Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Cary Nicholas, 13 June 1809

To Wilson Cary Nicholas

Monticello June 13. 09.

Dear Sir

I did not know, till mr Patterson called on us, a few days ago, that you had passed on to Washington. I had recently observed in the debates of Congress, a matter introduced, on which I wished to give explanations more fully in conversation which I will now do by abridgment in writing. mr Randolph has proposed an enquiry into certain prosecutions at Common law in Connecticut, for libels on the government; and not only himself but others have stated them with such affected caution & such hints at the same time as to leave on every mind the impression that they had been instituted either by my direction or with my acquiescence at least. this has not been denied by my friends, because probably the fact is unknown to them. I shall state it for their satisfaction, & leave it to be disposed of as they think best. I had observed in a newspaper (some years ago, I do not recollect the time exactly) some dark hints of a prosecution in Connecticut, but so obscurely hinted that I paid little attention to it. some considerable time after, it was again mentioned so that I understood that some prosecution was going on in the federal court there1 for calumnies uttered from the pulpit against me by a clergyman. I immediately wrote to mr Granger, who, I think, was in Connecticut at the time, stating that I had laid it down as a law to myself to take no notice of the thousand calumnies issued against me, but to trust my character to my own conduct & the good sense & candor of my fellow-citizens; that I had found no reason to be dissatisfied with that course, & I was unwilling it should be broke through by others as to any matter concerning me, & therefore requested him to desire the district attorney to dismiss the prosecution. some time after this I heard of subpoenas being served on Genl Lee, David M. Randolph & others as witnesses to attend the trial. I then for the first time conjectured the subject of the libel. I immediately wrote to mr Granger to require an immediate dismission of the prosecution. the answer of mr Huntington, the district attorney was that these spas2 had been issued by the defendant without his knolege, that it had been his intention to dismiss all the prosecutions at the first meeting of the court & to accompany it with an avowal of his opinion that they could not be maintained because the federal court had no jurisdiction over libels. this was accordingly done. I did not till then know that there were other prosecutions of the same nature, nor do I now know what were their subjects. but all went off together, & I afterwards saw in the hands of mr Granger a letter written by the Clergyman disavowing any personal ill will towards me, & solemnly declaring he had never uttered the words charged. I think mr Granger either shewed me, or said there were affidavits of at least half a dozen respectable men who were present at the sermon & swore no such expressions were uttered, & as many equally respectable who swore the contrary. but the clergyman expressed his gratification at the dismission of the prosecution. I write all this from memory & after too long an interval of time to be certain of the exactness of all the details, but I am sure there is no variation material, and mr Granger, correcting small lapses of memory, can confirm every thing substantial. certain it is that the prosecutions had been instituted & had made considerable progress without my knolege, that they were disapproved by me as soon as known, and directed to be discontinued. the attorney did it on the same ground on which I had acted myself in the cases of Duane, Callender & others, to wit that the sedition law was unconstitutional and null, & that my obligation to execute what was law, involved that of not suffering rights secured by valid laws, to be prostrated by what was no law. I always understood that these prosecutions had been invited, if not instituted, by judge Edwards, & the Marshal, being republican, had summoned a grand jury partly, or wholly republican: but that mr Huntington declared from the beginning against the jurisdiction of the court & had determined to enter Nolle prosequis before he recieved my directions to do it.3

I trouble you with another subject. the law making my letters post free, goes to those to me only, not those from me. the bill had got to it’s passage4 before this was observed (and first I believe by mr Dana) & the house under too much pressure of business near the close of the session to bring in another bill. as the privilege of freedom was given to the letters from as well as to both my predecessors, I suppose no reason exists for making a distinction, and in so extensive a correspondence as I am subject to, & still considerably on public matters, it would be a sensible convenience to myself as well as those who have occasion to recieve letters from me. it happens too, as I was told at the time (for I have never looked into it myself) that it was done by two distinct acts on both the former occasions. mr Eppes I think mentioned this to me. I know from the Postmaster general that mr Adams franks all his letters. I state this matter to you as being my representative which must apologise for the trouble of it. we have been seasonable since you left us. yesterday evening & this morning we have had refreshing showers which will close & confirm the business of planting. Affectionately Yours

Th: Jefferson

RC (DLC: Wilson Cary Nicholas Papers); endorsed by Nicholas. PoC (DLC); at foot of first page: “W. C. Nicholas.”

On 25 May 1809 John randolph of Roanoke moved in the United States House of Representatives that a committee be appointed to “inquire whether any, and what, prosecutions have been instituted before courts of the United States for libel at common law, and by what authority.” Debate on the motion centered on the role of the district attorney in a series of libel cases in Connecticut begun by a predominantly Republican court appointed during TJ’s administration, and especially on whether the district attorney had initiated criminal prosecutions at TJ’s direction. If such an order had been issued, Representative George Troup claimed it was not only “highly censurable” but merited impeachment (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States . . . Compiled from Authentic Materials, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. Citations given below are to the edition mounted on the American Memory website of the Library of Congress and give the date of the debate as well as page numbers. description ends , 11th Cong., 1st sess., 75–89 [25 May 1809]). In the second of two letters to Gideon Granger (24, 26 Aug. 1807, letters not found; see Granger to TJ, 8 Sept. 1807 [DLC]) attempting to quash the prosecution, TJ sought to dismiss the charges against clergyman Azel Backus, who purportedly lambasted TJ in an 1804 sermon. TJ presumably inferred from the intended calling as defense witnesses of Henry lee and David Meade randolph that one subject of the libel was his attempted seduction as a young man of the wife of his friend John Walker. Lee and Randolph were both known by their Federalist counterparts in New England to be aware of this controversy (Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , 4:216–23). For an argument that TJ actually knew more about these prosecutions earlier and acted to stop them only when he became aware that the Walker scandal would be aired, see Leonard W. Levy, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (1963), 61–6; by contrast Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , 5:370–91, basically accepts TJ’s version above; Granger’s account, in Nicholas to TJ, 18 July 1809, lends some credence to Levy. The federal marshal was Joseph Willcox.

1Word interlined.

2Abbreviation for “subpoenas.”

3Preceding three words omitted in PoC.

4Preceding three words interlined in place of “nearly through.”

Index Entries

  • Alien and Sedition Acts search
  • Backus, Azel search
  • Callender, James Thomson; and sedition law search
  • common law; and libel prosecutions search
  • Congress, U.S.; resolution on common-law prosecutions search
  • Connecticut; libel prosecutions in search
  • Duane, William; sedition prosecution search
  • Edwards, Ninian; and sedition law search
  • franking privilege; of TJ search
  • Granger, Gideon; and Conn. libel prosecution search
  • Huntington, Samuel; as district attorney search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; franking privilege search
  • Lee, Henry (1756–1818); as defense witness search
  • libel; prosecutions during TJ’s presidency search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); and franking privilege for TJ search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); and TJ’s libel prosecutions search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); letters to search
  • Patterson, Mr.; acquaintance of Nicholas search
  • Randolph, David Meade (ca.1759–1830) search
  • Randolph, John (of Roanoke); resolution on libel prosecution search
  • sedition law search
  • sermons; clergyman tried for comments made during search
  • Troup, George Michael search
  • Walker, Elizabeth Moore (John Walker’s wife); relations with TJ search
  • Walker, John (1744–1809); relations with TJ search
  • Willcox, Joseph; federal marshal search