Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, 5 August 1815

To William Wirt

Monticello Aug. 5. 15.

Dear Sir

Your favor of July 24. came to hand on the 31st and I will proceed to answer your enquiries, in the order they are presented, as far as I am able.

I have no doubt that the 5th of the Rhode island resolutions, of which you have sent me a copy, is exactly the one erased from our journals. the mr Lees, and especially Richard Henry, who was industrious, had a close correspondence, I know, with the two Adamses, & probably with others in that and the other Eastern states: and I think it was said at the time that copies were sent off by them to the Northward, the very evening of the day on which they were passed.   I can readily enough believe these resolutions were written by mr Henry himself. they bear the stamp of his mind, strong without precision. that they were written by Johnson who seconded them, was only the rumor of the day, and very possibly unfounded. but how Edmund Randolph should have said they were written by William Fleming, and mr Henry should have written that he shewed them to William Fleming, is to me incomprehensible. there was no William Fleming then, but the judge now living, whom nobody will ever suspect of taking the lead in rebellion. I am certain he was not then a member, and I think was never a member until the revolution had made some progress. of this however he will inform us with candor & truth. his eldest brother John Fleming was a member, and a great speaker in debate. to him they may have been shewn. yet I should not have expected this, because he was extremely attached to Robinson, Peyton Randolph Etc and at their beck, and had no independence or boldness of mind. however he was attentive to his own popularity, might have been overruled by views to that, and, with a correction of the Christian name, mr Henry’s note is sufficient authority to suppose he took the popular side on that occasion. I remember nothing to the contrary.   The opposers of the resolutions were Robinson, Peyton Randolph, Pendleton, Wythe, Bland and all the cyphers of the Aristocracy. no longer possessing the journals, I cannot recollect nominally the others. they opposed them on the ground that the same principles had been expressed in the Petition Etc of the preceding year, to which an answer, not yet recieved, was daily expected, that they were therein expressed in more conciliatory terms, and therefore more likely to have good effect. the resolutions were carried chiefly by the vote of the middle and upper country.   to1 state the differences between the classes of society, and the lines of demarcation which separated them would be difficult. the law, you know, admitted none, except as to the twelve counsellors. yet in a country insulated from the European world, insulated from it’s sister colonies with whom there was scarcely any intercourse, little visited by foreigners, & having little matter to act upon within itself, certain families had risen to splendor by wealth and the preservation of it from generation to generation under the law of entails; some had produced a series of men of talents; families in general had remained stationary on the grounds of their forefathers, for there was no emigration to the Westward in those days, the wild2 Irish who had gotten possession of the valley between the blue ridge and North mountain, forming a barrier over which none ventured to leap, and3 would still less venture to settle among. in such a state of things, scarcely admitting any change of station, society would settle itself down into several strata, separated by no marked lines, but shading off imperceptibly, from top to bottom, nothing disturbing the order of their repose. there were then, Aristocrats, half breeds, pretenders,4 a solid independant yeomanry, looking askance at those above, yet not venturing to justle them; and last, and lowest a feculum of beings called Overseers, the most abject, degraded and unprincipled race, always cap in hand to the Dons who employed them, and furnishing materials for the exercise of their pride, insolence & spirit of domination.5   Your characters are inimitably & justly drawn. I am not certain if more might not be said of Colo Richard Bland. he was the most learned & logical man of those who took prominent lead in public affairs, profound in Constitutional lore, a most ungraceful speaker (as were Peyton Randolph & Robinson in a remarkable degree) he wrote the first pamphlet on the nature of the connection with Gr. Britain, which had any pretension to accuracy of view on that subject; but it was a singular one. he would set out on sound principles, pursue them logically till he found them leading to the precipice which we had to leap, start back alarmed, then resume his ground, go over it in another direction, be led again by the correctness of his reasoning6 to the same place, and again tack about, and try other processes to reconcile right and wrong, but finally left his reader & himself bewildered between the steady index of the compass in their hand, and the phantasm to which it seemed to point. still there was more sound matter in his pamphlet than in the celebrated Farmer’s letters, which were really but an ignis fatuus, misleading us from true principles.

Landon Carter’s measure you may take from the 1st volume of the American Philosophical transactions, where he has one or more long papers on the weavil and perhaps other subjects. his speeches, like his writings were dull, vapid, verbose, egoistical, smooth as the lullaby of the nurse, and commanding, like that, the repose only of the hearer.

