Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Ritchie, 25 December 1820

To Thomas Ritchie

Monticello Dec. 25. 20.

Dear Sir

On my return home after a long absence, I find here your favor of Nov. 23. with Colo Taylor’s ‘Construction construed,’ which you have been so kind as to send me, in the name of the author as well as of your self. permit me, if you please, to use the same channel for conveying to him the thanks I render you also for this mark of attention. I shall read it, I know, with edification, as I did his Enquiry to which I acknolege myself indebted for many valuable ideas, and for the correction of some errors of early opinion, never seen in a correct light until presented to me in that work. that the present volume is equally orthodox, I know before reading it, because I know that Colo Taylor and myself have rarely, if ever, differed in any political principle of importance. every act of his life, & every word he ever wrote satisfies me of this. so also as to the two presidents, late and now in office, I know them both to be of principles as truly republican as any men living. if there be any thing amiss therefore in the present state of our affairs, as the formidable deficit lately unfolded to us indicates, I ascribe it to the inattention of Congress to it’s duties, to their unwise dissipation & waste of the public contributions. they seemed, some little while ago to be at a loss for objects whereon to throw away the supposed fathomless funds of the treasury. I had feared the result, because I saw among them some of my old fellow laborers, of tried and known principles, yet often in their minorities. I am aware that in one of their most ruinous vagaries the people were themselves betrayed into the same phrensy, with their Representatives. the deficit produced, & a heavy tax to supply it will, I trust, bring both to their sober senses. but it is not from this branch of government we have most to fear. taxes & short elections will keep them right. the Judiciary of the US.1 is the subtle corps of sappers & miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric. they are construing our constitution from a coordination of a general and special governments to a general & supreme one alone. this will lay all things at their feet, and they are too well versed in English law to forget the maxim ‘boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictionem.’ we shall see if they are bold enough to maintain the daring stride their 5 lawyers have lately taken. if they do, then, with the Editor of our book, in his address to the public, I will say that ‘against this every man should raise his voice,’ and more, should uplift his arm. Who wrote this admirable address? sound, luminous, strong, not a word too much, nor one which can be changed but for the worse. that pen should go on, lay bare these wounds of our constitution, expose these decisions seriatim, and arrouse, as it is able, the attention of the nation to these bold speculators on it’s patience. having found from experience that impeachmt is an impracticable thing, a mere scare-crow, they consider themselves secure for life; they sculk from responsibility to public opinion the only remaining hold on them, under a practice, first introduced into England by Ld Mansfield. an opinion is huddled up in Conclave, perhaps by a majority of one, delivered as a crafty Chief judge, as if unanimous, and, with the silent acquiescence of lazy or timid associates, he sophisticates the law to his mind by the turn of his own reasoning. a judiciary law was once reported by the Attorney Genl to Congress, requiring each judge to deliver his opinion seriatim & openly, and then to give it in writing to the clerk to be entered on the record. a judiciary independant of a king2 or Executive alone, is a good thing; but independance on the will of the nation is a solecism, at least in a republican government.

But to return to your letter. you ask for my opinion of the work you send me, and to let it go out to the public. this I have ever made a point of declining (one or two instances only excepted.) complimentory thanks to writers who have sent me their works have betrayed me sometimes before the public, without my consent having been asked. but I am far from presuming to direct the reading of my fellow citizens, who are good enough judges themselves of what is worthy their reading. I am also too desirous of quiet to place myself in the way of contention. against this I am admonished by bodily decay, which cannot be unaccompanied by a corresponding wane of the mind. of this I am, as yet, sensible, sufficiently to be unwilling to trust myself before the public, and when I cease to be so, I hope that my friends will be too careful of me to draw me forth and present me, like a Priam in armour, as a spectacle for public compassion. I hope our political bark will ride thro’ all it’s dangers; but I can in future be but an inert passenger. I salute you with sentiments of great friendship and respect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (MHi: Washburn Autograph Collection). PoC (DLC); at foot of first page: “Mr Thos Ritchie.”

The formidable deficit lately unfolded to us was detailed in Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford’s annual report, which he submitted to the United States Senate on 5 Dec. 1820 (ASP, Finance, 3:547–53; Richmond Enquirer, 12 Dec. 1820). boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictionem: “It is the role of a good judge to enlarge (or use liberally) his jurisdiction (or remedial authority)” (Black’s Law Dictionary description begins Bryan A. Garner and others, eds., Black’s Law Dictionary, 7th ed., 1999 description ends ).

In a case that would be decided by the United States Supreme Court in Cohens v. Virginia (1821), regarding the constitutionality of efforts by legislatures to prohibit the sale in their states of tickets for a federally sanctioned lottery to benefit the city of Washington, the 5 lawyers, William Pinkney, David B. Ogden, Thomas Addis Emmet, John Wells, and Walter Jones, argued on 27 June 1820 that “it would be monstrous if any state legislature could impede the execution of a law made for national purposes” (Baltimore Niles’ Weekly Register, 2 Sept. 1820; Richmond Enquirer, 5 Sept. 1820).

John Taylor’s Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated (Richmond, 1820; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 11 [no. 652]), opened with an address to the public in which the work’s anonymous editor criticized the Supreme Court for infringing on states’ rights and declared “Against such a decision, it becomes every man, who values the constitution, to raise his voice” (p. i). The failure of the 1804–05 attempt to remove Samuel Chase from the Supreme Court persuaded TJ that impeachmt is an impracticable thing (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ).

TJ was referencing John Marshall as the crafty chief judge under whose leadership Supreme Court decisions were first debated internally and then often delivered as unanimous opinions. In a report on the judiciary system that he submitted to the United States House of Representatives on 31 Dec. 1790, attorney genl Edmund Randolph unsuccessfully proposed that Supreme Court justices be required to give their opinions seriatim & openly (ASP, Miscellaneous, 1:31).

1Preceding three words interlined.

2Preceding three words interlined.

Index Entries

  • An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (J. Taylor) search
  • books; on U.S. Constitution search
  • Chase, Samuel; as Supreme Court justice search
  • Cohens v. Virginia search
  • Congress, U.S.; and judicial review search
  • Congress, U.S.; reports to search
  • Congress, U.S.; TJ on search
  • Constitution, U.S.; and judicial review search
  • Constitution, U.S.; books on search
  • Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated (J. Taylor [of Caroline]) search
  • Crawford, William Harris; as secretary of the treasury search
  • Emmet, Thomas Addis; as attorney search
  • House of Representatives, U.S.; reports to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; receives works search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; publication of papers search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; federal judiciary search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; judicial review search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Supreme Court search
  • Jones, Walter (1776–1861); as attorney search
  • judiciary, U.S.; judicial review search
  • law; and judicial review search
  • lotteries; for Washington, D.C. search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); TJ on search
  • Mansfield, William Murray, 1st Earl of; and per curiam decisions search
  • Marshall, John; as chief justice of U.S. Supreme Court search
  • Monroe, James; TJ on search
  • Ogden, David B.; as attorney search
  • Pinkney, William; as attorney search
  • Priam (mythological character) search
  • Randolph, Edmund; as attorney general search
  • Ritchie, Thomas; and J. Taylor’sConstruction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated search
  • Ritchie, Thomas; letters to search
  • Senate, U.S.; reports to search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; andCohens v. Virginia search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; and impeachment search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; criticized search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; procedures of search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; TJ on search
  • taxes; TJ on search
  • Taylor, John (of Caroline); An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States search
  • Taylor, John (of Caroline); Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated search
  • Treasury Department, U.S.; and public debt search
  • United States; national debt search
  • Wells, John; as attorney search