Thomas Jefferson Papers

Statement for the Aurora, 25 March 1800

Statement for the Aurora

subjoin to the letter1 ‘It will be observed that the preceding letter is dated at Paris in 1787. mr Jones, to whom it is addressed, awaited mr Jefferson’s return to America, & authorised his agent to settle it with him there. immediately on his arrival in Virginia in Dec.2 1789 he procured a meeting with the agent & the other gentlemen interested, and an amicable settlement was made in writing, on the principles of the letter. mr Jefferson immediately sold property again to the whole amount of the debt,3 and in the course of the 1st. and 2d. years, delivered over the obligations recieved for it to the agent, who took on himself the collection of the money. so that it is now seven or eight years since he has paid up this debt.’*4

The views of others5 with respect to these debts, I am not able to state; my absence making me a stranger to them. mr Nicholas can better do it, either in addition to the preceding paragraph, or in any other place he thinks fit.—if the letter should not be in Duane’s paper of this morning, it is desireable that this addition should be made here; and it will save the trouble of doing it in another place.—the correction in the first column is the same furnished to mr Mason, and will I suppose appear in the Aurora6

Mar. 25. 1800.

* There was another claim made by the agent of the same house of Farrell & Jones against the executors of mr Wayles. that house had consigned to mr Wayles7 & another a cargo of about 4000.£ value to be sold on commission, on account of the consignors.8 mr Wayles assisted in the sale, but died soon after; and the whole collection survived to the other consignee, who recieved it, wasted it, & died bankrupt. the agent thought he would try the chance of recovering the money from the executors of mr Wayles, though they had not recieved it. but, on the first hearing, eleven of the jury determined at once against their liability; but, a twelfth member dissenting, the case laid over to the next Federal court, when a second jury, concurring unanimously with the eleven of the first, gave verdict for the executors, and agreeably to the opinions of Judge Iredell, who had presided at one hearing & of judge Patterson at the other. mr J. Marshall9 & judge Washington, then of the bar, were of counsel for the executors.   palpably unfounded as this claim was, the trumpet of calumny10 swelled it, when it suited a particular purpose, from one third of £4000. to 40,000.£ & from a groundless claim to an unquestionable debt, which was to swallow up all11 mr Jefferson’s fortune.12 it was in truth, on the part of the agent, a mere speculation on the chances of the law: and failing in this, he is now demanding the debt, under the British treaty, on the ground of bankruptcy in the other consignee, the real debtor, who alone recieved and wasted the money.

MS (Thomas A. Lingenfelter, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1994); entirely in TJ’s hand. The Philadelphia Aurora of 5 Apr. 1800 printed portions of this text (see below) without identifying TJ as the author.

Subjoin to the letter: in the document printed above, TJ furnished William Duane’s Philadelphia Aurora with explanatory text to be published in that newspaper along with TJ’s letter of 5 Jan. 1787 to William Jones of the English firm of Farell & Jones. In that letter, printed at Vol. 11:14–18, TJ had outlined his proposed arrangement to pay his share of what the estate of his deceased father-in-law, John Wayles, owed to the firm. He referred also to his personal debt to another company, Kippen & Co. of Glasgow, and explained his refusal to pay interest on British debts for the period of the Revolutionary War, basing his argument on economic and practical, rather than political, reasons. The letter, preceded by an introduction of several paragraphs, had appeared in the Richmond Examiner of 7 Mch., which James Callender sent to TJ on 10 Mch. The Aurora, without identifying the Virginia paper as its source, on 5 Apr. printed the introductory paragraphs and the 1787 letter, appending language that TJ suggested in the statement above (see notes 1, 4, and 12 below).

The Virginia agent of Farell & Jones was Richard Hanson. For the February 1790 meeting in Albemarle County between Hanson and the executors of Wayles’s estate—TJ and his brothers-in-law, Henry Skipwith and Francis Eppes—and the resulting settlement, see Vol. 15:674–6.

In the Aurora several sentences intervene between two passages taken from the document above (see note 4). That intervening text may have been the result of TJ’s suggestion that Wilson Cary Nicholas write something in addition to TJ’s recounting of specific details.

