Thomas Jefferson Papers

James S. Gaines to Thomas Jefferson, 3 September 1811, with 14 October 1811 postscript

From James S. Gaines

Patrick County September 3rd 1811

Dear Sir

The State of Virginia which was foremost in her contest for Liberty appear to be the last to enjoy it. for at the close of the war it seems as if she was quite exhausted, and Just nestled herself down under some of the most Corrupt principles of the old regal Government. principles Sir, if persisted in will finally eventuate in the downfall of all that have been atchieved the last hope of the Philanthrophist. you sir predicted thirty years ago “that the time would arrive when our rulers would forget right and make interested uses of power and that patriotism would no longer be a shield sufficient for the protection of the Liberties of the people.” the time have I presume already arrived, and your predictions are but too fully verrified. Laws are now passed with impunity, infringing some of the dearest rights of freemen, and there is a most shameful waste of the public money. I am now Sir, fully prepared, to subscribe to the opinion of my venerable great uncle (the Late Edmund Pendleton) who said “of men advanced to power there is more who would try to destroy Liberty than preserve it.” hence then the necessity of a well organized Government, with suitable checks on the rulers to secure the Liberties of the ruled, with powers so well defined, that public agents will not be able by any forced construction of expediency or implied right to overleap the barriers of the Constitution. I take the Liberty Sir, of enclosing to you what in my opinion are the most important defects of the Constitution of this State together with a new plan or form of Government which I conceive to be well adapted to the genius of Republicanism in this new place. I have endeavored as much as possible to keep the departments of the Government seperate and independant in such manner that they shall be as so many checks one on the other. 2. that each section of the state shall be equally represented which will include wealth and population, and ballance betwixt the commercial and agricultural parts of the Community. 3. Responsibility the Soul. 4. Economy the Body of a representative Government.

Be so good Sir, as to give the enclosed a perusal, and write me the result of your deliberations on the subject. I am Just about to remove myself to Madison County Bent of Tennessee please to direct your letter to the care of Gabriel Moore attorney at Law of that place

with sentiments of the most perfect esteem and respect I subscribe myself yours &c

James S. Gaines

Octr 14th 1811

It grieves me Sir, that I have to trouble you in your Retirement but you must yet Continue to Illumine our political1 Hemisphere, as the Sun is to the solar Systam, so are you to the political world, altho the Emperor of France Occupy2 the highest place in the Temple of Mars, as [a] Statesman & Philanthropist, you sir stand unrivaled, and will Occupy the highest place in the Temple of Liberty.

Embargo War or submision again present themselves, your measures must again be resorted to, & may now I flatter myself be enforced,—

if you should think propper to answer me please to direct the same to Knoxville I shall give the Postmaster at that place the necessary directions,—your most Obediant servt

James S Gaines

RC (DLC: TJ Papers, 193:34426, 34475); damaged at seal; postscript on verso of address cover; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr Albemarle County V.a.”; stamped; endorsed by TJ as received 22 Dec. 1811 and so recorded in SJL.

James Strother Gaines (1769–1823) was the grandson of Isabella Pendleton Gaines, a sister of the Virginia statesman Edmund Pendleton (1721–1803). Gaines lived in Patrick County, 1797–1811, and later moved to Tennessee, where he helped to run the boundary with Georgia in 1817. A noted mathematician, he composed but did not publish a lengthy manuscript proposing “a totally different and entirely new” theory of astronomy. Late in life he moved to Dallas County, Alabama (Calvin E. Sutherd, A Compilation of Gaines Family Data, with special emphasis on the lineage of William and Isabella (Pendleton) Gaines, 2d ed. [1972], 227, 229; John Trotwood Moore and Austin P. Foster, eds., Tennessee the Volunteer State, 1769–1923 [1923], 1:371; Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser, 14 Nov. 1826).

No precise match has been found for TJ’s quote from thirty years ago, but he made a similar statement about the same time in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. … From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights” (Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, 1955 description ends , 161). In “The Danger Not Over,” a widely reprinted 1801 essay, Edmund Pendleton proposed eight amendments to the United States Constitution intended to strengthen the separation of powers among the three branches of government and gave the opinion that “of men advanced to power, more are inclined to destroy liberty, than to defend it” (David John Mays, The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton, 1734–1803 [1967], 2:699).

madison county, located in the Big or Great Bend (bent) of the tennessee River, was then in Mississippi Territory but later became part of Alabama.

1Manuscript: “poloticol.”

2Manuscript: “Occcupy.”

Index Entries

  • Gaines, James Strother; identified search
  • Gaines, James Strother; letters from search
  • Gaines, James Strother; proposes revisions to Va. constitution and legal code search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes on the State of Virginia search
  • Moore, Gabriel; attorney in Miss. Territory search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; TJ compared to search
  • Notes on the State of Virginia (Thomas Jefferson); and J. S. Gaines search
  • Pendleton, Edmund (1721–1803); on importance of limited government search