James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 12 January 1799

To Thomas Jefferson

Jany 12. 99.

Dear Sir

According to a promise in my last, I inclose a copy of the rates at which McGeehee works. I inclose also a few observations on a subject which we have frequently talked of, which are submitted to your entire disposal, in whole or in part, under the sole reserve of the name of the author.1 In Gordon’s History Vol. IV p. 399–400, is a transaction that may perhaps be properly referred to in the debate on the alien-bill. Among other names is that of Sedgwick, to a protest agst. a Bill subjecting to banishment, without trial by jury.2 It does not appear clearly whether the exiles were under the character of aliens or Citizens. If under the former the case is in point. In the hurry of my last, I suspect that I overrated the payments expected from Moylan & Lewis.3 Should they be short of the objects to which they are appropriated, I will make up the deficiency on notice. We have lately had a few days of intense cold, & now the weather is in the opposite extreme. The Thermr. on sunday morning last was at 6°. & on monday within the Bulb. Our post had not arrived at the usual hour on wednesday, & I have not since heard from the office. We are consequently without any late intelligence, of your proceedings. I have been disappointed in seeing no step taken in relation to Lyon. He is clearly within his privilege & it ought to be claimed for him. In the case of Wilkes,4 the judges were unanimously of opinion that a libel did not take away his privilege, altho it is there less definite than with us. The House of Commons voted differently, but it was the vote of a faction, & therefore of less weight than the other authority. Adieu

RC (DLC). Unsigned. Docketed by Jefferson, “recd Jan. 20.” Enclosures not found, but see n. 1.

1See Madison’s Aurora General Advertiser Essays, 23 Jan.–23 Feb. 1799.

2In July 1783, during a session of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, a bill was introduced to prevent “the return of persons who have left this state and joined the enemies of the United States.” A protest against the measure, signed by Thomson J. Skinner and Theodore Sedgwick, among others, declared that the bill’s provisions were unconstitutional because “that essential right of freemen, a trial by jury, is taken away, and every subject of this commonwealth exposed to be deprived of his liberty, property and rights of citizenship, and to the infamous punishment of banishment, by the sole judgment of two justices of the peace” (William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America [4 vols.; (London), 1788], 4:398–401; Welch, Theodore Sedgwick, pp. 29–30).

4JM referred to the famous case of John Wilkes, a member of Parliament and writer and publisher of the North Briton, a radical Whig newspaper. Number 45 of that journal, printed on 23 Apr. 1763, formed the basis for a general prosecution of Wilkes for seditious libel. In the initial proceedings against him, Wilkes’s defense was partially based on parliamentary privilege, that is, that as a member of Parliament he was privileged to speak as he liked unless accused of treason, felony, or breach of the peace. The judge ruled that “the person of a Member ought to be sacred” and upheld Wilkes’s privilege. On 20 Jan. 1764, however, Wilkes was expelled from the House of Commons, a move that stripped him of his parliamentary privilege (George Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty: A Social Study of 1763 to 1774 [Oxford, 1962], pp. 22, 26–27, 35).

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