You ask if you may quote me 1. for the loan office, 2. Phillips’s case, and 3. the addresses prepared for Congress by Henry and Lee. for the two first certainly, because within my own knolege, especially citing the record in Phillips’s case which of itself refutes the diatribes published on that subject: but not for the addresses, because I was not present, nor know any thing relative to them but by hearsay from others. my first and principal information on that subject I know I had from Ben. Harrison, on his return from the first session of the old Congress. mr Pendleton also, I am tolerably certain, mentioned it to me: but the transaction is too distant, and my memory too indistinct to hazard as with precision, even what I think I heard from them.   in this decay of memory mr Edmund Randolph must have suffered at a much earlier period of life than myself. I cannot otherwise account for his saying to you that Rob. Carter Nicholas came into the legislature only on the death of Peyton Randolph, which was in 1776. seven years before that period I went first into the legislature myself, to wit in 1769. and mr Nicholas was then a member, and I think not a new one. I remember it from an impressive circumstance. it was the first assembly which met Lord Botetourt, being called on his arrival. on receiving the Governor’s speech, it was usual to move resolutions, as heads for an Address. mr Pendleton asked me to draw the resolutions, which I did. they were accepted by the house, and Pendleton, Nicholas, myself and some others were appointed a Committee to prepare the Address. the Committee desired me to do it; but when presented, it was thought to pursue too strictly the diction of the resolutions, and that their subjects were not sufficiently amplified. mr Nicholas chiefly objected to it, and was desired by the committee to draw one more at large which he did, with amplification enough, and it was accepted. being a young man, as well as a young member, it made on me an impression proportioned to the sensibility of that time of life.

on a similar occasion some years after I had reason to retain a remembrance of his presence while Peyton Randolph was still living. on the reciept of Ld North’s propositions, in May or June 1775. Lord Dunmore called the assembly. Peyton Randolph, then President of Congress, and Speaker of the House of Burgesses, left the former body and came home to hold the assembly, leaving in Congress the other delegates, who were the antient leaders of our house. he therefore asked me to prepare the answer to Ld North’s propositions, which I did. mr Nicholas, whose mind had as yet acquired no tone for that contest, combated the answer from Alpha to Omega, and succeeded in diluting it in one or two small instances. it was firmly supported however in committee of the whole by Peyton Randolph, who had brought with him the spirit of the body over which he had presided, and it was carried with very little alteration by strong majorities. I was the bearer of it myself to Congress, by whom, as it was the first answer given to those propositions by any legislature, it was recieved with peculiar satisfaction. I am sure that from 1769. if not earlier, to 1775. you will find mr Nicholas’s name constantly in the journals, for he was an active member. I think he represented James city county. whether, on the death of Peyton Randolph he succeeded him for Williamsburg, I do not know. if he did, it may account for mr Randolph’s error.

You ask some account of mr Henry’s mind, information & manners in 59–60. when I first became acquainted with him. we met at Nat. Dandridge’s, in Hanover, about the Christmas of that winter, and passed perhaps a fortnight together at the revelries of the neighborhood & season. his manners had something of the coarseness of the society he had frequented: his passion was fiddling, dancing & pleasantry. he excelled in the last, and7 it attached every one to him. the occasion perhaps, as much as his idle disposition, prevented his engaging in any conversation which might give the measure either of his mind or information. opportunity was not wanting: because mr John Campbell was there, who had married mrs Spotswood, the sister of Colo Dandridge. he was a man of science, & often introduced conversations on scientific subjects. mr Henry had a little before broke up his store, or rather it had broken him up, and within three months after he came to Williamsburg for his license, and told me, I think, he had read law not more than six weeks. I have by this time probably tired you with these old histories, and shall therefore only add the assurance of my great friendship & respect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (ViU: TJP); addressed: “William Wirt esq. Richmond.” PoC (DLC). Tr (MHi); posthumous copy; incomplete; top edge frayed. Extracted in Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia, 1817; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 4 [no. 131]; TJ’s copy in Vi), 33–4, credited on p. 32 to an anonymous “gentleman who lived in those days,” with significant variations noted below.

The Virginia House of Burgesses passed four resolutions on 30 May 1765. The petition etc passed on 18 Dec. 1764 included an address to George III and memorials to the House of Lords and House of Commons (Henry R. McIlwaine and John Pendleton Kennedy, eds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619–1776 [1905–15], 1761–65 vol., pp. 302–4, 359–60). feculum is an American variant of “fecula,” meaning “dregs” or “lees” (Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language [1828]; OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ). TJ preferred Richard Bland’s pamphlet, An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies (Williamsburg, 1766), to John Dickinson’s celebrated Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (Philadelphia, 1768; and other eds., including Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 3076).

The only essay by landon carter in APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions 1 (1771), is “Observations concerning the Fly-Weevil, that destroys the Wheat” (pp. 205–17). For the May 1769 resolutions welcoming lord botetourt as written by TJ and as adopted see, respectively, PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 37 vols. description ends , 1:26–7, and McIlwaine and Kennedy, Journals, 1766–69 vol., pp. 199–200. Lord North’s propositions of 27 Feb. 1775 proposed that if a colony agreed to adopt provisions for the common defense and the suppport of the civil government and administration of justice in that colony, then the British government would forbear “to levy any duty, tax, or assessment, or to impose any futher duty, tax, or assessment, except only such duties as it may be expedient to continue to levy or to impose for the regulation of commerce” (Merrill Jensen, American Colonial Documents to 1776 [1964], 839–40). lord dunmore convened the Virginia General Assembly on 1 June 1775 (McIlwaine and Kennedy, Journals, 1773–76 vol., pp. 171–3). For TJ’s answer, see PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 37 vols. description ends , 1:170–4.

