Cabinet Opinion on an Address from the Democratic Society of Washington County, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia April 14. 1794.
The President wishes your opinion, as to the step, proper to be taken, upon the inclosed address. To send to congress, what the President thinks unfit for himself, will be unkindly received; being uncivil in itself. To acknowledge the body, as such, is in every view inadmissible. So that the question seems to turn upon this; whether it be better to treat the paper with unqualiffied and silent contempt; or to return it to James Marshal, as an individual, to this effect; “that the President receives no applications from a body, as such, whose constitution is not known in the laws; and that the paper is therefore returned to him, as the individual, from whom it came”—Silent contempt I prefer. I have the honor, gentlemen, to be with great respect Yr. mo. ob. serv.
I am of opinion that no answer should be given but that the Paper should be referred to the Atty General to examine carefully if it does not contain criminal matter & that if it does it ought to be put in a train of prosecution.
No prosecution—but no answer of any sort.
The Language of the petition is exceedingly reprehensible and improper: but I doubt whether it would be considered per se, as a proper subject for a criminal prosecution, without some extrinsic proof of a seditious intention. The “right of petitioning for redress of grievances” is so solemnly gaurantee’d by the Constitution and so jealously guarded, that Juries are apt to consider an attempt to correct it[s] abuses, unless very flagrant, as an attack upon the right itself; & they regard those improprieties merely as excressences which it is dangerous to touch. More exceptionable matter appears frequently in the public prints: but these abuses are endured from a fear of injuring the freedom of the Press.1 An unsuccessful prosecution from seditious writings generally does harm: and independant of any legal doubt, this does not seem to be a case that will certainly ensure a conviction. I therefore think it best to treat the paper with the contempt it deserves.
DS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. GW’s docket reads, “Opinions of the Heads of Depts. relative to a remonstrance of the Democ. Society of Washington Coty—Pennsylvania 14th April 1794.”
1. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”