Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 15 February 1783

To Edmund Randolph

Baltimore Feb. 15. 1783.

Dear Sir

You will be surprised to hear I am still in America. The vessel, in which Ct. Rochambeau and Chastlux went, having been destined for Cadix it was thought more adviseable for me to take my passage in the Romulus which was to sail within a few days. This was concluded the rather as at the sailing of the Emeraude I had not got half through the necessary communications. The French fleet having sailed about the time the Emeraude did, and all restraint thereby taken off the cruisers there have been 18. Frigates, 2 forties, 4 fifties and a sixty four cruising ever since from Delaware to Chesapeake: so that after waiting a month for the Romulus I find less probability of her sailing now than at first. In the mean time things are changing appearance. I received last night a copy of the k’s speech announcing that preliminaries are agreed between us and them, to be in force on the conclusion of the war with France, that the negotiations with the other powers are considerably advanced, insomuch that he hopes a speedy pacification. I have therefore written to Mr. Livingston that he may submit to Congress a suggestion of the small likelihood there is of my arriving at the scene of negociation in time for any new communications I carry to make impressions on the definitive treaty, to weigh this chance against the certain expence and to say whether they think it more eligible or not for me to discontinue my voiage. Within a week I shall probably get an answer, and within the same space after your receiving this I think it probable you will see me at Richmond, as I shall take that route home to pick up my little family in that neighborhood. The king seems to part with us with a sigh; he makes it his earnest and humble prayer to Almighty god that Great Britain may experience no evils on so important a dismemberment of the empire, and that we may not find in experience as she had done how necessary Monarchy is for the preservation of constitutional liberty. He prays them to turn their attention to their extensive Asiatic possessions and seems to consider these as succeeding to our places. There is much lying and some puffing in the speech.

I hear with very great pleasure thro’ Mr. Madison that you have a thought of qualifying yourself for a seat in the legislature. Indeed I hear it with as much pleasure as I have seen with depression of spirit the very low state to which that body has been reduced. I am satisfied there is in it much good intention, but little knowlege of the science to which they are called. I only fear you will find the unremitting drudgery, to which any one man must be exposed who undertakes to stem the torrent, will be too much for any degree of perseverance. I sincerely wish you may undertake and persevere in it. I hope you will be joined e’er long by Madison and Short. I observe the assembly in it’s last session led into a declaration of a doctrine of the most mischeivous tendency. The object of the paper I allude to was the excluding the return of refugees and insisting on the escheat of their property; a very tempting bait indeed, and which would dispose them not to be nice in the preliminary reasoning which was to lead to it. This matter stands on it’s best ground when urged on the reasonableness of a mutual risk in all contests, on the superior dangers we encountered, and the inequality of our conditions if we staked every thing and they nothing. But not content with this they go on to talk of the dissolution of the social contract on a revolution of government, and much other little stuff by which I collect their meaning to have been that on changing the form of our government all our laws were dissolved, and ourselves reduced to a state of nature. This is precisely the Vermont doctrine against which the other states and Virginia most especially has been strenuously contending. The Vermonteers insist that on the demolition of the regal government all the municipal laws became abrogated, and of course those which had constituted any particular tract of country into one state, that any portion of what had been an integral state had then a right to assume a separate existence, and to govern themselves: and I have no doubt that their next declarations will cite that of the Virginia assembly which is the first authority they have ever had it in their power to cite. For my part, if the term social contract is to be forced from theoretical into practical use, I shall apply it to all the laws obligatory on the state, and which may be considered as contracts to which all the individuals are parties. And that whenever it becomes necessary to amend any of these, whether they respect the mode of administering the government or the transmission or regulation of private property, or any other branch of the laws, that any of these may be amended without affecting the residue. If you and I have a contract of six articles and agree to amend two of them, this does not dissolve the remaining four. The former laws had fixed the mode of transmitting the executive powers from one hand to another, the mode of appointing the judges, the mode of making alterations in the laws. These modes were found prejudicial to the state and it became necessary to change the laws which had fixed them. Why should this abrogate another law which had said that on the death of a father his eldest son shall inherit his lands?———I find also the pride of independance taking deep and dangerous hold on the hearts of individual states. I know no danger so dreadful and so probable as that of internal contests. And I know no remedy so likely to prevent it as the strengthening the band which connects us. We have substituted a Congress of deputies from every state to perform this task: but we have done nothing which would enable them to enforce their decisions. What will be the case? They will not be enforced. The states will go to war with each other in defiance of Congress; one will call in France to her assistance; another Gr. Britain, and so we shall have all the wars of Europe brought to our own doors. Can any man be so puffed up with his little portion of sovereignty as to prefer this calamitous accompaniment to the parting with a little of his sovereign right and placing it in a council from all the states, who being chosen by himself annually, removeable at will, subject in a private capacity to every act of power he does in a public one, cannot possibly do him an injury, or if he does will be subject to be overhauled for it? It is very important to unlearn the lessons we have learnt under our former government, to discard the maxims which were the bulwark of that, but would be the ruin of the one we have erected. I feel great comfort on the prospect of getting yourself and two or three others into the legislature. My ‘humble and earnest prayer to Almighty god’ will be that you may bring into fashion principles suited to the form of government we have adopted, and not of that we have rejected, that you will first lay your shoulders to the strengthening the band of our confederacy and averting those cruel evils to which it’s present weakness will expose us, and that you will see the necessity of doing this instantly before we forget the advantages of union, or acquire a degree of ill-temper against each other which will daily increase the obstacles to that good work. You feel by this time the effects of my idleness here and rejoice in the admonition of my paper that it is time to assure you of the sincere esteem with which I am Dr Sir Your friend & servt,

