Autobiography by Thomas Jefferson


The seat of our government had been originally fixed in the peninsula of
Jamestown, the first settlement of the colonists; and had been afterwards
removed a few miles inland to Williamsburg. But this was at a time when our
settlements had not extended beyond the tide water. Now they had crossed
the Alleghany; and the center of population was very far removed from what
it had been. Yet Williamsburg was still the depository of our archives, the
habitual residence of the Governor & many other of the public
functionaries, the established place for the sessions of the legislature,
and the magazine of our military stores: and it's situation was so exposed
that it might be taken at any time in war, and, at this time particularly,
an enemy might in the night run up either of the rivers between which it
lies, land a force above, and take possession of the place, without the
possibility of saving either persons or things. I had proposed it's removal
so early as Octob. 76. but it did not prevail until the session of May.

Early in the session of May 79. I prepared, and obtained leave to bring in
a bill declaring who should be deemed citizens, asserting the natural right
of expatriation, and prescribing the mode of exercising it. This, when I
withdrew from the house on the 1st of June following, I left in the hands
of George Mason and it was passed on the 26th of that month.

In giving this account of the laws of which I was myself the mover &
draughtsman, I by no means mean to claim to myself the merit of obtaining
their passage. I had many occasional and strenuous coadjutors in debate,
and one most steadfast, able, and zealous; who was himself a host. This was
George Mason, a man of the first order of wisdom among those who acted on
the theatre of the revolution, of expansive mind, profound judgment, cogent
in argument, learned in the lore of our former constitution, and earnest
for the republican change on democratic principles. His elocution was
neither flowing nor smooth, but his language was strong, his manner most
impressive, and strengthened by a dash of biting cynicism when provocation
made it seasonable.

Mr. Wythe, while speaker in the two sessions of 1777. between his return
from Congress and his appointment to the Chancery, was an able and constant
associate in whatever was before a committee of the whole. His pure
integrity, judgment and reasoning powers gave him great weight. Of him see
more in some notes inclosed in my letter of August 31. 1821, to Mr. John

Mr. Madison came into the House in 1776. a new member and young; which
circumstances, concurring with his extreme modesty, prevented his venturing
himself in debate before his removal to the Council of State in Nov. 77.
From thence he went to Congress, then consisting of few members. Trained in
these successive schools, he acquired a habit of self-possession which
placed at ready command the rich resources of his luminous and
discriminating mind, & of his extensive information, and rendered him the
first of every assembly afterwards of which he became a member. Never
wandering from his subject into vain declamation, but pursuing it closely
in language pure, classical, and copious, soothing always the feelings of
his adversaries by civilities and softness of expression, he rose to the
eminent station which he held in the great National convention of 1787. and
in that of Virginia which followed, he sustained the new constitution in
all its parts, bearing off the palm against the logic of George Mason, and
the fervid declamation of Mr. Henry. With these consummate powers were
united a pure and spotless virtue which no calumny has ever attempted to
sully. Of the powers and polish of his pen, and of the wisdom of his
administration in the highest office of the nation, I need say nothing.
They have spoken, and will forever speak for themselves.

