Thomas Jefferson Papers

Robert W. Wells to Thomas Jefferson, 12 May 1822

From Robert W. Wells

St Charles May 12th 1822.—Missouri.

Dear Sir

I am conscious, that in addressing you, I take a liberty not warranted by the rules of Etiquette; But although I have not the honor of knowing you personally; with your character I am by no means unacquainted—presuming on which, and your known politeness, I address you on a political subject, that has excited much Interest in this State. Many of the principles of Goverment, that have for a long time been considered as Settled in the Elder States, are now here under discussion. Among which is the power and duty of the Judges of a State, in suits between individuals regularly before the Court, to decide on the Constitutionality of Acts of the Legislature of the same State; which are in contravention of the constitution of the United States, or their own State: or, of the Judges of the United States courts, to decide on the constitutionality of acts of the Several States or Congress; which are in contravention of the Constitution of the United States. Or, in other words, the power and duty of the Judges to declare Such acts void.

This question has been discussed with more Interest on account of recent decisions of the Courts of this State. Those who deny this power in the Judiciary, cite as an authority, your letter to Mr Jarvis Respecting certain passages in his Book—the other party deny that your letter will bear such a construction—and its interpretation has become a matter of Newspaper discussion. This must not surprise you, for, I assure you, there is no man whose political opinions are more reverenced in this State—No one whose declared opinion would go further to sanctify or disgrace a political measure.

As I believe an improper and unfair construction has been given to your Letter; you will do Justice to yourself, and oblige me, by communicating your Real opinion on this Subject. I know well that it is disagreeable for those who have retired from public life, to have their opinions again brought upon the “Gridiron” of public discussion; but in this case, the Evil, if any, has been effected.

With Great respect I Remain Your Obt. Humble Servt

Robt W. Wells

RC (MoSHi: TJC-BC); adjacent to closing: “Thomas Jefferson Esquire”; endorsed by TJ as received 26 June 1822 from “Stells Robert H.” and so recorded (omitting middle initial) in SJL.

Robert William Wells (1795–1864), public official, was born in Winchester. After spending several years as a federal surveyor, probably in Illinois and Missouri, and studying law, he established a legal practice in 1820 in Saint Charles, Missouri’s temporary capital. Wells served the new state in the legislature, 1822–25, designed its great seal, adopted in the former year, and was attorney general of Missouri, 1826–36. President Andrew Jackson appointed him the federal judge for the district of Missouri in 1836. Shifting to the western half of Missouri when the district was subdivided in 1857, Wells retained his judgeship for the rest of his life. In 1845 he was president of a convention that wrote a constitution that the state’s voters rejected, and later in the decade he published two treatises on Missouri law. Wells’s 1854 decision that Dred Scott did not have the legal right to sue for his manumission in federal court was later upheld in the United States Supreme Court by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Although Wells owned one slave in 1830, seven a decade later, and fourteen in 1850, he supported the Union during the Civil War and was president of an emancipation convention in 1862. He held real estate in Cole County worth $15,000 in 1850, and his fortune was valued in excess of $100,000 a decade later. An active member of the Democratic Party and numerous civic organizations, Wells died during a visit to Bowling Green, Kentucky (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, repr. 1968, 20 vols. in 10 description ends ; Lawrence O. Christensen and others, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography [1999], 788; William V. N. Bay, Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Missouri [1878], 538–44; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States description ends , 4:561, 565 [18, 27 June 1836]; DNA: RG 29, CS, Mo., Cole Co., 1830–50, 1850 slave schedules, Jefferson City, 1860; gravestone inscription in Woodland–Old City Cemetery, Jefferson City).

Index Entries

  • books; on government search
  • Congress, U.S.; and judicial review search
  • Constitution, U.S.; and judicial review search
  • Jarvis, William Charles; letter from TJ referenced search
  • Jarvis, William Charles; The Republican; or, A Series of Essays on the Principles and Policy of Free States search
  • judiciary, U.S.; judicial review search
  • law; and judicial review search
  • Missouri (state); and judicial review search
  • politics; books on government search
  • The Republican; or, A Series of Essays on the Principles and Policy of Free States (W. C. Jarvis) search
  • Wells, Robert William; and judicial review search
  • Wells, Robert William; identified search
  • Wells, Robert William; letter from search