Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to the Senate and the House of Representatives, 29 March 1802

To the Senate and the House of Representatives

Gentlemen of the Senate and
of the House of Representatives

The Secretary of state, charged with the civil affairs of the several territories of the United States, has recieved from the Marshal of Columbia a statement of the condition, unavoidably distressing, of the persons committed to his custody on civil or criminal process, and the urgency for some legislative provisions for their relief. there are other important cases wherein the laws of the adjoining states, under which the territory is placed, tho’ adapted to the purposes of those states, are insufficient for those of the territory, from the dissimilar, or defective organisation of it’s authorities. the letter & statement of the marshal, and the disquieting state of the territory generally, are now submitted to the wisdom & consideration of the legislature.

Th: Jefferson

RC (DNA: RG 233, PM, 7th Cong., 1st sess.); endorsed by House clerks. PrC (DLC). RC (DNA: RG 46, LPPM, 7th Cong., 1st sess.); in Meriwether Lewis’s hand, signed and dated by TJ; endorsed by a Senate clerk. Recorded in SJL with notation “state of prison in Columbia.” Enclosures: (1) Daniel Carroll Brent to James Madison, undated, asking that Congress consider the “defective & oppressive” system of jails and warrant executions in the District of Columbia; Congress currently has no authority to erect jails; the laws of Maryland authorize state levy courts to raise $400 to repair jails, but not to construct new ones; no jail existed in Washington County when Brent took office as marshal; he rented a small house for the purpose, but it is insecure, overcrowded, and unsanitary, with debtors residing with the jailor in an adjoining house; “This consideration renders it absolutely necessary that immediate measures should be adopted respecting a Jail,” Brent declares, and even if Congress acts immediately, “the summer will pass over nearly” before any action can be taken on the matter; the Alexandria jail is no better, and has been presented as a “publick nuisance” by a grand jury; in Washington, there are 14 criminals and runaways and 23 debtors currently under confinement, and Brent fears that more will soon be added from a variety of sources: from criminal prosecutions where executions are out against persons prosecuted but unable to pay their fines and fees, from criminal writs where the person arrested cannot provide bail, from civil actions where principals give up their bail, from an expectation of pending executions against persons unable to pay their debts, and from warrant executions issued by magistrates for sums of less than $20; Brent deems the warrant system in Washington County to be “a fruitfull and Melancholy source of Commitment” and “extremely oppressive on the lower Class of Citizens”; several persons currently imprisoned for debt have been confined for 60 days for small sums and “then come out under the Insolvent Laws of Maryland”; in Brent’s opinion, a better system would not imprison debtors for sums of less than $20; he closes by asking the secretary of state to lay the subject before the president for his consideration (RC in DNA: RG 46, LPPM, in a clerk’s hand, signed by Brent; Tr in RG 233, PM, in Meriwether Lewis’s hand, endorsed by a House clerk as “No. 2”). (2) A list of 21 debtors in the Washington County jail and the cause of their confinement, 16 of which are for debts of less than $20 (MS in DNA: RG 46, LPPM, in an unidentified hand; Tr in DNA: RG 233, PM, in Lewis’s hand, endorsed by a House clerk as “No. 3”; Tr in DLC, in Lewis’s hand). (3) A list of 14 criminals in the Washington County jail and the causes of their confinement, which include suspicion of murder, fines and fees, breaking jail, and the theft of horses, goods, slaves, and wood. The list also includes three runaway slaves and one suspected runaway (MS in DNA: RG 46, LPPM, in a clerk’s hand; Tr in DNA: RG 233, PM, in Lewis’s hand; Tr in DLC, in Lewis’s hand). (4) “Dimensions of Jail in Washington County,” recording that 22 debtors are housed in two lower level rooms measuring 10 feet by 14 feet and 8 feet by 9 feet, respectively, while 14 criminals and runaways are kept in two upstairs rooms measuring 9 feet by 12 feet and 5 feet by 7 feet, respectively (MS in DNA: RG 46, LPPM, in an unidentified hand; Tr in DNA: RG 233, PM, in Lewis’s hand, at head of text: “Dimentions of Jail in Washington City”; Tr in DLC, in Lewis’s hand, at head of text: “Dimentions of Jail in Washington City,” endorsed by TJ on verso: “Columbia marshal of Prisoners”).

LEGISLATIVE PROVISIONS FOR THEIR RELIEF: on 3 May 1802, Congress passed “An act additional to, and amendatory of, an act, intituled ‘An act concerning the District of Columbia.’” Section 4 of the act stated that no capias ad satisfaciendum would thereafter be issued in cases where judgments, exclusive of costs, did not exceed $20. Section 10 directed the marshal of the District of Columbia to have a “good and sufficient jail” built in Washington and authorized an appropriation of $8,000 for the purpose (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States … 1789 to March 3, 1845, Boston, 1855–56, 8 vols. description ends , 2:193–5).

About this time, TJ compiled a list of several debtors confined in the Washington County jail, apparently using Brent’s list of debtors as his source (see Enclosure No. 2, above). TJ’s list included Charles Neal and 14 others arranged by the amount of their debt, from the smallest (Neal’s of $1.68) to the largest (Rezin Shiply’s of $26.01). TJ then used horizontal lines to subdivide the list by those who owed $10 or less (9 persons total), those who owed between $10 and $20 (5 persons total), and those who owed more than $20 (1 person). Adding the individual fines, TJ recorded that the 15 debtors owed a total of $151.13, with those having debts of $10 or less owing $47.62, those with debts of between $10 to $20 owing $77.50, and the person with a debt of greater than $20 owing $26.01. Of those debtors owing $10 or less, TJ identified six of them as “out,” presumably meaning that they had been released from confinement (MS in ViW; entirely in TJ’s hand). Another list, in an unidentified hand, and comprised of seven names from Brent’s list, appears to include only persons still confined for debt in the Washington County jail, consisting of names not identified on TJ’s list as being “out.” Following each name is a description of the individual’s character and the condition of his family, most of which are described as being in “want” or “distress” (MS in ViW; endorsed by TJ: “Prisoners”).

Index Entries