Thomas Jefferson Papers

Opinion of Attorney General on the Case of James O’Fallon, 14 February 1791

Opinion of Attorney General on the Case of
James O’Fallon

Feb. 14. 1791.

The opinion is,

  • 1. That the attorney for the district of Kentucky do forthwith take the most effectual measures for prosecuting according to law  O’Fallon; and that he be informed, that, unless the testimony within his reach will clearly subject him to the charge of treason, the prosecution be for a riot.
  • 2. That a proclamation issue, reciting the treaties, law and former proclamation on this subject, and declaring the purpose of the executive, that the disturbers of the public peace shall be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law.

The measures fit to be taken by way of precaution to the commandant of Fort Washington, are not here noticed.

PrC (DLC); in handwriting of Edmund Randolph, except for date and some overwriting of blurred words which are in TJ’s hand. Recorded in SJPL.

James O’Fallon, an Irish adventurer who acted as general agent of the South Carolina Yazoo Company in Kentucky, entered into correspondence with Governor Miró of New Orleans in 1790, claiming that his company intended to establish an independent government allied to Spain (see O’Fallon to Miró, 16 July 1790; Lawrence Kinnaird, “Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765–1794,” AHA description begins American Historical Association description ends , Ann. Rept., 1945, iii, pt. ii, 359–60). He presented his plans under a different coloring in a letter to Washington in September. But it was not until late in the session that Washington laid before the Senate a “volume of a letter from a Dr. O’Fallon … avowing the raising of a vast body of men in the Kentucky country to force a settlement with the Yazoo country” (Maclay, Journal, ed. Maclay description begins Edgar S. Maclay, ed., Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennslyvania, 1789–1791, New York, 1890 description ends , p. 378). Maclay interpreted this and other documents transmitted at the same time as meaning a desire for more troops to defend the western frontiers. But, as indicated by the above opinion of the Attorney General—actually a joint one as proved by TJ’s part in the composition and by his recording it in SJPL—the response of the administration to the threat of potential treason in the West did not contemplate such a use of force as Hamilton would later advocate. Washington sent a copy of O’Fallon’s missive to Henry Knox, who transmitted it to Senator Ralph Izard with the suggestion that, “as it contains insinuations which are most probably unfounded, against several gentlemen of respectable characters,” it would be highly improper to publish it (Lear to Knox, 15 Jan. 1791, DLC: Washington Papers; Knox to Izard, 31 Mch. 1791, MHi: Knox Papers).

The President’s proclamation was not issued until 19 Mch. 1791, just as Washington was setting off for the South (Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 250). Since John Brown of Kentucky had departed at least ten days earlier and bore important letters from TJ, it would appear that if O’Fallon had given any real concern the proclamation would have been issued in time for him to convey it (see Editorial Note to group of documents on new approaches to Spain, under 10 Mch. 1791). O’Fallon’s voluminous letter probably exposed his romantic nature enough to convince TJ that the men from beyond the mountains in whom he had such confidence would not support such a leader (on O’Fallon’s intrigues, see A. P. Whitaker, Spanish—American Frontier, p. 132; J. C. Parish, “The Intrigues of Doctor James O’Fallon,” MVHR description begins Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 1914- description ends , xvii [Sep. 1930], 230–63; see also, William Murray to TJ, 12 May 1791).

The text of the proclamation against O’Fallon conforms in substance to the advice given in the above opinion (see illustration in this volume). Although no text exists in TJ’s hand, it was almost certainly drawn as well as attested and printed by the Secretary of State (see Volume 17: 365; 50 copies of the proclamation were issued). The former proclamation on that subject—that of 26 Aug. 1790—has been attributed to TJ (Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 99, note 71). While it was attested by TJ and perhaps was also a collaborative effort, that proclamation is actually in the hand of Edmund Randolph (MS in MHi: Knox Papers).

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