Thomas Jefferson Papers

David Abbot to Thomas Jefferson, 10 April 1822

From David Abbot

Milan, Huron County, Ohio, April 10th 1822—


I write to You on a subject which I think of great importance and because in your life I think you have done a great deal of good because you are1 in a situation to do much on the subject which I shall mention, and because I think You have been a friend to the people, in stead of favoring a chosen few—You will not Sir, think this a piece of flatery; my situation forbids it—but few Years have past away since the U,S, became a nation, and I venture to say no one has ever increased so fast in population extravigance, debt, unnecessary expences, and I think I may venture to say, iniquity in the administration of the government—The U,S, confederated for great purposes; but for but few—the legislative powers given by the constitution are but few; yet we find congress imbrasing or acting on many subjects, not delegated by the constitution—in time of war there might be much for congress to do; but in time of peace, can it be possible, that it is necessary that so many men, at so great and extr[a]vigant wages should be so long employed to do so little as there would be, to be done, if they kept strictly to the powers given by the constitution—if because the constitution says the congress shall have power to provide for the general welfare &c, they have power to do every thing they please then the power, the government and soverignty of the states is completely gone—if the clause gives any aditional power at all, then may congress dig canalls, make roads, establish schools coledges, appoint bishops, priests with a good round salary, build churches meeting houses &c and call it providing for the general wellfare—there seems to be considerable said in congress about lessening the expences of government, but the business does2 not seem to be taken hold of in good earnest—it seems to be much easier to borrow money than to abolish an unnecessary office, and take away the salary from an unnecessary officer—amongst all the retrenchment of expences I hear nothing said about lessening the expence of the U,S, court. The judges marshals and incidental expences must be paid—the marshal has a salary, (I think) besides his fees—he also takes care to summons jurors mostly his friends from distant parts of the State, and charges traveling fees for each; this alone amounts to a great sum—it appears a little strange to me that the US, should be at so great expence to hire so great so learned, so wise judges as the judges of the U,S, court, and then turn the business over to a parcel of jurors—if the jurors are more capable of deciding correctly than the court, if not for correct decision, yet for saving of expence, let the judges stay at home—if the court are to dictate or control the jury there is no nead of the jury—if the jury are to act their own opinion there is no nead of those great judges to be talked to day after day, by lawyers hired, not to tell the truth, not to act fairly and honestly, not to do justice or to endeaver to get justice done to his client, but injustice; in fact to do every thing that their clients could or might do were they to plead their own case, which would be, not to recover all which he conscientiously thought was due, but all that it was in his power to get, right or wrong—but this is an old practice, and it is for the interest of lawyers it should be pursued—it appears to me that the government of the U,S, acts on many subjects which does not come within the powers delegated; but amongst all the departments the U,S, court I think the most dangerous and the most usurping—if you think as I do on this subject, I hope before you cease to be usefull, you will give it your decided disaprobation—a word from you would by the people be considered of great authority, or worthy of gre[at] consideration—the judges of the U,S, see fit to destroy the laws of a sta[te] to imprison its citizens without form of law, to reverse the decisions of state courts, and even condemn people to the state prison; what they will soon undertake to do I know not—yet if we look into the constitution to find their delegated powers, we find nothing said about it—how the judges of the U,S, court came to think that they constituted a supervisory court, and had power to revers the decisions of the State courts, is a little strange, and appears a little like arogance—say they we will not take jurisdiction if we should not, that is, if we dont wish to we will not; or else they consider themselves the oracle incapable of error—the power of the U,S, court is given by the constitution, the power of the State courts is original—is it posible that a man of as good sense and information as judge Marshal wishes to be thought, could or should think that the states could submit to have the decisions of their courts set aside by the US, Court—if there is any right belonging to either court to reverse the decisions of the other it certainly belongs to the state courts—the state courts act by original and unbounded power, that is by power given by an original government;3 but the U,S, court acts by powers delegated by the power which constitutes the state courts therefore if the U,S, Court should undertake to destroy or disregard the laws of a state, or to imprison its citizens contrary to law, the State courts would have a right to revise and reverse their decision, and set the imprisoned free—the court of the U,S, undertake to say and have so decided, that they are a tribunal constituted by the constitution to decide colisions which may arise between the US, government and the States—if this is really the case then4 have the states by what is called cunning been cajoled out of their state rights and state soverignty—but if we look into the constitution to find the power which the U,S, judges claim to be delegated, there is nothing of it to be found—the judges say „it must have been the intention of those who framed the constitution to vest the court with this power, otherwise say they a state court might punish by action of trespass5 a U,S, officer for acting under the revenue laws„—my god—is it to be supposed that the great judges of the US, should cast such an imputation of partiality on the state courts—may not such suspicious judges sometimes (inadvertantly) act by the same motive which they suspect in others—if the US may be suspicious of the integrity of the state courts, the states may be suspicious of the US Court, especially when they take into consideration the verry extraordinary decisions they of late have made—The 3d article of the constitution says, the judicial power of the U,S; shall be vested in a supreme court &c what powers it is vested with or to be vested with is not mentioned, only it is to have jurisdiction in certain cases mentioned—most constitutions providing for the judicial department provides that the powers of the courts shall be regulated by law—but as this power could not with propriety, or was not delegated to the US government, because it would be too unlimited or undefined, a quere arises, under what laws are those particular cases confided to the US court, to be adjudged and decided—by the laws of the US, or by the laws of the states in which the cases occur—then has the U,S, court a right to act under and put in force a law of a State; and has the U,S, court a right to sit and hold court in a state without its permision—in fact the whole 3d article is so vague and undefined that it hardly contains any specified powers—to permit the court to say such is the meaning of this article because such was the intention of the convention, would be absurd and dangerous;—other judges may conjecture something else was their intention; and when the times of the present life judges shall be out we may have other judges of different opinion than the present—the advice of Mr Clinton was excelent it is not safe to exercise undelegated or doubtfull powers, because a remedy is at hand—I should be much pleased to, but have no right to expect an answer, as I am an entire stranger, and as You probably have more corespondence than you can well attend to With great respect and esteem I am sir Yrs &c

