Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Breckinridge, 18 March 1806

Washington 18 March 1806


The papers containing the examination of William S. Smith, Saml. G. Ogden and John Fink which you were pleased to direct should be laid before me, I have duly considered.

From the facts disclosed in that examination, there remains no doubt, but that the laws of the U. States have been flagrantly violated. The attorney for the U States for the District of N. York is now proceeding in a course of legal prosecution against the offenders, which I have no doubt will result in their Conviction.

Something in the nature of a defence, or rather in extenuation of the offence, appears to be attempd, which I think may not be unwothy of remark;—which is, that they were induced to the commission of the act by the suggestions & assurances of Genl. Miranda, “that he had communicated his project to the President & Secretary of State of the U. States, & that they had given their sanction to his proceedings.”—It cannot I presume escape the notice of the Attorney for the U. States, that this defence must be wholly inadmissible; or if even admissible, wholly ineffectual. Independant of the extravagant idea of justifying, or even excusing themselves for the commission of an offence, by their relyance on the declarations of Genl. Miranda, of the assent of the Goverment to its commission, it would be admitting a principle by which the honor & dignity of the Govert. might be wickedly assailed. To presume that those who administer this Goverment would stoop to vindicate their honor of that of the Goverment, from the charges or calumny of any offender who may be arraigned before our tribunals, & who may attempt to implicate them in his Guilt, is presuming on a state of personal as well as National degradation of which this goverment will not furnish an example. It would be affording a Weapon with which every conspicuous offender might attempt to wound the administration; as by only making the allegation, he would claim the right to call upon any of the High officers of the Goverment, to justify his defence, or to exculpate themselves. A practise so embarrassing & humiliating cannot possibly I presume be attempted to be introduced in any court whatever.

But admitting such testimony could be asked for, it would, if introduced, be wholly irrelevant; for the President having no power to arrest, or dispense with the operation of this act, his assent, or even order that it should be violated, would not shield from its pains & penalties those who offend against it.—It appears to me therefore, that the defence disclosed by the examination ought, in the first view I have taken of it, to be repelled upon every principle; & in the second view as irrelevant, & as furnishing no legal grounds of defence, or even of extenuation; because the declarations of Miranda cannot be considered as legal evidence; & if even legal, as affording them any justification for committing the offence.

I have the Honor to be most respectfully Your Obt. Ser.

John Breckinridge

DNA: RG 59--State Department.

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