So far we were proceeding in the details of reformation only; selecting
points of legislation prominent in character & principle, urgent, and
indicative of the strength of the general pulse of reformation. When I left
Congress, in 76. it was in the persuasion that our whole code must be
reviewed, adapted to our republican form of government, and, now that we
had no negatives of Councils, Governors & Kings to restrain us from doing
right, that it should be corrected, in all it's parts, with a single eye to
reason, & the good of those for whose government it was framed. Early
therefore in the session of 76. to which I returned, I moved and presented
a bill for the revision of the laws; which was passed on the 24th. of
October, and on the 5th. of November Mr. Pendleton, Mr. Wythe, George
Mason, Thomas L. Lee and myself were appointed a committee to execute the
work. We agreed to meet at Fredericksburg to settle the plan of operation
and to distribute the work. We met there accordingly, on the 13th. of
January 1777. The first question was whether we should propose to abolish
the whole existing system of laws, and prepare a new and complete
Institute, or preserve the general system, and only modify it to the
present state of things. Mr. Pendleton, contrary to his usual disposition
in favor of antient things, was for the former proposition, in which he was
joined by Mr. Lee. To this it was objected that to abrogate our whole
system would be a bold measure, and probably far beyond the views of the
legislature; that they had been in the practice of revising from time to
time the laws of the colony, omitting the expired, the repealed and the
obsolete, amending only those retained, and probably meant we should now do
the same, only including the British statutes as well as our own: that to
compose a new Institute like those of Justinian and Bracton, or that of
Blackstone, which was the model proposed by Mr. Pendleton, would be an
arduous undertaking, of vast research, of great consideration & judgment;
and when reduced to a text, every word of that text, from the imperfection
of human language, and it's incompetence to express distinctly every shade
of idea, would become a subject of question & chicanery until settled by
repeated adjudications; that this would involve us for ages in litigation,
and render property uncertain until, like the statutes of old, every word
had been tried, and settled by numerous decisions, and by new volumes of
reports & commentaries; and that no one of us probably would undertake such
a work, which, to be systematical, must be the work of one hand. This last
was the opinion of Mr. Wythe, Mr. Mason & myself. When we proceeded to the
distribution of the work, Mr. Mason excused himself as, being no lawyer, he
felt himself unqualified for the work, and he resigned soon after. Mr. Lee
excused himself on the same ground, and died indeed in a short time. The
other two gentlemen therefore and myself divided the work among us. The
common law and statutes to the 4. James I. (when our separate legislature
was established) were assigned to me; the British statutes from that period
to the present day to Mr. Wythe, and the Virginia laws to Mr. Pendleton. As
the law of Descents, & the criminal law fell of course within my portion, I
wished the commee to settle the leading principles of these, as a guide for
me in framing them. And with respect to the first, I proposed to abolish
the law of primogeniture, and to make real estate descendible in parcenary
to the next of kin, as personal property is by the statute of distribution.
Mr. Pendleton wished to preserve the right of primogeniture, but seeing at
once that that could not prevail, he proposed we should adopt the Hebrew
principle, and give a double portion to the elder son. I observed that if
the eldest son could eat twice as much, or do double work, it might be a
natural evidence of his right to a double portion; but being on a par in
his powers & wants, with his brothers and sisters, he should be on a par
also in the partition of the patrimony, and such was the decision of the
other members.

On the subject of the Criminal law, all were agreed that the punishment of
death should be abolished, except for treason and murder; and that, for
other felonies should be substituted hard labor in the public works, and in
some cases, the Lex talionis. How this last revolting principle came to
obtain our approbation, I do not remember. There remained indeed in our
laws a vestige of it in a single case of a slave. It was the English law in
the time of the Anglo-Saxons, copied probably from the Hebrew law of "an
eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," and it was the law of several antient
people. But the modern mind had left it far in the rear of it's advances.
These points however being settled, we repaired to our respective homes for
the preparation of the work.

Feb. 6. In the execution of my part I thought it material not to vary the
diction of the antient statutes by modernizing it, nor to give rise to new
questions by new expressions. The text of these statutes had been so fully
explained and defined by numerous adjudications, as scarcely ever now to
produce a question in our courts. I thought it would be useful also, in all
new draughts, to reform the style of the later British statutes, and of our
own acts of assembly, which from their verbosity, their endless
tautologies, their involutions of case within case, and parenthesis within
parenthesis, and their multiplied efforts at certainty by saids and
aforesaids, by ors and by ands, to make them more plain, do really render
them more perplexed and incomprehensible, not only to common readers, but
to the lawyers themselves. We were employed in this work from that time to
Feb. 1779, when we met at Williamsburg, that is to say, Mr. Pendleton, Mr.
Wythe & myself, and meeting day by day, we examined critically our several
parts, sentence by sentence, scrutinizing and amending until we had agreed
on the whole. We then returned home, had fair copies made of our several
parts, which were reported to the General Assembly June 18. 1779. by Mr.
Wythe and myself, Mr. Pendleton's residence being distant, and he having
authorized us by letter to declare his approbation. We had in this work
brought so much of the Common law as it was thought necessary to alter, all
the British statutes from Magna Charta to the present day, and all the laws
of Virginia, from the establishment of our legislature, in the 4th. Jac. 1.
to the present time, which we thought should be retained, within the
compass of 126 bills, making a printed folio of 90 pages only. Some bills
were taken out occasionally, from time to time, and passed; but the main
body of the work was not entered on by the legislature until after the
general peace, in 1785. when by the unwearied exertions of Mr. Madison, in
opposition to the endless quibbles, chicaneries, perversions, vexations and
delays of lawyers and demi-lawyers, most of the bills were passed by the
legislature, with little alteration.