David Abbot

RC (DLC); torn at seal; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson late President of the U,S, Monticello Virginia”; endorsed by TJ as received 12 May 1822 and so recorded in SJL.

David Abbot (1766–1822), miller and public official, was born in Brookfield, Massachusetts. He attended Yale College (later Yale University) but did not graduate. Abbot briefly practiced law afterward in Rome, New York, before becoming a merchant. He began traveling west in 1797 to sell his goods, and the next year he built a home in the Western Reserve in what would become Willoughby, Trumbull County, Ohio. Abbot became sheriff of Trumbull in 1800, and he was one of the county’s delegates at Ohio’s statehood constitutional convention two years later. In 1802 he also began construction of a sawmill and gristmill on the Huron River. Abbot represented Trumbull in the Ohio House of Representatives, 1803–04, and Geauga, Portage, and, beginning in 1810, Cuyahoga counties in the Ohio Senate, 1808–12. In the latter year he was chosen as a presidential elector, but he failed to cast his vote. Abbot moved permanently in 1810 to Huron County, Ohio. After his death his personal property had an appraised value of $1,100.28 (Vital Records of Brookfield, Massachusetts, To the end of the year 1849 [1909], 9; Firelands Pioneer 1 [May 1859]: 45–7; 2 [Nov. 1859]: 21–6; National Intelligencer, and Washington Advertiser, 31 Dec. 1802; Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Ohio. Second Session [Chillicothe, 1803]; Journal of the Senate of the State of Ohio [Chillicothe, 1808–11]; Chillicothe Supporter, 5 Dec. 1812; OClWHi: Abbot Family Papers; DNA: RG 29, CS, Ohio, Huron, 1820; Abbot’s file in Huron Co. Probate Court, Estate and Guardianship Files).

Before casting his tie-breaking vote against rechartering the Bank of the United States in the United States Senate on 20 Feb. 1811, Vice President George clinton stated that “Government is not to be strengthened by an assumption of doubtful powers” when “the Constitution happily furnishes the means for remedying the evil by amendment” (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. (All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. Citations given below are to the edition mounted on the Library of Congress Digital Collections website and give the date of the debate as well as page numbers.) description ends , 11th Cong., 3d sess., 346–7).

1Manuscript: “am.”

2Manuscript: “as.”

3Manuscript: “goverment.”

4Manuscript: “than.”

5Preceding four words interlined.

Index Entries

  • Abbot, David; identified search
  • Abbot, David; letter from search
  • Abbot, David; on Congress search
  • Abbot, David; on state and federal courts search
  • Bank of the United States; and renewal of charter search
  • Clinton, George; as vice president search
  • Congress, U.S.; legislative powers of search
  • Congress, U.S.; salaries of members of search
  • Constitution, U.S.; and federalism search
  • Constitution, U.S.; and judicial review search
  • Constitution, U.S.; and states’ rights search
  • debt, public; increase of search
  • judiciary, U.S.; judicial review search
  • Marshall, John; and judicial review search
  • politics; federal system of government criticized search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; and J. Marshall search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; and jurisdiction of federal and state courts search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; criticized search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; expenses of search
  • Supreme Court, U.S.; procedures of search
  • United States; national debt search
  • United States; population of search
  • United States; state versus federal authority search