Thomas Jefferson Papers

John A. Robertson to Thomas Jefferson, 12 December 1820

From John A. Robertson

RICHMOND, December 12th, 1820.


Ne quid falsi, dicere audeat, ne quid veri non audeat.1

It may be presumed, that some apology for thus obtruding on you, a communication from a private individual, in whose interest, perhaps, you have no concern, ought to be made. The sequel must substitute that apology.

Endued by nature, with the outlines and confirmed by education in, at least, some of the minutiæ of that dignity of feeling and independence of sentiment, concomitant characteristics of honorable men, possessing also a consciousness of my integrity of character and perfect equality, with any gentleman, in whatever sphere he moves, it cannot be, reasonably, supposed, that this respectful communication to you, in vindication of myself, has any other origin, than what is truly ascribable, in common, to every man, similarly situated. Disdaining to solicit the good opinion of any man, and holding perhaps, in too much indifference, that of many others, it ought not and cannot, fairly, be suspected upon this occasion, that even disingenuity, much less sycophancy or dissimulation is resorted to.

It is, nevertheless, incumbent on every member of society, to obviate and, if he can dispel, impressions, erroneously, entertained against him, by those, who, but for the delusion and imposition, under which, they, honestly labor, would spurn, with indignation and contempt, from their presence, the authors of that slander, leading to such impressions. As a member of the Virginian Bar, and consequent, frequent association with gentlemen of the same profession, it would give me pleasure, upon terms perfectly reciprocal, to be always, at least, in the polite interchange of those civilities so essentially necessary, to the feelings and comfort of all. But it is discovered, that the poison supposed to have been subdued by its specific antidote, long since, has at this moment its influence here, in the widely extended ramifications, most assiduously given this turbid current. From information,2 not to be questioned, it appears that some members of the bar of Richmond, suppose me capable of all or some of the charges and enormities, showered down upon me, by a petition for divorce (never seen by the pretended petitioner) out of which grew a report of “the committee for Courts of Justice,” following and expatiating on the acrimony of the petition, and terminating, ultimately, in an act of the Legislature, in favor of the petitioner.

Let it be remembered that this was, intentionally, a case ex parte, that the petition was drawn by the only witness* in the case, that he gave an affidavit almost verbatim with the petition upon which was founded the report of the committee, in almost the identical language. Let it be also recollected, that this witness was flatteringly interested in a pecuniary point of view, then in expectancy on such event, was the only brother of the nominal petitioner, and was at the time, and had been for years, previously a most malignant and malicious enemy of mine. Let it be borne in mind, also, that so far from opposing (after the term of six years separation, from this unfortunate lady had elapsed, without any previous complaint on her part) I, purposely, withheld all evidence from the committee, and strongly enjoined on every member of the Legislature, with whom the liberty could be taken, by letters and personal conversation, not to oppose, but aid the bill in all its stages; unless some other witness should appear of a character sufficient to command my attention. This, as was presumed, did not happen, and the case was permitted to pass, sub silentio, on my part, relying on the statement which would, thereafter immediately be made, for my complete exculpation. The exposure of this witness, in my3 several publications, afterwards, his present standing, in the estimation of the honorable part of the community, near him, and the volume of testimony of the most respectable and impartial gentlemen, of that part of the country, then given to the public, it was supposed had, forever, silenced my defamers. I was deceived. Compelled to resort to a public print, not generally circulated in the state, the denunciations contained in, and promulgated by the “Enquirer” were not fully met. Hence it is, that whilst, throughout Virginia, my reputation was defamed, the true or counteracting statement was confined to a very narrow sphere. This is the only solitary charge, ever, by even my most inveterate enemies, levelled against me. Should this, however, from the evidence adduced, as above characterised, be partially true only, it is unhesitatingly admitted, as sufficient for all their purposes.

But this charge and specifications, were to me as entirely new and astounding, as base, infamous and false. To establish this assertion, there is now in my possession, a series of evidence of the most credible witnesses, who, from the very nature of things, cannot be mistaken. A small portion of this testimony is subjoined, the whole being too voluminous, here to insert, and which can be further augmented to any amount, either in number or respectability of witnesses. I have confined this address, with a few exceptions, to such members of the bar here, as in my estimation, would properly receive it, or to whom this communication was supposed due, meaning no disrespect to those omitted.

In conclusion, I shall simply remark, that, as no other charge, throughout my life, thus far, worthy of the least notice, has, to my knowledge, been urged against me; that he who can, after the perusal of this letter, &c., entertain the least doubt of the truth of this assertion: that of all and every charge against me, contained in the petition for divorce, before referred to, and the statement of the witness, I am entirely innocent, must, indeed, be sceptical in the extreme, or predisposed to a contrary opinion.

I have now performed what was conceived a duty to myself, and shall feel entirely satisfied, in any result.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your most obedient servant,


Note. *The five libellers excepted. Their paper was drawn by the same person; they were and had been, from my earliest life my personal enemies, carried and sent this paper through the state for signatures, but could obtain no other name.—One out of the five, (Capt. W. Fitzgerald) now dead, has recanted in the most formal manner in writing, drawn and certified by a gentleman of the bar, of his own selection, in which he states, not only the imposition practised on him, but his own regret for such an act.

This paper is in my possession, certified, and duly attested. The libel was never heard of, by me, until the law had passed—had it been known, the petitioner would not have had a single vote in her favor at any stage of the bill.

