Thomas Jefferson Papers

David Howell to Thomas Jefferson, 27 November 1810

From David Howell

Providence Nov. 27. 1810


On a late occasion interesting to my family I had the honor to represent to you that the faction of republicans in this State and which opposed the late as well as the present Governor Fenner chiefly consisted of the Bank, or monied interest in this Town, & that the interest of Gov. Fenner embraced the most trust worthy men of the party & must finally prevail. Although my letter did not reach you in Season for the particular object of it, I was gratified in learning that my representation obtained credit with you.

The enclosed resolutions of the Republicans here of Feby 6 1809 will satisfy you of the firmness of his Excellency in supporting your measures; & I can add with pride that my son was alert on that occasion, & I believe theonly Officer in the four Original N. E. States, who gave orders to his men to equip with powder & ball to enforce the Execution of the Embargo laws. This decision and promptness of the Executive here dismayed the Insurgents & prevented the sailing of six or seven vessels from this port, preparing for that purpose as the Collector afterwards said.

If the Embargo failed of completely effecting its principal objects; or was kept on too long; the latter was the consequence of the former, and both, of Federal oppugnance and contumacy tending in a degree to rebellion.

Such has been the conduct of the Governor that he was enabled at our last election, to dismiss from his proxy, as well those of the inimical faction, as the Federalists; & it gave me singular pleasure that the name of my son was used successfully on that occasion to expel from the place of first Senator, a very malevolent Federalist.

At the last session of our Legislature in this Town the ascendancy of Fennerian influence was further tested. The Federalists canvassed for James Burrill Junr the present Atty Genl of the State, the faction for Col. H. Smith: yet the Gov. and his friends succeeded in the promotion of my son to the place of a Senator in Congress for six years. I dwell on this detail of our affairs not only with a view to certify to you the prevalence of the Gov.s Friends; but somewhat under the influence of parental affection, or vanity as you may please to call it which is gratified in no small degree that my only son, whose merits I perhaps overrated in former letters has prevailed against the faction which has labored incessantly to thwart his views as the friend of Gov. Fenner more than from personal objections.

The same faction as I am told are unwearied in beseiging President Madison, & the Great departments with a view to defeat the Gov. of his just right of patronage in National Appointments to Office. And that they with Federal aid are attempting to fill the place of the late Judge Cushing with Asher Robbins Esq. of Newport.

This man has been known to me for many years. He was a Tutor in the College here under my inspection, & I have been in habits of some degree of intimacy (not of friendship) with him. Formerly he avowed his Attachment to Monarchy & hereditary power. Since the downfall of Federalism he has of late years sought to mingle with the Republicans, having some family connexions with the faction, he has hoped by their means to rise into notice. That his republican professions are discredited by his former friends is proved by their recommending him so earnestly on this occasion. I am told that the Gentlemen of the Bar here, who are all, save two or three, violent, & I might add, malignant Federalists, have recommended him but not at a Bar meeting, and that such meeting was not held as the notification ought regularly to be issued by me as President, because it was anticipated that I should refuse my signature to their proceedings.

Whoever should interfere in the course of the Affairs of this State so far as to disabuse the President on the foregoing Subjects would much contribute to the establishment of Republicanism in this State which cannot be done otherwise than by continuing Gov. Fenner in Office & in effectual power. The enemies of Gov. F. are even now preparing to give him battle next April. As on that occasion he will have to resist the combined force of the faction & Federalists he will need auxiliary aid. His conduct in the Senate U.S. was for sometime under your view, & you have learned the reluctance with which he yielded to the will of the people in exchanging that Station for his present, as well as some parts of his administration at home. It has occurred to me that your high authority over the minds of the Republicans here might be converted to the good of this State & promote the Republican cause in general by a letter from you, either in answer to this, if you would condescend to do me that honor, or otherwise, expressive of your sentiments touching his Abilities & exertions in the cause of his Country. This letter, unless therein the contrary should be implied, might be published at the time of canvassing for our next Election—or the private use of such letter might be submitted at discretion with the restraint of printing it—or of copying it as might be therein directed. Towards our next Election we look forward with some anxiety—The Federalists having either by surprize misrepresentation, or more unworthy means, got a majority in our House of Representatives.

The Hon: David L. Barnes, who was named by yourself to the place of District Judge here is held up, as I am told, for the vacancy occasioned by the decease of the late Judge Cushing. It cannot fail to occur to you readily, that in the case of his success the place of District Judge here would become vacant.

Under the whole weight of the tax to be levied on my opinion by the consideration last mentioned I can freely add in favor of Judge Barnes that I believe him to be against Kingly and hereditary power as really as any of us—that he has avoided scenes of political dispute & assumed to be a moderate man. His integrity & very great industry & attention to the duties of his office have raised him I believe in the opinion of even those from whom he may differ some shades in political opinions, to a degree of respectability that his abilities, which really have been by some underrated, did not seem to promise:

nil tam difficile est, quod non Solertia vincat.”

On every ground of pretension I am decided in the opinion he has a fairer claim to this appointment than Mr Robbins—who could not be raised over all the District Judges & Attorneys in this Circuit without exciting disgust, and bringing reproach on government as illaqueated by a Federal trick.

Judge Barnes as a native of Massachusetts & of the same religious sect (a Church member too) which prevails in this Circuit could not fail of being welcomed as their Judge.