Th: Jefferson

P.S. Since writing the above the k’s speech is printed here. I therefore inclose a copy.

RC (William M. Elkins, Philadelphia, 1945); endorsed by Randolph: “T. Jefferson Balt. Feby. 15. 1783,” and in a later hand: “found among the letters from J.M. to E.R. returned from the files of the latter to the former.”

The Doctrine of the most mischeivous tendency to which TJ referred was that set forth in the report of the committee of the whole on 17 Dec. 1782 (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1782, 1828 edn., p. 69–70) as follows:

“Whereas, revolutions in States which end in a dissolution of their former government or Constitution, bear no similarity to contests between independent nations, in which the object is the defence and support of their constitutions and governments; inasmuch as in the former, the life, liberty and property of the individual are risked; and in the latter the powers and rights of the whole community in their political capacity are hazarded;

Resolved therefore, unanimously, That when the former constitution or social compact of this country, and the civil laws which existed under it were dissolved, a majority of the inhabitants had, through necessity, an unquestionable natural right to frame a new social compact, and to admit as parties thereto, those only, who would be bound by the laws of the majority; and consequently as no individual can claim immunities, privileges or property in any community but under the laws of that community, so all those who were members of the former government, which, and its dependant laws have been dissolved, abrogated and made void, cannot have legal claim to any immunity, privilege or property under our present constitution, or those laws which flow from it, if they were not parties to the present social compact originally, or have become parties by the subsequent laws thereof;

Resolved, unanimously, That the laws of this State, confiscating property held under the laws of the former government (which have been dissolved and made void,) by those who have never been admitted into the present social compact, being founded on legal principles, were strongly dictated by that principle of common justice, which demands, that if virtuous citizens, in defence of their natural and constitutional rights, risk their life, liberty and property on their success, the vicious citizens, who side with tyranny and oppression, or who cloak themselves under the mask of neutrality, should at least hazard their property, and not enjoy the benefits procured by the labors and dangers of those whose destruction they wished;

Resolved, unanimously, That all demands or requests of the British Court for the restitution of property confiscated by this State, being neither supported by law, equity or policy, are wholly inadmissable; and that our delegates in Congress be instructed to move Congress, that they may direct their deputies, who shall represent these States in the General Congress, for adjusting a peace or truce, neither to agree to any such restitution, or submit that the laws made by any independent State of this Union, be subjected to the adjudication of any power or powers on earth.”

These resolutions and resultant legislation prohibiting admission of British subjects into Virginia and denying British creditors access to Virginia courts (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 136–8, 176–80) were in part due to the resolutions of Congress of 4 Oct. 1782 strongly recommending to the states adoption of a strict policy of non-intercourse with British subjects and in part to an influx of British merchants who sought to recover debts owed by Virginians (see Harrell, Loyalism in Virginia, 123ff.). In pursuance of these laws Governor Harrison issued a proclamation forbidding British subjects to enter or remain in Virginia and the Council revoked special leave it had previously given to John Wormeley and others. Some merchants attempted to land in Virginia under protection of flags of truce, and the Governor and Council made every effort to stop such abuses even before Congress and the legislature had acted. On 24 Jan. 1782 the minutes of Council contain the following: “Mr. Thomas C. Williams Captain of a Brigantine Flag of Truce from New York, now lying at York town having come up to Richmond without permission from the Executive under pretext of applying for leave to remain in this State to settle his accounts for purchases alledged to have been made from his Agents in York under the Capitulation of the 19th of October 1781, The Board advise that Mr. Williams be directed to return immediately to York and there embark without loss of time and return to New York. That if his Vessell shall not depart from York before the 28th Instant she will be seized, and the Master and Crew Committed to Prison. The Board are induced to give this advice as Mr. Williams conduct is a manifest violation of the rights of Flags” (when Williams fell ill the Council extended the time to 4 Feb.; MS Va. Council Jour., 24, 28 Jan. 1782).

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