James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, 8 February 1798

From Thomas Jefferson

Philadelphia Feb. 8. 98.

I wrote you last on the 25th. Ult.1 since which yours of the 21st. has been recieved. Bache had put 500. copies of Monroe’s book on board a vessel, which was stopped by the early & unexpected freezing of the river. He then tried in vain to get them sent on by fifties at a time by the stage. The river is now open here, the vessels have fallen down and if they can get through the ice below, the one with Bache’s packet will soon be at Richmond. It is surmised here that Scipio is written by C. Lee. Articles of impeachment were yesterday given in against Blount;2 but many knotty preliminary questions will arise. Must not a formal law settle the oath of the Senators, forms of pleadings, process against person & goods &c. May he not appear by attorney? Must he not be tried by jury? Is a Senator impeachable? Is an ex-Senator impeachable? You will readily concieve that these questions to be settled by 29. lawyers are not likely to come to speedy issue. A very disagreeable question of privilege has suspended all other proceedings for several days.3 You will see this in the newspapers. The question of arming was to have come on on Monday last. That morning the President sent in an inflammatory message about a vessel taken & burnt by a French privateer near Charleston.4 Of this he had been possessed some time, and it had run through all the newspapers. It seemed to come in very apropos for spurring on the disposition to arm. However the question is not come on. In the mean time the general spirit, even of the merchants, is becoming adverse to it. New hamp[s]hire & Rhode island, are unanimously against arming. So is Baltimore. This place becoming more so. Boston divided & desponding. I know nothing of New York. But I think there is no danger of the question being carried, unless something favorable to it is recieved from our envoys.5 From them we hear nothing. Yet it seems reasonably believed that the Executive has heard, & that it is something which would not promote their views of arming. For every action of theirs shew they are panting to come to blows. Walker’s bill will be applied to answer a draught of Colo. Monroe’s on Barnes. I have not heard yet from Bailey. I wrote to you about procuring a rider for the Fredsbg. post. The propositions should be here by the 14th. inst. but I can get it kept open a little longer. There is no bidder yet but Green the printer.6 £100. Virga. will be given. Giles is arrived. My friendly salutations to mrs. Madison. Adieu affectionately.

RC (DLC). Unsigned.

1Jefferson to JM, 24 Jan. 1798. The file copy kept by Jefferson was dated 25 Jan.

2Five articles of impeachment were reported by the House on 29 Jan. and carried to the Senate on 7 Feb. The House accused former senator William Blount of conspiring to conduct a filibustering expedition against Spanish Florida and Louisiana from U.S. territory; of inciting Indian nations against the Spanish; of suborning US. Indian agents and authorized traders; and of contriving to diminish the respect and confidence of the Indian nations in the U.S. government. The articles were taken up by the Senate and in the course of the proceedings the matter was postponed until the third session (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 5th Cong., 2d sess., 947–51, 498–502, 541; for a discussion of the constitutional questions surrounding the Blount impeachment, see Hoffer and Hull, Impeachment in America, pp. 151–63).

3The breach of privilege that so absorbed the House was the “violent attack and gross indecency upon the person of Roger Griswold,” a Federalist congressman from Connecticut, by the Vermont Republican Matthew Lyon. Griswold had baited Lyon by impugning his Revolutionary War service record, whereupon the Vermonter spit on him. When it became clear that Lyon would not be expelled from Congress for his action, Griswold attacked Lyon with a cane on the floor of the House. Lyon defended himself with a pair of tongs, and the two ended up wrestling on the floor before being parted. Representatives spent the month of February occupied with this affair. Edward Livingston of New York neatly characterized the debate when he said, “Gentlemen rose to express their abhorrence of abuse in abusive terms, and their hatred of indecent acts with indecency.” Neither Griswold nor Lyon was censured or expelled (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 5th Cong., 2d sess., 955–1068; for Livingston’s speech, see ibid., 1002).

4The president’s message covered a letter from Gov. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, dated 22 Oct. 1797, attesting to a number of depredations committed by a French privateer near the port of Charleston. News of the attacks was printed in the Philadelphia Gazette of the U.S., 6 Nov. 1797 (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 5th Cong., 2d sess., 963–64).

5The question of allowing private merchantmen to arm for their own protection was a holdover issue from the first session of the Fifth Congress. Public opinion was divided, even in that hotbed of Federalism, Boston. As Jonathan Mason, Jr., wrote to Harrison Gray Otis, “Good men [i.e., Federalists] differ upon the subject of arming.” By June 1798, however, public feeling against France rose to such a pitch that Congress easily passed “An Act to authorize the defence of the Merchant Vessels of the United States against French depredations” (Mason to Otis, 19 Feb. 1798, Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, 1:87; U.S. Statutes at Large description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America … (17 vols.; Boston, 1848–73). description ends , 1:572).

6See Jefferson to JM, 3 Jan. 1798, and n. 2.

Index Entries