Thomas Jefferson Papers

Notes on Conversations with Benjamin Hichborn, 25 December 1800

Notes on Conversations with Benjamin Hichborn


Dec. 25. Colo. Hitchburn thinks Dr. Eustis’s talents specious & pleasing, but not profound. he thinks Jarvis more solid.

he tells me what Colo. Monroe had before told me of, as coming from Hitchburn. thus he was giving me the characters of persons in Massachusets. speaking of Lowell, he said he was in the beginning of the revolution a timid whig, but, as soon as he found we were likely to prevail he became a great office hunter. and in the very breath of speaking of Lowell, he stopped, says he I will give you a piece of informn which I do not venture to speak of to others. there was a mr Hall in Mass. a reputable worthy man who becoming a little embarrassed in his affairs, I aided him, which made him very friendly to me. he went to Canada on some business. the governor there took great notice of him. on his return he took occasion to mention to me that he was authorised by the Govr. of Canada to give from 3. to 5000 guineas each to himself & some others, to induce them, not to do any thing to the injury of their country, but to befriend a good connection between England & it. Hitchburn said he would think of it, and asked Hall to come & dine with him tomorrow. after dinner he drew Hall fully out; he told him he had his doubts, but particularly that he should not like to be alone in such a business. on that Hall named to him 4. others who were to be engaged, two of whom said Hitchburn are now dead & two living. Hitchburn, when he had got all he wanted out of Hall, declined in a friendly way. but he observed those 4. men from that moment to espouse the interests of Engld. in every point & on every occasion. tho’ he did not name the men to me, yet as the speaking of Lowell was what brought into his head to tell me this anecdote, I concluded he was one. from other circumstances respecting Stephen Higginson of whom he spoke, I conjectured him to be the other living one.

Dec. 26. In another conversn I mentioned to Colo. Hitchburn that tho he had not named names, I had strongly suspected Higginson to be one of Hall’s men. he smiled & said if I had strongly suspected any man wrongfully from his information he would undecieve me: that there were no persons he1 thought more strongly to be suspected himself than Higginson & Lowell! I considered this as saying they were the men. Higginson is employed in an important business about our navy.

MS (DLC: TJ Papers, 108:18534); entirely in TJ’s hand; with text between 25 and 26 Dec. clipped out, leaving only onehalf inch of sheet at left margin.

Benjamin Hichborn (1746–1817), whose father was a boat builder in Boston, graduated from Harvard in 1768 and became a prominent Boston attorney. He made several trips to France during the 1790s, where he associated with James Swan in business ventures and attempted to sell land that he had purchased in Maine. He also owned shares and served as an agent for the New England Mississippi Land Company that invested heavily in the Yazoo lands. In 1791 and 1792 Hichborn served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and in 1801 he was elected to the state senate. Citing poor health, he did not stand for reelection in 1803 (Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser., 3:171–2; Kline, Burr description begins Mary-Jo Kline, ed., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Princeton, 1983, 2 vols. description ends , 2:649; William Stinchcombe, The XYZ Affair [Westport, Conn., 1980], 83, 85; John L. Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College, 17 vols. [Cambridge, Mass., 1873–1975], 17:36–44).

When Thomas Jefferson Randolph published his four-volume edition of TJ’s papers, it caused a stir in New England. It prompted William Sullivan to write a series of letters in defense of the Federalists whom he believed TJ had maligned. In one letter, dated 16 Feb. 1834, Sullivan responded to TJ’s notes on the conversations printed above. He noted that TJ made his accusations against John Lowell, a U.S. district court judge until 1801 when he was appointed by Adams to the U.S. circuit court, and Stephen Higginson, a prominent Boston merchant, 25 years after the “supposed and imputed transactions and crimes” took place. Sullivan claimed TJ intentionally left his notes to be “published to the world” a half century after the event. Lowell and Higginson had enjoyed “the entire confidence of the intelligent and astute people of the state of Massachusetts.” By putting these posthumous charges on record against them, Sullivan believed, TJ was indulging “his passions, to gratify his own personal hatred towards men who differed from him in political opinions.” Although TJ clearly wrote that it was a Mr. Hall who provided Hichborn with the information, Randolph transcribed it as “Hale.” Sullivan charged that without a Christian name or any other information, it was impossible to identify the accuser. It is also impossible to identify “Hall” with certainty (William Sullivan, Familiar Letters on Public Characters, and Public Events; From the Peace of 1783, to the Peace of 1815 [Boston, 1834], iii–iv, 375–80; TJR description begins Thomas Jefferson Randolph, ed., Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, 1829, 4 vols. description ends , 4:514–15; David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy [New York, 1965], 249–51). For Sullivan’s full critique of the notes on TJ’s conversations with Hichborn, see Sullivan, Familiar Letters, 375–82.

Business about our navy: Stephen Higginson, Sr., served as naval agent for the port of Boston at the time the Navy Department was established in 1798 and continued in the position until 1801 (NDQW description begins Dudley W. Knox, ed., Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War between the United States and France, Washington, D.C., 1935–38, 7 vols. description ends , Dec. 1800–Dec. 1801, 374; Marshall Smelser, The Congress Founds the Navy, 1787–1798 [Notre Dame, Ind., 1959], 151, 174, 178).

1TJ here canceled “should.”

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