Thomas Jefferson Papers

VI. Resolution on the Privileges and Immunities of Congress, [ca. November–December 1783]

VI. Resolution on the Privileges and Immunities of Congress

[ca. Nov.-Dec. 1783]

1. Resolved that the object of the several states in appointing delegates to meet in General Congress being that they may therein transact for the good of the Union in general and their State in particular1 those matters which the Confederation has submitted to the direction of Congress, the said delegates ought to be invested in the place where they may be sitting with such privileges and immunities2 as will cover them from molestation and disturbance, and leave them in freedom and tranquillity to apply their whole time and attention to the objects of their delegation.

2. That territory and exclusive jurisdiction in and about the place of their session is not necessary to attain these ends and would subject them to avocations from their proper objects.

3. That long experience has led the civilized nations of Europe3 to an ascertainment of those privileges and immunities which may enable the representatives of an independant nation exercising high functions within another to do the same unawed and undisturbed and that therefore the privileges and immunities annexed by the law and usage of nations to such characters should be allowed to the Congress of the united states collectively and to their members individually by the laws of the states in and adjacent to which they may be sitting and should be secured in their continuance by sufficient sanction.

4. That legal provision should also be made for protecting and vindicating those privileges and immunities to which foreign ministers and others attending on Congress are entitled by the law of nations.

5. That Congress will rely on the honour and affection of the states in and adjacent to which they may be sitting as a security that measures shall be provided for preventing violations of the rights4 before stated in general and duly punishing them when arising too suddenly for prevention.

6. That the United States should be made capable of acquiring and holding in perpetuum such grounds and buildings in and about the place of the session of Congress as may be necessary for the transaction of business by their own body, their committees and officers, that each state should be made capable of acquiring and holding in perpetuum such grounds and buildings as they may at any time think proper to acquire and erect for the personal accomodation of their delegates: and that the grounds and buildings beforementioned so long as Congress or a Committee of the states shall be resident at such place should5 be exempt from taxation.6

7. That as in time of war the enemies of these states might employ emissaries and spies to discover the views and proceedings of Congress, that body should have authority within a certain distance of the place of their session to arrest and deal with as they shall think proper all persons, not being citizens of these states nor entitled to their protection, whom they shall have cause to suspect to be spies.

8. That as the United states in Congress assembled represent the sovereignty of the whole Union, their body collectively and their President individually should on all occasions have precedence of all other bodies and persons.

9. That during the recess of Congress the Committee of the states being left to pursue the same objects and under the same circumstances their body, their members, and their President should respectively be placed on the same footing with the body, the members and the President of Congress.

MS (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand, with a number of deletions and corrections, of which the more important are noted below. At foot of page 2 TJ made the following note: “contempts Congr. and states made capable of holding lands. Qu. if free from taxes?” Immediately above this is the following: “Resolved that Congress, in the place where they may be sitting, need no powers or privileges, other than these”; this corresponds with what became paragraph 2 and its position on the page (upside-down in relation to the note just quoted) indicates that TJ originally intended this as the opening paragraph. Despite these notes and the numerous alterations, this MS has every appearance of being a copy of some preceding draft. There is no record in the Journals that this resolution was read in Congress, nor is there any indication on the MS or elsewhere of the date of composition. Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed.,The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,“Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends iii, 463, prints it (with indications of alterations) under the conjectured date of 14 Apr. 1784; Burnett, Letters of Members description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress description ends , vii, No. 519, note 7, prints it as a note to TJ to Madison, 20 Feb. 1784 on the ground that it “seems more probable … that the resolution was prepared about this time.” The editors reject both dates as less probable than the period Nov.-Dec. 1783 during which TJ is known to have been at work on related documents as shown in the present series; it is certainly implausible to suggest that he may have drafted this resolution around 20 Feb. 1784 when, in the letter to Madison of that date, TJ remarked: “Georgetown languishes. The smile is hardly covered now when the federal towns are spoken of.”

The question of jurisdiction was brought to the fore with Benjamin Hawkins’ motion of 8 July 1783 for the appointment of a committee to “consider and define the jurisdiction proper to be established by Congress within the bounds of the district that may be allotted to them by the State in which they may choose to fix their permanent residence.” Madison became a member of the committee on 23 July; a report was handed in 5 Sep. 1783 to the effect that Congress “ought to enjoy an exclusive jurisdiction over the District which may be ceded and accepted” and that this district should be not less than three nor more than six miles square. This report was debated 22 Sep. and then, or at some other date, Madison and Arthur Lee offered resolutions that were clearly drafted with the Williamsburg proceedings in view; both resolutions agreed that Congress should have exclusive jurisdiction, but where Madison thought the government of the district ought to be “concerted between Congress and the inhabitants,” Lee felt that Congress should appoint judges and executive officers, and that the inhabitants should have the privilege of trial by jury and should be governed by “Laws made by Representatives of their own election.” These motions and the report of the committee were not acted upon, and in the debates of 7 and 18–21 Oct. on a place of residence, the issue was left indeterminate by the use of such a proviso as the following: “that the right of soil and an exclusive or such other jurisdiction as Congress may direct, shall be vested in the United States” (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, D.C., 1904–37, 34 vols. description ends , xxiv, 428; xxv, 603, 604, 654, 656, 657, 698, 707, 712, 714). TJ’s resolution, of course, differed from all of these by applying usages of the law of nations to the problem of protecting the delegates in their functions and by rejecting as unnecessary the idea of an exclusive jurisdiction within the district. When the unfinished business of Congress was reviewed in May 1784 the “Report on Jurisdiction proper for Congress … together with proceedings of inhabitants of Williamsburg relative to that subject” was referred to the next meeting of Congress (same, xxvii, 403).

1TJ first wrote: “of their several states and of the Union in general” and then altered the passage to read as above.

2This word interlined in substitution for “exemptions,” deleted.

3This passage originally read: “the legations which have been practised among the civilized nations of Europe have led by a long course of experience,” and was then altered to read as above.

4The words “when forewarn[ed]” are deleted at this point.

5“Shall” is deleted at this point.

6This paragraph was written on a separate slip attached by wafer to the MS; paragraph 4 is written in the margin. Since the numbering of the paragraphs shows no erasures or overwriting, it is clear that this was done after the additions represented in this and paragraph 4 had been made.

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