Printed circular (ViW: TC-JP); on a sheet folded to form four pages, with letter on p. 1, enclosure on pp. 2–3, and address on p. 4; addressed by Robertson: “Thomas Jefferson, Esqr Monticello Albemarle” by “Mail”; franked; postmarked Richmond, 22 Dec.

John Archer Robertson, attorney, was a native Virginian raised in Amelia County, part of which became Nottoway County in 1789. He wed Elizabeth Royall in the latter county in 1795, but the Virginia General Assembly granted her a divorce in 1814, stipulating that neither party could remarry during the other’s lifetime. In 1802 Robertson moved to Richmond to practice law, and in 1807 he served as a captain in the Virginia militia. For an unspecified amount of time, probably in about 1819, he reportedly edited the Richmond Virginia Patriot, a Federalist newspaper. By 1822 Robertson was in Baltimore, where he denied a report that he had penned an essay by a “Native of Virginia” accusing TJ of fraud. As a resident of Kent County, Maryland, he received only a handful of votes when he ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1824. Two years later the Maryland legislature upheld a Baltimore County Court ruling that denied Robertson a license to practice law in that county. By 1829 he again resided in Baltimore, and in 1834 he practiced law there (Landon C. Bell, Cumberland Parish: Lunenburg County, Virginia, 1746–1816, Vestry Book, 1746–1816 [1930; repr. 1994], 314; Acts of Assembly description begins Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia (cited by session; title varies over time) description ends [1813–14 sess.], 143 [22 Jan. 1814]; Richmond Virginia Argus, 31 July 1802; TJ’s List of Militia Officers Sent Circular Letter, [8 July–6 Sept. 1807] [DLC: TJ Papers, 168:29677–8]; Lynchburg Press, 24 May 1822; Burlington, Vt., American Repertory & Advertiser, 27 Aug. 1822; Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser, 17 Aug. 1824, 17 Jan. 1826, 28 Oct. 1834; Journal of the Proceedings of the House of Delegates of the State of Maryland [1828–29 sess.], 359 [19 Feb. 1829]).

ne quid falsi, dicere audeat, ne quid veri non audeat is adapted from Cicero’s laws of history in De Oratore, 2.62, that one should “not dare to tell anything but the truth” and should also “make bold to tell the whole truth” (Cicero, De Oratore, trans. E. W. Sutton and Harris Rackham, Loeb Classical Library [1942; rev. ed., 1948; undated reprint], 244–5). sub silentio: “under silence; without notice being taken; without being expressly mentioned” (Black’s Law Dictionary description begins Bryan A. Garner and others, eds., Black’s Law Dictionary, 7th ed., 1999 description ends ).

On 11 Jan. 1814 the Richmond enquirer printed the report of the Committee for Courts of Justice regarding Elizabeth Robertson’s petition for divorce, which had been read in the Virginia House of Delegates on 29 Dec. 1813 (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia description ends [1813–14 sess.], 94). It stated that “shortly after their union,” John A. Robertson “gave proofs of a most malevolent and cruel disposition, by breaking out into personal violence that will render the petitioner a cripple the balance of her life—In the course of a few years thereafter his enormities became insupportable—By communicating to her a disease contracted in his intercourse with the dissolute and abandoned, he reduced her to the last degree of disease and wretchedness; in which situation he not only denied her the aid of a physician, but destroyed a prescription and medicine which had been procured for her, and declaring she should have no relief, prevented the servants from rendering her their assistance.” The report went on to say “that while the petitioner was in this emaciated condition, & in a state of high salivation, her said husband caused her to be dragged from her bed into a cold room, where she remained entirely exposed, until she had lost all appearance of life, and this for the avowed purpose of giving her a cold which might terminate her existence; from which situation the petitioner was relieved by the interposition of a neighbouring lady—Shortly after this occurrence, the petitioner was driven from her home by her husband, who declared that if she ever returned he would put her to death in a short way. Under these circumstances the petitioner sought refuge with her father, who has sustained her ever since.” In addition, “after detaining from the petitioner for several months, all her children for the sole purpose of increasing her miseries, the said John A. Robertson turned them out of doors, telling the eldest boy, who was about eleven or twelve years old, that if their grand father would not receive and support them, they might go to the woods and live as they could.” Finally, the committee reported that “it appears to be the common opinion of the neighbourhood, not denied by the said John A. Robertson … that he is now living in open adultery with a woman upon whom it is believed he depends for subsistence.” Robertson wrote a lengthy rebuttal for the Enquirer. When that paper refused to print his manuscript he sent it instead to the Virginia Patriot, which published it on 23 Apr. 1814.

1Latin phrase between dateline and salutation.

2Printed circular: “informrtion.”

3Word added in margin by Robertson in place of “many.”

Index Entries

  • Cicero; quoted search
  • Fitzgerald, William search
  • health; venereal disease search
  • newspapers; RichmondVirginia Patriot search
  • Richmond Enquirer (newspaper); and J. A. Robertson’s divorce search
  • Robertson, Elizabeth; divorce of search
  • Robertson, Elizabeth; family of search
  • Robertson, John Archer; defends character search
  • Robertson, John Archer; divorce of search
  • Robertson, John Archer; family of search
  • Robertson, John Archer; identified search
  • Robertson, John Archer; letters from search
  • Royall, John search
  • Royall, John D. search
  • Virginia; General Assembly search
  • Virginia; House of Delegates search
  • Virginia Patriot (Richmond newspaper); and J. A. Robertson’s divorce search
  • women; spousal mistreatment of search