Thomas Jefferson Papers
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From Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 24 November 1801

To James Monroe

Washington Nov. 24. 1801.

Dear Sir

I had not been unmindful of your letter of June 15, covering a resolution of the House of Representatives of Virginia, and referred to in your’s of the 17th. inst. the importance of the subject, and the belief that it gave us time for consideration till the next meeting of the legislature have induced me to defer the answer to this date. you will percieve that some circumstances, connected with the subject, & necessarily presenting themselves to view, would be improper but for your’s & the legislative ear. their publication might have an ill effect in more than one quarter. in confidence of attention to this, I shall indulge greater freedom in writing.

Common malefactors, I presume, make no part of the object of that resolution. neither their numbers, nor the nature of their offences, seem to require any provisions beyond those practised heretofore, & found adequate to the repression of ordinary crimes. Conspiracy, insurgency, treason, rebellion, among that description of persons who brought, on us the alarm, and on themselves the tragedy, of 1800, were doubtless within the view of every one: but many perhaps contemplated, and one expression of the resolution might comprehend, a much larger scope. respect to both opinions makes it my duty to understand the resolution in all the extent of which it is susceptible.

The idea seems to be to provide for these people by a purchase of lands; and it is asked Whether such a purchase can be made of the US. in their Western territory? a very great extent of country, North of the Ohio, has been laid off into townships, and is now at market, according to the provisions of the acts of Congress, with which you are acquainted. there is nothing which would restrain the state of Virginia either in the purchase or the application of these lands. but a purchase, by the acre, might perhaps be a more expensive provision than the H. of Representatives contemplated. questions would also arise whether the establishment of such a colony, within our limits, & to become a part of our Union, would be desireable to the state of Virginia itself, or to the other states, especially those who would be in it’s vicinity?

Could we procure lands beyond the limits of the US. to form a receptacle for these people? on our Northern boundary, the country not occupied by British subjects, is the property of Indian nations, whose title would be to be extinguished, with the consent of Great Britain; & the new settlers would be British subjects. it is hardly to be believed that either Great Britain or the Indian proprietors have so disinterested a regard for us as to be willing to relieve us by recieving such a colony themselves; and as much to be doubted whether that race of men could long exist in so rigorous a climate. on our Western & Southern frontiers, Spain holds an immense country; the occupancy of which however is in the Indian nations; except a few insulated spots possessed by Spanish subjects. it is very questionable indeed Whether the Indians would sell? whether Spain would be willing to recieve these people? and nearly certain that she would not alienate the sovereignty. the same question to ourselves would recur here also, as did in the first case: should we be willing to have such a colony in contact with us? however our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, & cover the whole Northern, if not the Southern continent with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, & by similar laws: nor can we contemplate, with satisfaction, either blot or mixture on that surface.   Spain, France, and Portugal hold possessions on the Southern continent, as to which I am not well enough informed to say how far they might meet our views. but either there, or in the Northern continent, should the constituted authorities of Virginia fix their attention, of preference, I will have the dispositions of those powers sounded in the first instance.

The West Indies offer a more probable & practicable retreat for them. inhabited already by a people of their own race & colour; climates congenial with their natural constitution; insulated from the other descriptions of men; Nature seems to have formed these islands to become the receptacle of the blacks transplanted into this hemisphere. whether we could obtain from the European sovereigns of those islands leave to send thither the persons under contemplation, I cannot say: but I think it more probable than the former propositions, because of their being already inhabited more or less by the same race. the most promising portion of them is the island of St. Domingo, where the blacks are established into a sovereignty de facto, & have organised themselves under regular laws & government. I should conjecture that their present ruler might be willing, on many considerations, to recieve even that description which would be exiled for acts deemed criminal by us, but meritorious perhaps by him. the possibility that these exiles might stimulate & conduct vindictive or predatory descents on our coasts, & facilitate concert with their brethren remaining here, looks to a state of things between that island & us1 not probable on a contemplation of our relative strength, and of the disproportion daily growing: and it is over-weighed by the humanity of the measures proposed, & the advantages of disembarrassing ourselves of such dangerous characters.   Africa would offer a last & undoubted resort, if all others more desireable should fail us. Whenever the legislature of Virginia shall have brought it’s mind to a point, so that I may know exactly what to propose to foreign authorities, I will execute their wishes with fidelity & zeal. I hope however they will pardon me for suggesting a single question for their own consideration. when we contemplate the variety of countries & of sovereigns towards which we may direct our views, the vast revolutions & changes of circumstance which are now in a course of progression, the possibilities that arrangements now to be made with a view to any particular place may, at no great distance of time, be totally deranged by a change of sovereignty, of government, or of other circumstances, it will be for the legislature to consider Whether, after they shall have made all those general provisions which may be fixed by legislative authority, it would be reposing too much confidence in their executive to leave the place of relegation to be decided on by him, & executed with the aid of the Federal executive? these could accomodate2 their arrangements to the actual state of things, in which countries or powers may be found to exist at the day; and may prevent the effect of the law from being defeated by intervening3 changes. this however is for them to decide. our duty will be to respect their decision.

