Thomas Jefferson Papers

VI. On the Settlement of Disputes between States by Judicial Means, [after June 1784]

VI. On the Settlement of Disputes between States by Judicial Means

[After June 1784]

The territory of Wioming which had been in dispute between the states of Connecticut and Pennsylvania having been adjudged to the latter by a court constituted according to the articles of confederation, the individuals claiming the private right of soil under the two states have in pursuance of the same articles asked from Congress and obtained the appointment of a second federal court to decide their individual rights.

A federal court is also granted by Congress to decide the claims on the territory of Vermont which have been so long existing. This territory is claimed by New Hampshire, Massachusets and New York and also insists of itself to be adjudged to neither, but to be erected into a separate state incorporated into the union.

Perhaps history1 cannot produce such another proof of the empire of reason and right in any part of the world as these new states now exhibit. Other nations have only been able to submit private contests to judiciary determination; but these new states have gone further. They have set the example of binding a court for the trial of nations, which submit to the decisions of that court as quietly as2

Thus we see these infant states, instead of leaving their national differences to be decided by the sword, the ultima ratio regum, instead of deluging the land with human blood and covering it with human misery upon honest difference of opinion, have by wise and just arrangements submitted the causes of Nations to be weighed in the scales of justice by a tribunal so constituted as to ensure the confidence of all parties and so supported by the rest of the3 Union as to secure the execution of it’s decisions.

MS (DLC: TJ Papers, 11: 1911); entirely in TJ’s hand, with a number of deletions and interlineations, some of which are noted below; written on the first of four pages of a folded leaf on which there appears also the text of an article TJ wrote for the Gazette de Leyde in Nov. 1784. The present text appears to have been on the leaf before the Gazette article was written; hence it was evidently composed prior to 20 Nov. 1784 (see notes to TJ to Dumas, 20 Nov. 1784). It is certain that it was written after 3 June 1784. On 24 Apr. 1784 the New York delegates in Congress submitted the instructions of the New York legislature demanding that Congress make an immediate settlement of the long-standing dispute over the New Hampshire Grants (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 , xxvi, 283–7). This representation was assigned the same day to a committee of which TJ was chairman and Roger Sherman was a member (PCC: No. 186). No report was made before TJ left Congress and he was obliged to entrust the “papers relating to Vermont” to Blanchard who succeeded him as chairman of the Grand Committee (TJ to Thomson, 21 May 1784). The committee was renewed on 17 May, and when a report was finally submitted on 29 May it was written by Sherman and carried the recommendation that Vermont be admitted to the union under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xxvii, 481–4, 532–6). This report was not approved, but on 3 June 1784, the last day of the session, Congress granted the petition of Massachusetts requesting that a federal court be set up to decide the dispute between that state and New York over the Vermont area (same, xxvii, 547–50). This court never came into existence, but it is clear that TJ could not have written the present text until after the court respecting Vermont had been authorized. He must have learned of this authorization while in Boston in June and, since this text bears the appearance of having been written for publication, he may have intended it for a Boston newspaper. It is more plausible to assume, however, that he wrote it soon after arriving in Europe and that it, like the other text on the same leaf, was aimed at a European audience. It is also possible that TJ intended it as a note to be inserted in Notes on the State of Virginia.

But the reflections embodied in these remarks may have been set down earlier. In the issue of the Phila. Freeman’s Journal for 21 Jan. 1783 there appeared an introductory statement to a summarization of the respective claims of Pennsylvania and Connecticut published in this and subsequent issues. The substance and phraseology of this statement are so closely parallel to certain passages in the present document as to suggest that TJ must have read them and may indeed have been their author. TJ was then in Philadelphia, and Griffin, on his way back to Virginia, must have seen him and presented to him at that time the notes of arguments by Wilson and Johnson. It was at this time, too, that Robert R. Livingston wrote his famous letter to Lafayette commenting upon the significance of the Trenton decision (10 Jan. 1783; see editorial note above). Certainly the decision seems to have stirred the hopes of many leaders in the early days of 1783 and to have inspired renewed confidence in the Confederation. The introductory statement in the Freeman’s Journal reads in part as follows: “Agreeable to our promise, we present our readers with a short but authentic abstract of the proceedings in the great cause lately decided between this state and Connecticut. … This celebrated cause … presents to the world a new and extraordinary spectacle: Two powerful and populous states, sovereign and independent (except as members of the federal Union) contending for a tract of country equal in extent to many, and superior to some European kingdoms. Instead of recurring to arms, the ultima ratio of kings and states, they submit to the arbitration of judges mutually chosen from indifferent states. The merits of their pretentions are examined by the rules of reason and judgment, framed upon the testimony of records and public documents. …” The parallel between these remarks and the present document is obvious; both have a Jeffersonian ring, and it is possible that, during the days that he was awaiting an opportunity to go to France in Jan. 1783, TJ may have written an early version of this memorandum for the editor of Freeman’s Journal.

1This word interlined in substitution for “the world,” deleted.

2This paragraph has a vertical line drawn through it, indicating—as does the incomplete sentence—that TJ intended to delete it. It is also evident that a break may have come after the word “binding,” for the sentence as originally composed read in part: “… these new states … have been able to establish a court for the trial of nations,” &c. This was then altered by the deletion of part but not all of the sentence, thus making it appear that “court” is the object of “binding” when, as originally phrased, it was the object of “establish.”

3The preceding three words interlined in substitution for “whole,” deleted. The emendation is a wry commentary on Connecticut’s attitude toward the decision of the Court of Commissioners in the case of Pennsylvania v. Connecticut.

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