The additional claim did not involve Wayles’s debt from tobacco trading but the disposition of the cargo of The Prince of Wales in 1772. That cargo, unspecified in the document above, consisted of Africans sold into slavery in Virginia, and the other consignee was Richard Randolph. Failing in court, Hanson laid the claim before the bilateral commission established under Article 6 of the Jay Treaty (Vol. 30:426–30). A landmark effort to reach assets in the possession of Randolph’s heirs, initiated by Wayles’s executors and joined by other creditors, failed with a final ruling by the Virginia Court of Appeals in November 1799; see Bill in Chancery of Wayles’s Executors against the Heirs of Richard Randolph, [on or before 2 Mch. 1795].

In the Aurora of 5 Apr. TJ’s letter to Jones was preceded by the following introduction taken from the Richmond Examiner of 7 Mch. and printed under the heading “Account of Mr. Jefferson’s British Debts”:

“It is the fate of every man whose virtue and talents have elevated him in society, to excite the envy and hatred of many; among persons thus disposed, some are imperceptibly carried into error, others are designedly criminal.—The steady industry displayed by the assailants of virtue exceeds infinitely that of its defenders; and unfortunately, the meditated injury has its full effect before the person accused is aware of it, and instead of parrying the blow, he has the wound to heal.—In this situation of things, so rare is benevolence to be found amongst us, so little interest do we generally take in the welfare of our fellow-men, that we are apt to imagine we have discharged our duty when we declare our belief of the innocence of the accused, and content ourselves under the self-approbation, that we have done nothing to injure the feelings of the sufferer.

“The evils to society which we permit to remain, without our utmost exertions to remove, may answer well enough with people who are negatively good, or who believe that virtue consists in abstaining from evil: I think differently: and thinking as I do, will never permit the people to be duped by false accusations levelled against their most meritorious and deserving servants. If in the charges, which from my best judgement I am obliged to make against public characters, I pass into error, the principle which governs me, ought also to draw forth an advocate for truth and virtue, on the opposite side of the question.

“For some time past, a great clamour has been made through the United States, respecting debts due from Mr. Jefferson to British merchants: I have taken some trouble to inform myself upon this subject, and I confess, that although I did not believe the charge to be correct, as to the idea which it was intended to convey of that gentleman’s honor; I had no conception, that his enemies would be driven to attack him upon a subject, which if fairly examined, would add so considerably to the lustre of his character.

“In the year 1774, before a shilling of paper money had been issued, Mr. Jefferson sold about five thousand acres of land in Cumberland and Bedford counties, to pay his proportion of a debt due from the estate of Mr. Wayles to Farrel and Jones. He offered the bonds to their agent immediately, who refused to take them. The money was paid to Mr. Jefferson in 1779 and 1780, and he carried it to the treasury of Virginia, as the laws pressed on all to do, who owed money to British subjects; declaring that the public would pay it over, dollar for dollar. This delusion soon passed away, and it became evident, that the public neither could nor ought to pay according to the nominal value. The reader will perceive the loss which Mr. Jefferson sustained, and that if he had been disposed to quibble no event could have afforded him a more plausible pretext: But it appears that this gentleman considered himself still answerable to Farrel and Jones, and therefore settled with their agent otherwise.

“The next debt in succession, was one due to Kippen, and company for whom, Mr. Lyle of Manchester was agent. I called upon that gentleman for information respecting Mr. Jefferson’s conduct in the settlement of this claim, who assured me that it was strictly honourable. Mr. Lyle told me that as soon as the Vice President returned from his mission to France, he waited upon him, and made immediate arrangements for payment, deducting the 8 years war interest.

“Concerning the war interest, I think the annexed letter from Mr. Jefferson, will be quite satisfactory. But exclusive of his particular situation, and the losses which he sustained, probably from his conspicuous services during the revolutionary contest; I know of not a solitary instance in which the eight years interest has been paid if objected to by the defendants counsel; and I fancy it was the opinion of the federal judges assembled in Philadelphia, that the war interest ought to be deducted, if a special reason for avoiding it could be assigned—and surely no reason could be assigned with more forcible propriety, than that the British themselves had destroyed the means. But to my mind, there is the best evidence of the equity of withholding the eight years interest; the juries have uniformly deducted it, although the counsel for the plaintiff has often assigned peculiar and strong reasons, springing from the manner in which the debt originated, why it should be allowed.