Accept assurances4 of my constant affection, & high consideration and respect.

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of first page: “Governor Monroe”; with later emendation by TJ in ink, ca. 12–13 Dec. 1801 (see note 2 below). RC not found; altered by Monroe (see note 2) and transmitted to the Virginia General Assembly, 21 Dec. 1801 (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Miscellaneous, 1:466); printed in same, 465, and in 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. The first two volumes of the set cited here have “Compiled … by Joseph Gales, Senior” on the title page and bear the caption “Gales & Seatons History” on verso and “of Debates in Congress” on recto pages. The remaining volumes bear the caption “History of Congress” on both recto and verso pages. Those using the first two volumes with the latter caption will need to employ the date of the debate or the indexes of debates and speakers. description ends , 16:995–8 (appendix), from documents communicated to the Senate on 16 Jan. 1807. Enclosed in the preceding document.

In the aftermath of the discovery of the slave conspiracy of 1800, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation allowing for the eviction from the state, rather than the execution, of condemned slaves. By a resolution of 31 Dec. 1800, which Monroe enclosed to TJ on 15 June 1801, the legislature requested the governor to correspond with the president to find a place to send such transported criminals (Vol. 32:145n, 482n; Monroe to TJ, 15 June 1801, first letter). Years earlier, for the revisal of Virginia’s laws begun in 1777, TJ had drafted “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital” that included the provision: “Slaves guilty of any offence punishable in others by labor in the public works, shall be transported to such parts in the West Indies, S. America or Africa, as the Governor shall direct, there to be continued in slavery.” Madison introduced the bill in the assembly, but it failed to pass in 1785 and 1786 (Vol. 2:314, 492, 504, 505–6n).

The Virginia House of Delegates passed resolutions in response to the letter above on 16 Jan. 1802, immediately after Monroe informed the legislature of the discovery of a new plot for a slave insurrection. In those resolutions, the legislators repeated TJ’s language to confirm that they were not interested in finding a destination for ordinary criminals, but for those who engaged in conspiracy, insurgency, treason, and rebellion (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Miscellaneous, 1:466; Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 [Chapel Hill, 1993], 153).

As Monroe informed the General Assembly when he laid this letter before them, although there had been some initial intention to find a tract north of the ohio, he believed that “a liberal construction of the resolution admitted a greater scope.” When Monroe asked for TJ’s opinion he drew attention to the fact that the assembly’s request did not “preclude” a site outside the United States (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Miscellaneous, 1:466; Monroe to TJ, 15 June 1801).

Present Ruler: Toussaint-Louverture.

In the resolutions of 16 Jan. 1802, drafted by the House of Delegates and agreed to by the Virginia Senate, the lawmakers asked that the governor and the president give preference to africa or South America as a destination for the rebellious slaves. The assembly also asked Monroe to correspond with the president to identify a place outside the United States where free blacks or mulattoes, or those who might be emancipated, could be sent “or choose to remove as a place of asylum.” It was not the assembly’s intention, according to the resolution, to acquire sovereignty over the locale on behalf of the people who might go there (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Miscellaneous, 1:466; Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion, 153–4). Monroe enclosed the legislature’s resolutions in a letter he wrote to TJ on 13 Feb. 1802.

In both ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Miscellaneous, 1:464–7, and 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. The first two volumes of the set cited here have “Compiled … by Joseph Gales, Senior” on the title page and bear the caption “Gales & Seatons History” on verso and “of Debates in Congress” on recto pages. The remaining volumes bear the caption “History of Congress” on both recto and verso pages. Those using the first two volumes with the latter caption will need to employ the date of the debate or the indexes of debates and speakers. description ends , 16:994–1000 (appendix), TJ’s letter above was printed as part of a set of documents that included the legislature’s resolution of 31 Dec. 1800; Monroe’s letter to TJ of 15 June 1801; Monroe’s to the assembly, 21 Dec. 1801, conveying TJ’s letter; a letter from TJ to Governor John Page, 27 Dec. 1804; a subsequent General Assembly resolution; and a letter from Page to Virginia’s representatives in Congress, 2 Feb. 1805. The documents were reprinted in publications dealing with the colonization movement, such as Archibald Alexander, A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa (Philadelphia, 1846), 63–72, and Philip Slaughter, The Virginian History of African Colonization (Richmond, 1855), 1–6.

1Preceding five words interlined.

2In response to a letter from Monroe, dated 8 Dec. 1801 and received 12 Dec., TJ used ink on the PrC to shorten and alter the preceding passage to read: “decided on by them. they could accomodate.” Monroe emended the passage differently on the RC; when he laid TJ’s letter before the legislature, the only alterations to the passage as TJ had originally written it were the substitution of “them” for “him” and “they” for “these” (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Miscellaneous, 1:465; Monroe to TJ, 8, 21 Dec.; TJ to Monroe, 13 Dec.).

3TJ first wrote “by any changes in them” before altering the phrase to read as above.

4Remainder of closing replaced by “&c.” in ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Miscellaneous, 1:465.

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