James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, 15 February 1798

From Thomas Jefferson

Philadelphia Feb. 15. 98.

I wrote you last on the 8th. We have still not a word from our envoys. This long silence (if they have been silent) proves things are not going on very roughly. If they have not been silent, it proves their information if made public would check the disposition to arm. I had flattered myself, from the progress of the public sentiment against arming, that the same progress had taken place in the legislature. But I am assured, by those who have better opportunities of forming a good judgment, that if the question against arming is carried at all, it will not be by more than a majority of two: & particularly that there will not be more than 4. votes against it from the 5. eastern states, or 5. votes at the utmost. You will have percieved that Dayton is gone over compleatly.1 He expects to be appointed Secretary of war in the room of McHenry who it is said will retire. He has been told, as report goes, that they would not have confidence enough in him to appoint him. The desire of inspiring them with more seems the only way to account for the eclat which he chuses to give to his conversion. You will have seen the disgusting proceedings in the case of Lyon. If they would have accepted even of a commitment to the Serjeant it might have been had.2 But to get rid of his vote was the most material object. These proceedings must degrade the General government, and lead the people to lean more on their state governments, which have been sunk under the early popularity of the former. This day the question of the jury in cases of impeachment comes on.3 There is no doubt how it will go. The general division in the Senate is 22. and 10. And under the probable prospect of what they will for ever be, I see nothing in the mode of proceeding by impeachment, but the most formidable weapon for the purposes of a dominant faction that ever was contrived. It would be the most effectual one for getting rid of any man whom they consider as dangerous to their views, and I do not know that we could count on one third on an emergency. It depends then on the H. of Representatives, who are the impeachers: & there the majorities are of 1. 2. or 3 only & these sometimes one way & sometimes another: in a question of pure party they have the majority, & we do not know what circumstances may turn up to increase that majority temporarily if not permanently. I know of no solid purpose of punishment which the courts of law are not equal to, and history shews that in England, Impeachment has been an engine more of passion than justice.

A great ball is to be given here on the 22d.4 and in other great towns of the Union. This is at least very indelicate, & probably excites uneasy sensations in some. I see in it however this useful deduction, that the birthdays which have been kept have been, not those of the President, but of the General. I inclose with the newspapers the two acts of parliament5 passed on the subject of our commerce which are interesting. The merchants here say that the effect of the countervailing tonnage on American vessels, will throw them completely out of employ as soon as there is peace. The Eastern members say nothing but among themselves. But it is said that it is working like gravel in their stomachs. Our only comfort is that they have brought it on themselves. My respectful salutations to mrs. Madison & to yourself friendship & Adieu.

RC (DLC); FC (DLC: Jefferson Papers). Unsigned. RC franked and addressed by Jefferson to JM “near Orange Courthouse”; postmarked “22 Fe.” For enclosure, see n. 5.

1Jonathan Dayton’s moderate Federalism made him acceptable enough to Federalists and Republicans to secure him two terms as Speaker of the House of Representatives. However, in the second session of the Fifth Congress, Dayton began to vote with the extreme Federalists. William Hindman remarked, “Our Speaker has given up the French since their last Revolution,” and Theodore Sedgwick wrote, “The Speaker has become violently federal.” Sedgwick thought Dayton’s behavior was rooted in New Jersey’s staunch Federalism. But no convincing explanation has been found for the change (Hoadley, Origins of American Political Parties, pp. 48–49; Hindman to William Hemsley, Jr., 3 Dec. 1797, and Sedgwick to Rufus King, 9 Apr. 1798, C. R. King, Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, 2:250, 311; Richard A. Harrison, Princetonians, 1776–1783: A Biographical Dictionary [Princeton, N.J., 1981], p. 37; for the rumor that Dayton was to be appointed secretary of war, see the Philadelphia Aurora General Advertiser, 5 Mar. 1798).

2The “disgusting proceedings” referred to the two-week debate in the House of Representatives over whether or not to expel Matthew Lyon of Vermont for breach of privilege. Federalists insisted on expulsion; Republicans sought a lighter punishment of reprimand or commitment to the sergeant at arms. The final vote for expulsion, 52–44, failed for lack of a two-thirds majority (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., 955–1009).

3The Senate resumed consideration of the committee report on impeachment proceedings on 1 Feb. Henry Tazewell spoke at length (16 and 19 Feb.) in support of jury trials for impeached officials, arguing that impeachments were criminal prosecutions and as such fell under the protection of the Eighth Amendment guarantee of trial by jury. The amendment thus superseded constitutional provisions for impeachment that gave the Senate sole power to try such cases without juries. Jefferson had helped Tazewell craft the argument by sending him “passages from Law authors” showing that impeachments are criminal prosecutions. Tazewell’s motion was defeated, 26–3 (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., 507–8; Tazewell’s speeches and the debate are found in the Philadelphia Aurora General Advertiser, 16, 20, and 28 Feb., 1 and 3 Mar. 1798; Jefferson to Tazewell, 27 Jan. 1798, Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (10 vols.; New York, 1892–99). description ends , 7:194).

4The birthday balls honoring President Washington during his administration were copied from the English practice of celebrating the king’s birthday. They were one of the “forms of the British government” that Jefferson had criticized in his famous letter to Philip Mazzei of 24 Apr. 1796. The ball to honor Washington in 1798 provoked Adams’s indignation and a split in the Federalist camp (Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (10 vols.; New York, 1892–99). description ends , 7:75; Smith, John Adams, 2:950–51).

5The pamphlet that Jefferson enclosed was a Message from the President of the United States, Accompanying Copies of Two Acts of the Parliament … 2d February, 1798. Published by Order of the House … (Philadelphia, 1798; Evans description begins Charles Evans, ed., American Bibliography … 1639 … 1820 (12 vols.; Chicago, 1903–34). description ends 34802). JM’s copy is in the Madison Collection, Rare Book Department, University of Virginia Library. The first act was passed 4 July 1797 and was “An act for carrying into execution the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation, concluded between his Majesty and the United States of America.” It established special tariffs called “countervailing duties” on American goods shipped to British ports. Expressly granted to Great Britain by article 15 of Jay’s treaty, these duties ostensibly placed British shipping on an equal basis with that of the U.S., but U.S. observers, like Rufus King and Jefferson, worried that the duties would eliminate the American carrying trade in some items. The second, passed 19 July 1797, was “An act for regulating the Trade to be carried on with the British possessions in India, by the Ships of Nations in Amity with his Majesty,” which prescribed the rules under which goods might be imported and exported to India (Perkins, The First Rapprochement, pp. 76–77; for Republican editorial comment, see the Philadelphia Aurora General Advertiser, 28 Feb. 1798).

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