“The following letter from Mr. Jefferson while in Paris, is now submitted to the public. It was not procured from him but having been produced in court by Jones’s agent in another case, was by the counsel of that agent candidly and honorably read in court, as an act of justice to Mr. Jefferson, got thus into the press, and has since been used by the advocates for the payment of British debts, and by them, very much complimented.”

In the Examiner the final paragraph of the introduction read: “The following letter from Mr. Jefferson while in Paris, is now submitted to the public. It was not procured from him by me, but on the other hand, has been used by the advocates for the payment of British debts, and by them, very much complimented.”

The Aurora appended the following footnote, keyed by an asterisk to the final word of the introduction: “We add from unquestionable authority, that soon after Mr. Jefferson’s return from France, arrangements were made with the agent of Farrel and Jones, and a deposit placed in his hands, to the amount of the claim against Mr. Jefferson.”

Some phrasing in the introductory comments repeats language from TJ’s letter to Jones, such as “before a shilling of paper money had been issued” (in the letter TJ gave the date of that sale of land as 1776 rather than 1774). However, particular details in the introduction, such as the quantity of land TJ sold, the counties in which it lay, and his receipt of payment in 1779–80, do not appear in the 1787 letter and must have come from a source familiar with the transactions (see TJ to George Jefferson, 14 Oct. 1799).

In 1790, in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to pay off his debt to the Kippen firm in five years, TJ had given bonds to James Lyle of Manchester, Virginia, who represented Henderson, McCaul & Co., the successor to the Kippen company (Herbert E. Sloan, Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt [New York, 1995], 1820; MB description begins James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, Princeton, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 1:7; Vol. 16:212–13; Vol. 29:2024).

The Supreme Court—“the federal judges assembled in Philadelphia”—did not have occasion to rule on the specific issue of interest on debts during the Revolution, although as the author of the introductory comments stated, Virginia juries generally disallowed interest for the war years when deciding creditors’ claims (Charles F. Hobson, “The Recovery of British Debts in the Federal Circuit Court of Virginia, 1790 to 1797,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893– description ends , 92 [1984], 193–5).

Duane provided material for John Wood’s controversial 1802 book, History of the Administration of John Adams, which printed TJ’s letter to Jones with some alteration of the introductory comments that had appeared in the Aurora in April 1800 and omitted everything appended to the foot of the letter in that newspaper (John Wood, The History of the Administration of John Adams, Esq. Late President of the United States [New York, 1802], 441–9; Kline, Burr description begins Mary-Jo Kline, ed., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Princeton, 1983, 2 vols. description ends , 2:641–8, 696–8, 713–16; see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 506).

1The remainder of this paragraph was printed in the Aurora directly below TJ’s letter to William Jones.

2Aurora: “the fall of.”

3In the Aurora the preceding five words are in italics.

4The text in the Aurora continues here with the following passage: “From the foregoing facts it appears that Mr. Jefferson, before the present government existed, before he could have known that it was thought of, and at a time when there was no power to compel him to payment on account of Mr. Wayle’s debts to British merchants, make a voluntary offer of settlement, on the most favourable terms which they have obtained under the judicial system of the United States. The claim under the payment into the treasury of Virginia, was so well founded, that it received the sanction of a circuit court there, although that decision was afterwards reversed by the supreme court.—Every body who attended on the court, will recollect the impressive argument of Mr. Marshall, (now in Congress) in support of the decision of the circuit court, and it will ever remain a doubt whether it ought not to have been affirmed. It is highly honorable to Mr. Jefferson, to have waved a legal defence, which was compleat at the time (as the courts of Virginia were sovereign) so specious in its general merits, and as it respected himself, rendered perfectly just by the sacrifice of as much property as was sufficient to pay the debt. It is enough to say that no British creditor, even where payment could not be alleged, has ever obtained more from the federal courts than Mr. Jefferson voluntarily paid.” The Aurora then silently resumed TJ’s text with the passage beginning “There was another claim.” John Marshall’s argument was in the case of Ware v. Hylton (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 , 3:41–4).

5Preceding two words interlined.

6The Aurora did not print this paragraph or the dateline below it.

7Preceding seven words and period lacking in Aurora, probably due to a copying error.

8Aurora: “consignees.”

9Aurora: “Gen. Marshall.”

10Word interlined in place of “[slander].”

11Word lacking in Aurora.

12Text in Aurora ends here, with an exclamation point.

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