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had,
to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude
of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations
in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved
that it's protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the
preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy
author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word
"Jesus Christ," so that it should read "a departure from the plan of Jesus
Christ, the holy author of our religion." The insertion was rejected by a
great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle
of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan,
the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.

Beccaria and other writers on crimes and punishments had satisfied the
reasonable world of the unrightfulness and inefficacy of the punishment of
crimes by death; and hard labor on roads, canals and other public works,
had been suggested as a proper substitute. The Revisors had adopted these
opinions; but the general idea of our country had not yet advanced to that
point. The bill therefore for proportioning crimes and punishments was lost
in the House of Delegates by a majority of a single vote. I learnt
afterwards that the substitute of hard labor in public was tried (I believe
it was in Pennsylvania) without success. Exhibited as a public spectacle,
with shaved heads and mean clothing, working on the high roads produced in
the criminals such a prostration of character, such an abandonment of
self-respect, as, instead of reforming, plunged them into the most
desperate & hardened depravity of morals and character. - Pursue the
subject of this law. - I was written to in 1785 (being then in Paris) by
Directors appointed to superintend the building of a Capitol in Richmond,
to advise them as to a plan, and to add to it one of a prison. Thinking it
a favorable opportunity of introducing into the state an example of
architecture in the classic style of antiquity, and the Maison quarree of
Nismes, an antient Roman temple, being considered as the most perfect model
existing of what may be called Cubic architecture, I applied to M.
Clerissault, who had published drawings of the Antiquities of Nismes, to
have me a model of the building made in stucco, only changing the order
from Corinthian to Ionic, on account of the difficulty of the Corinthian
capitals. I yielded with reluctance to the taste of Clerissault, in his
preference of the modern capital of Scamozzi to the more noble capital of
antiquity. This was executed by the artist whom Choiseul Gouffier had
carried with him to Constantinople, and employed while Ambassador there, in
making those beautiful models of the remains of Grecian architecture which
are to be seen at Paris. To adapt the exterior to our use, I drew a plan
for the interior, with the apartments necessary for legislative, executive
& judiciary purposes, and accommodated in their size and distribution to
the form and dimensions of the building. These were forwarded to the
Directors in 1786. and were carried into execution, with some variations
not for the better, the most important to which however admit of future
correction. With respect of the plan of a Prison, requested at the same
time, I had heard of a benevolent society in England which had been
indulged by the government in an experiment of the effect of labor in
solitary confinement on some of their criminals, which experiment had
succeeded beyond expectation. The same idea had been suggested in France,
and an Architect of Lyons had proposed a plan of a well contrived edifice
on the principle of solitary confinement. I procured a copy, and as it was
too large for our purposes, I drew one on a scale, less extensive, but
susceptible of additions as they should be wanting. This I sent to the
Directors instead of a plan of a common prison, in the hope that it would
suggest the idea of labor in solitary confinement instead of that on the
public works, which we had adopted in our Revised Code. It's principle
accordingly, but not it's exact form, was adopted by Latrobe in carrying
the plan into execution, by the erection of what is now called the
Penitentiary, built under his direction. In the meanwhile the public
opinion was ripening by time, by reflection, and by the example of
Pensylva, where labor on the highways had been tried without approbation
from 1786 to 89. & had been followed by their Penitentiary system on the
principle of confinement and labor, which was proceeding auspiciously. In
1796. our legislature resumed the subject and passed the law for amending
the Penal laws of the commonwealth. They adopted solitary, instead of
public labor, established a gradation in the duration of the confinement,
approximated the style of the law more to the modern usage, and instead of
the settled distinctions of murder & manslaughter, preserved in my bill,
they introduced the new terms of murder in the 1st & 2d degree. Whether
these have produced more or fewer questions of definition I am not
sufficiently informed of our judiciary transactions to say. I will here
however insert the text of my bill, with the notes I made in the course of
my researches into the subject.

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