1Extract in Wirt, Henry, begins with this word.

2Word not in Wirt, Henry.

3In Wirt, Henry, remainder of sentence reads “their manners presented no attraction to the lowlanders to settle among them.”

4In Wirt, Henry, sentence to this point expanded to read “There were, then, first aristocrats, composed of the great landholders who had seated themselves below tide water on the the main rivers, and lived in a style of luxury and extravagance, insupportable by the other inhabitants, and which, indeed, ended, in several instances, in the ruin of their own fortunes. Next to these were what might be called half breeds; the descendants of the younger sons and daughters of the aristocrats, who inherited the pride of their ancestors, without their wealth. Then came the pretenders, men who from vanity, or the impulse of growing wealth, or from that enterprize which is natural to talents, sought to detach themselves from the plebian ranks, to which they properly belonged, and imitated, at some distance, the manners and habits of the great. Next to these, were.”

5Extract in Wirt, Henry, ends here.

6Reworked from “reading.”

7Tr ends here.

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; correspondence with R. H. Lee and T. L. Lee search
  • Adams, Samuel; mentioned search
  • American Philosophical Society; Transactions search
  • An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies (R. Bland) search
  • attainder; of J. Philips search
  • Bland, Richard; and Stamp Act Resolutions search
  • Bland, Richard; An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies search
  • Bland, Richard; TJ on search
  • Botetourt, Norborne Berkeley, baron de; colonial governor of Va. search
  • Campbell, John (early acquaintance of TJ) search
  • Campbell, Mary Dandridge Spotswood (John Campbell’s wife) search
  • Carter, Landon; Observations concerning the Fly-Weevil, that destroys the Wheat search
  • Carter, Landon; TJ on search
  • Christmas; TJ spends in Hanover Co. search
  • Continental Congress, U.S.; and P. Henry search
  • Continental Congress, U.S.; speeches given in search
  • Dandridge, Nathaniel West; TJ spends Christmas with search
  • Dickinson, John; Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania search
  • Dunmore, John Murray, 4th Earl of; colonial governor of Va. search
  • Fleming, John (d.1767); as burgess search
  • Fleming, John (d.1767); TJ on search
  • Fleming, William; and Stamp Act resolutions search
  • Harrison, Benjamin (d.1791); as member of Continental Congress search
  • Henry, Patrick (1736–99); and Stamp Act Resolves search
  • Henry, Patrick (1736–99); as delegate to Continental Congress search
  • Henry, Patrick (1736–99); TJ’s recollections of search
  • insects; weevils search
  • insects; works on search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; aristocracy search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; J. Fleming (d.1767) search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; L. Carter search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; overseers search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; P. Henry search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; R. Bland search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; R. H. Lee search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Virginians search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; draft address to Governor Botetourt search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Resolutions for an Answer to Governor Botetourt’s Speech search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Virginia Resolutions on Lord North’s Conciliatory Proposal search
  • Johnston, George; and Stamp Act resolutions search
  • Lee, Richard Henry; and Stamp Act resolutions search
  • Lee, Richard Henry; as member of Continental Congress search
  • Lee, Richard Henry; reputed speech of search
  • Lee, Richard Henry; TJ on search
  • Lee, Thomas Ludwell; and Stamp Act resolutions search
  • Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (J. Dickinson) search
  • Nicholas, Robert Carter (1729–80); as Va. legislator search
  • North, Lord Frederick (later 2d Earl of Guilford); conciliatory propositions of search
  • Observations concerning the Fly-Weevil, that destroys the Wheat (L. Carter) search
  • overseers; TJ on search
  • Pendleton, Edmund (1721–1803); and Stamp Act resolutions search
  • Pendleton, Edmund (1721–1803); as burgess search
  • Pendleton, Edmund (1721–1803); as member of Continental Congress search
  • Philips, Josiah; bill of attainder against search
  • Randolph, Edmund; manuscript on Va. history by search
  • Randolph, Peyton (ca.1723–75); and Stamp Act resolutions search
  • Randolph, Peyton (ca.1723–75); as member of Continental Congress search
  • Randolph, Peyton (ca.1723–75); as Va. legislator search
  • Rhode Island; Stamp Act resolutions of search
  • Robinson, John (1704–66); as Speaker of Va. House of Burgesses search
  • Shenandoah Valley; settlement of search
  • Stamp Act (1765); resolutions opposing search
  • Stamp Act Crisis; authorship of the Virginia Resolves search
  • Stamp Act Crisis; memorials and petitions in response to search
  • Virginia; and Stamp Act (1765) search
  • Virginia; Council of State search
  • Virginia; House of Burgesses search
  • Virginia; House of Burgesses, journals of search
  • Virginia; TJ on people of search
  • wheat; weevils destroy search
  • Wirt, William; and American biographies search
  • Wirt, William; and TJ’s recollections of P. Henry search
  • Wirt, William; letters to search
  • Wythe, George; and Stamp Act resolutions search