Although in the shades of retirement your Country still has a claim on you for Counsel and advice: and your friends will ever look up to you for patronage in cases interesting to themselves.

Be assured most venerated Sir, that the strong impression your public & private virtues have made on me will be obliterated only when all power of recollection shall cease, & that

till then I shall remain your most devoted and Obedient Servant.

David Howell

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 12 Dec. 1810 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: Republican Resolutions from a meeting of Republicans at the courthouse in Providence, Rhode Island, 6 Feb. 1809, with Howell as chair and John Pitman as secretary; stating that America’s right to navigate the ocean freely had been violated by France and Great Britain; suggesting that the Embargo was a better choice than war, but that the “intrigues of a malignant party” undermined it; arguing that the offer made to Great Britain to lift the Embargo if she repealed her edicts was a wise and even moderate choice by the government, given that Britain had provided cause for war by attacking the Chesapeake, impressing seamen, and committing other tyrannical acts; denouncing riots against revenue officers and attempts to put the sloop Betsey out to sea on 21 Jan. 1809 and further disturbances and an assault on the public storehouse two days later; applauding Governor James Fenner for ordering that an armed detachment of militia be readied to quell any outbreaks; dismissing as “erroneous, inflammatory, seditious and libellous” the resolutions adopted at a town meeting held in Providence on 28 Jan. 1809, where free debate was not allowed; praising the present national administration for reducing the public debt, increasing revenue, maintaining the nation’s rights, and suppressing both the slave trade and Burr’s conspiracy; and subjoining Fenner’s order of 23 Jan. 1809 to Brigadier General Jeremiah Brown Howell (broadside in RHi: Broadside Collection; undated; printed by Jones & Wheeler).

David Howell (1747–1824), Rhode Island lawyer and jurist, was a native of New Jersey who graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1766 and immediately became the first tutor at Rhode Island College (later Brown University). He served as professor of natural philosophy and mathematics, 1769–79, and was a member of the college’s Board of Fellows from 1773 until his death. Howell’s acquaintance with TJ dated to his years as a member of the Confederation Congress, 1782–85, and their work on the Ordinance of 1784. He exchanged books with TJ and nominated him to be minister plenipotentiary to France. Howell was an associate justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, 1786–87, state attorney general in 1789, and a federal boundary commissioner under the Jay Treaty. TJ appointed him district attorney in 1802, and he filled that position until President James Madison appointed him a federal judge for Rhode Island, serving from 1812 until his death (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Princetonians description begins James McLachlan and others, eds., Princetonians: A Biographical Dictionary, 1976–90, 5 vols. description ends , 1748–1768, pp. 562–7; Reuben Aldridge Guild, Early History of Brown University [1897; repr. 1980], esp. 66–9, 311; Joseph Jencks Smith, comp., Civil and Military List of Rhode Island, 1647–1800 [1900]; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 32 vols. description ends , 7:240–1n, 9:233, 16:451–4, 27:194, 376; Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 [1904–37], 28:133–4 [10 Mar. 1785]; Arthur Fenner to TJ, 16 May 1801 [DLC]; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States description ends , 1:401, 405, 2:303, 304 [6, 26 Jan. 1802, 13, 16 Nov. 1812]; Providence Gazette, 31 July 1824) .

Howell sent a copy of the resolutions enclosed here to Madison on 26 Nov. 1810 (Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, John C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, 1962– , 29 vols.: Congress. Ser., 17 vols.; Pres. Ser., 5 vols.; Sec. of State Ser., 7 vols description ends , Pres. Ser., 3:27–8). He had also likely sent them to TJ in a missing letter of 8 Feb. 1809 recorded in SJL as received from Providence on 13 Feb. 1809. In 1810 James Fenner, governor of Rhode Island, 1807–11, 1824–31, and 1843–45 (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ), proposed the successful candidacy of Howell’s son, Jeremiah Brown Howell, against Federalist candidate James burrill for the United States Senate (Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, John C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, 1962– , 29 vols.: Congress. Ser., 17 vols.; Pres. Ser., 5 vols.; Sec. of State Ser., 7 vols description ends , Pres. Ser., 3:19–20). TJ appointed David L. barnes federal judge for Rhode Island in 1801 (JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States description ends , 1:401, 405 [6, 26 Jan. 1802]). nil tam difficile est, quod non solertia vincat: “nothing is so difficult, which skill does not conquer” (William Lily, “Carmen de Moribus,” from his A Short Introduction of Grammar [Oxford, 1709; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4787], line 29). illaqueated: ensnared, entangled (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ).

Index Entries

  • Barnes, David L. search
  • Burrill, James search
  • Chesapeake, USS (frigate); incident (1807) search
  • Cushing, William; death of search
  • Embargo Act (1807); Republican resolutions on search
  • Federalist party; in New England search
  • Federalist party; in R.I. search
  • Fenner, James; governor of R.I. search
  • Howell, David; and R.I. politics search
  • Howell, David; identified search
  • Howell, David; letters from search
  • Howell, David; letters from accounted for search
  • Howell, Jeremiah Brown search
  • New England; Federalists in search
  • Pitman, John; secretary of Republican meeting search
  • politics; in R.I. search
  • Republican party; in R.I. search
  • Republican party; resolutions on Embargo search
  • Rhode Island; Federalists in search
  • Robbins, Asher; and Supreme Court appointment search
  • Smith, Henry search