Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Robert Brooke, 24 May 1795

To Robert Brooke

Monticello May 24. 1795.


A Subpoena in Chancery at the suit of Henry Banks agent and representative of Hunter, Banks, & Co. issued against myself and others was served on me two days ago, as former governor of Virginia. Who the other defendants are I know not, nor yet the foundation of the complaint; but I presume they are the members of the then executive council, and that it is for some of our acts or engagements on behalf of the public. No doubt the plaintiff, before this measure, had applied for satisfaction to the present public authorities, and that they have found his claim unjust. I have thought it my duty to give your Excellency this early notice of the suit, as it may be interesting for the public to take the defence into their own hands from the beginning. Possessed of whatever materials may be proper for defence, the Executive will be much more able to have it conducted properly than I should be, who have neither a scrip of a pen, nor trace in my memory relative to the subject: and it would be particularly agreeable to my great desire of being no further implicated in matters which do not concern me. Whether the defence is to be conducted by the public, or by myself, I should propose, if the counsel employed should think it maintainable, to plead that whatever I may have done in it, I did as the servant of the public and pray to be discharged, leaving the plaintiff to seek his redress from the Commonwealth, against whom the laws allow him a suit, unless they have been changed in that particular since my acquaintance with them. The favor of a line of information as to the necessity of my further attention to this suit will be thankfully received. I avail myself of this occasion of rendering my personal homage to the first magistrate of my country, and of assuring you of the sentiments of high respect and esteem with which I have the honor to be Your Excellency’s Most obedt. & most humble servt

Th: Jefferson

RC (PHi: Dreer Collection); addressed: “Robert Brooke Governor of Virginia”; endorsed.

Robert Brooke (1761?-1800), an attorney and former member of the House of Delegates from Spotsylvania County, served as governor of Virginia from 1794 to 1796 and as state attorney general from 1796 to 1800 (St. George Tucker Brooke, “The Brooke Family,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893- description ends , xix [1911], 100–4; Swem and Williams, Register description begins Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia 1776–1918 …, Richmond, 1918 description ends , ix, 36, 38, 40, 42).

Henry Banks’s suit sought compensation for vessels owned by the Richmond trading firm of Hunter, Banks & Company that had been captured or destroyed in April 1781 after being impressed by Virginia for service against invading British forces. In 1787 the state’s Executive Council rejected Banks’s application for settlement of the claim. Banks considered petitioning Congress, but instead determined, “as the evil flowed from the instrumentality of the State officers,” to bring suit against TJ and other officials responsible for the impressment. TJ evidently succeeded in having himself discharged from the action. In District Court at Richmond in April 1796, Banks won a judgment of £9,681.15.6 against the commonwealth, which was overturned by the Court of Appeals on 3 May 1799 on the grounds that Hunter, Banks & Company had not pursued its claim in county court within the time prescribed by a 1781 statute of limitations (CVSP description begins William P. Palmer and others, eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers … Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond, Richmond, 1875–93, 11 vols. description ends , iv, 371–2, viii, 252; H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, 5 vols. [Richmond, 1931–82], iv, 190; Call, Reports description begins Daniel Call, Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Court of Appeals of Virginia, Richmond, 1801–33, 6 vols. description ends , iv, 338–46; Marshall, Papers description begins Herbert A. Johnson, Charles T. Cullen, Charles F. Hobson, and others, eds., The Papers of John Marshall, Chapel Hill, 1974–2006, 12 vols. description ends , iii, 30n; TJ to the Speaker of the House of Delegates, 3 Mch. 1781; note to James Maxwell to TJ, 26 Apr. 1781; Brooke to TJ, 4 Sep. 1795; TJ to Bushrod Washington, 1 Oct. 1795).

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