make his returns (Trs in same, in Lovell’s hand; Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961-87, 27 vols. description ends , 12:303–4).

James Lovell (1737–1814) of Boston was a Harvard graduate and prominent patriot during the American Revolution. He served continuously in the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1782, becoming one of its most active members, particularly as part of the Committee for Foreign Affairs. He was also known for his outspoken and sarcastic manner and his convoluted style of correspondence. He was appointed naval officer for the port of Boston by George Washington in 1789 and served in that office until his death (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; John L. Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College, 18 vols. [Cambridge, Mass., 1873– ], 14:31–48; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States…to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress, Washington, D.C., 1828, 3 vols. description ends , 1:9, 2:534).

forced me to intrude: a letter from Lovell, dated 12 Aug. 1802, is recorded in SJL as received 22 Aug. from Boston, but has not been found.

two laws: as part of the 2 Mch. 1799 act of Congress to establish compensations for customs officers, all collectors, naval officers, and surveyors were required to keep accounts of all fees and official emoluments received and all expenditures for rent, fuel, stationery, and clerk hire. Accounts were to be submitted annually to the comptroller of the Treasury within forty days after 31 Dec. An amendment to the act passed on 30 Apr. 1802 limited annual emoluments, after deducting expenditures, to $5,000 for collectors, $3,500 for naval officers, and $3,000 for surveyors. Any surplus above these amounts was to be paid to the Treasury. The terms of the act did not extend to fines, forfeitures, and penalties under federal revenue laws (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States…1789 to March 3, 1845, Boston, 1855-56, 8 vols. description ends , 1:704–9, 2:172–3).


harmless-dove: “Be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

The parcæ, or Parcae, were the Roman equivalent of the Fates (Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. [Oxford, 1996], 589–90).

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