Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, [June? 1776]

To George Wythe

[June? 1776]

The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society, depend so much upon an upright and skilful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that. The judges, therefore, should always be men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great patience, calmness, coolness and attention; their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men. To these ends they should hold estates for life in their offices, or, in other words, their commissions should be during good behaviour, and their salaries ascertained and established by law.

For misbehaviour, the grand inquest of the colony, the house of representatives, should impeach them before the governor and council, when they should have time and opportunity to make their defence; but if convicted, should be removed from their offices, and subjected to such other punishment as shall be thought proper.

Th: Jefferson

MS not located. Text from an extract in Charleston (S.C.) Courier, 6 April 1803, where it is stated that the letter was written by TJ to Wythe in 1776.

The text of this letter is highly suspect and the date uncertain. Wythe had left Congress on 13 June, and soon afterward (as we know from John Page’s letter of 6 July) TJ wrote him a letter that dealt with personal matters and that may have dealt with the Virginia Constitution. The present extract may have been taken from this missing letter, but both its substance and the circumstances under which the only version known came to light throw grave doubts upon its authenticity. The provisions for the Virginia judiciary stated in the extract do not wholly conform to any known plan proposed by TJ; for example, he advocated in his authentic proposals of this period that state officers be paid only expenses, not salaries. The extract was printed in the Courier as part of a violent Federalist attack upon the national administration during the controversy over the federal judiciary in 1803. How a personal letter written in 1776 by TJ to Wythe (who was still alive in 1803) could have come into a Charleston newspaper editor’s hands is not accounted for.

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