Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Delivet, 22 August 1790

To Pierre Delivet

New York, August 22. 1790.


In answer to your several letters complaining of an illegal imprisonment of your person, I have to observe to you that the constitution of the United States having lodged the Executive and Judiciary powers in different bodies, and the Judiciary alone having the power to imprison or to enlarge the person, the Executive cannot interfere nor give any order in your behalf. Such an order would be disregarded as a mere nullity. To the judiciary alone then you can apply, and if your imprisonment is contrary to law, there is no doubt they will release you.

If I have been long in answering you, it was from a knowledge I could do nothing for your relief; from a presumption that your sentence has been according to law, because pronounced by your Consular Court, pronounced by the Federal Court, and not complained of by your Minister here, the natural Patron of the King’s subjects: and from a multiplicity of business, which does not leave me time for correspondencies, as useless to the individuals they may concern as to the Public.-I am Sir, your very humble servant,

Th: Jefferson

FC (DNA: RG 59, SDC). Not recorded in SJL.

The first of Delivet’s several letters was dated “a la Prison de Baltimore Le 9: May 1790” and described its author as “Pierre Delivet, Sous Lieutenant des Vaisseaux du Roy, Capitaine Commandant et Gerant par permis de Sa Majesté tres Chretienne un Batiment du Commerce du Havre en Normandie.” Delivet stated that he arrived in Baltimore in April 1786 on “une petite Expedition” for a company of merchants of Le Havre, Rouen, and Paris; that one of the Paris associates, because of “Difficultés de Compte,” entered suit in the consular court of Baltimore, where sentence was pronounced 22 Oct. 1789; that he learned of this 18 Feb. 1790 and appealed the next day to the parlement of Rennes in Brittany, but that one of the judges, prior to the trial, had been given full powers by his former associate and two others were prejudiced; that the judges had invoked the laws of Maryland although forbidden to do so by French law and the Consular Convention; that on 24 Mch. 1790 a writ of ejectment was served on him and on the same day another writ compelled him to appear before the federal court at Annapolis, whereupon he was arrested, being kept in a “Lugubre Prison” until the 6th of May when he was taken to the Annapolis prison; that the next day his cause came on for trial, whereupon he presented to the court a copy of the gazette of 20 Apr. 1790 containing the text of Art. xvi of the Consular Convention and showed them, in addition to his letters of appeal to the parlement of Rennes, Arts. iv and v, but “n’ont eu auquun Egard”; that on the 8th the court remanded him to the prison at Baltimore, where he now is; and that he therefore appeals to TJ to give orders to whomever it may concern to nullify the writ of ejectment and the writ pending in the federal court as being contrary to the Consular Convention (RC in DNA: RG 59, MLR; recorded in SJL as received 14 May 1790; another letter from Delivet of 21 July 1790 is in RG 59, MLR; it is recorded in SJL as received on the 27th). On 16 Aug. 1790 Delivet wrote again, this time in English, saying that he had hoped TJ’s honor and humanity would prompt him to answer but that he found “I am Mistake of Both … and I find that I perish in Geal. My health, My Liberty Captive, My Reputation Loss, and the ruin of my Interest for the sake of the Bad Conduct of Some Judges that have Refuse to Read, or to observe and Perform the Article xii of the Convention, where all my Cause is Explain and interpret in full‥‥ What the federal Court have to interfere therein our Article forbid them to take any Cognisance” (RC in DNA: RG 59, MLR; endorsed by TJ as received 21 Aug. 1790 and so recorded in SJL). On the evening of 21 Aug. 1790 Washington and TJ returned from the presidential jaunt to Rhode Island (Dumbauld, Jefferson, p. 156–8). The next morning, Sunday, TJ wrote the above letter and soon thereafter received one from Tobias Lear enclosing another from Delivet “which the president found on his arrival last evening” (Dft in DNA: RG 59, MLR; FC in same, SDC; not recorded in SJL). TJ at once replied to Washington, saying he had not answered Delivet’s letter of “some time ago” because of “some expectation that, if [the imprisonment] were unjust, Mr. Otto would complain of it”; he enclosed a press copy of the above letter and added: “If the President would wish any other or further answer to be given, Th: J. will be ready to do it; he cannot suggest any thing additional unless the President would chuse that he should recommend to the Attorney of the District to attend to the case of Delivel” (FC in DNA: RG 59, SDC; dated “Sunday August 22nd. 1790” not recorded in SJL). Evidently Washington suggested that TJ write to the federal district attorney, for on 23 Aug. 1790 he stated the facts about “Peter Delivel” to Richard Potts of Baltimore and added: “The circumstances however which he mentions himself excite a presumption that his imprisonment is regular; nevertheless, as it may be otherwise, and he, as a stranger, may not know how to obtain relief, I take the liberty of requesting you to make such enquiry into his case as may satisfy yourself; and if you find the case to be such as is relievable in law, that you be so good as to put him into the way of obtaining it” (FC in DNA: RG 59, PCC No. 120).

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