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Letter To Samuel Adams Wells, Monticello, May 12, 1819

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Monticello, May 12, 1819

Sir,

—An absence of some time at an occasional and distant residence must apologize for the delay in acknowledging the receipt of your favor of April 12th. And candor obliges me to add that it has been somewhat extended by an aversion to writing, as well as to calls on my memory for facts so much obliterated from it by time as to lessen my confidence in the traces which seem to remain. One of the inquiries in your letter, however, may be answered without an appeal to the memory. It is that respecting the question whether committees of correspondence originated in Virginia or Massachusetts? On which you suppose me to have claimed it for Virginia. But certainly I have never made such a claim. The idea, I suppose, has been taken up from what is said in Wirt’s history of Mr. Henry, p. 87, and from an inexact attention to its precise term. It is there said “this house [of burgesses of Virginia] had the merit of originating that powerful engine of resistance, corresponding committees between the legislatures of the different colonies.” That the fact as here expressed is true, your letter bears witness when it says that the resolutions of Virginia for this purpose were transmitted to the speakers of the different Assemblies, and by that of Massachusetts was laid at the next session before that body, who appointed a committee for the specified object: adding, “thus in Massachusetts there were two committees of correspondence, one chosen by the people, the other appointed by the House of Assembly; in the former, Massachusetts preceded Virginia; in the latter, Virginia preceded Massachusetts.” To the origination of committees for the interior correspondence between the counties and towns of a State, I know of no claim on the part of Virginia; but certainly none was ever made by myself. I perceive, however, one error into which memory had led me. Our committee for national correspondence was appointed in March, ’73, and I well remember that going to Williamsburg in the month of June following, Peyton Randolph, our chairman, told me that messengers, bearing despatches between the two States, had crossed each other by the way; that of Virginia carrying our propositions for a committee of national correspondence, and that of Massachusetts bringing, as my memory suggested, a similar proposition. But here I must have misremembered; and the resolutions brought us from Massachusetts were probably those you mention of the town meeting of Boston, on the motion of Mr. Samuel Adams, appointing a committee “to state the rights of the colonists, and of that province in particular, and the infringements of them, to communicate them to the several towns, as the sense of the town of Boston, and to request of each town a free communication of its sentiments on this subject”? I suppose, therefore, that these resolutions were not received, as you think, while the House of Burgesses was in session in March, 1773; but a few days after we rose, and were probably what was sent by the messenger who crossed ours by the way. They may, however, have been still different. I must therefore have been mistaken in supposing and stating to Mr. Wirt, that the proposition of a committee for national correspondence was nearly simultaneous in Virginia and Massachusetts.

A similar misapprehension of another passage in Mr. Wirt’s book, for which I am also quoted, has produced a similar reclamation of the part of Massachusetts by some of her most distinguished and estimable citizens. I had been applied to by Mr. Wirt for such facts respecting Mr. Henry, as my intimacy with him, and participation in the transactions of the day, might have placed within my knowledge. I accordingly committed them to paper, and Virginia being the theatre of his action, was the only subject within my contemplation, while speaking of him. Of the resolutions and measures here, in which he had the acknowledged lead, I used the expression that “Mr. Henry certainly gave the first impulse to the ball of revolution.” [Wirt, p. 41.] The expression is indeed general, and in all its extension would comprehend all the sister States. But indulgent construction would restrain it, as was really meant, to the subject matter under contemplation, which was Virginia alone; according to the rule of the lawyers, and a fair canon of general criticism, that every expression should be construed secundum subjectam materiem. Where the first attack was made, there must have been of course, the first act of resistance, and that was of Massachusetts. Our first overt act of war was Mr. Henry’s embodying a force of militia from several counties, regularly armed and organized, marching them in military array, and making reprisal on the King’s treasury at the seat of government for the public powder taken away by his Governor. This was on the last days of April, 1775. Your formal battle of Lexington was ten or twelve days before that, which greatly overshadowed in importance, as it preceded in time our little affray, which merely amounted to a levying of arms against the King, and very possibly you had had military affrays before the regular battle of Lexington.

These explanations will, I hope, assure you, Sir, that so far as either facts or opinions have been truly quoted from me they have never been meant to intercept the just fame of Massachusetts, for the promptitude and perseverance of her early resistance. We willingly cede to her the laud of having been (although not exclusively) “the cradle of sound principles,” and if some of us believe she has deflected from them in her course, we retain full confidence in her ultimate return to them.

I will now proceed to your quotation from Mr. Galloway’s statements of what passed in Congress on their declaration of independence, in which statement there is not one word of truth, and where, bearing some resemblance to truth, it is an entire perversion of it. I do not charge this on Mr. Galloway himself; his desertion having taken place long before these measures, he doubtless received his information from some of the loyal friends whom he left behind him. But as yourself, as well as others, appear embarrassed by inconsistent accounts of the proceedings on that memorable occasion, and as those who have endeavored to restore the truth have themselves committed some errors, I will give you some extracts from a written document on that subject, for the truth of which I pledge myself to heaven and earth; having, while the question of independence was under consideration before Congress, taken written notes, in my seat, of what was passing, and reduced them to form on the final conclusion. I have now before me that paper, from which the following are extracts:1

Governor McKean, in his letter to McCorkle of July 16th, 1817, has thrown some lights on the transactions of that day, but trusting to his memory chiefly at an age when our memories are not to be trusted, he has confounded two questions, and ascribed proceedings to one which belonged to the other. These two questions were, 1. The Virginia motion of June 7th to declare independence, and 2. The actual declaration, its matter and form. Thus he states the question on the declaration itself as decided on the 1st of July. But it was the Virginia motion which was voted on that day in committee of the whole; South Carolina, as well as Pennsylvania, then voting against it. But the ultimate decision in the House on the report of the committee being by request postponed to the next morning, all the States voted for it, except New York, whose vote was delayed for the reason before stated. It was not till the 2d of July that the declaration itself was taken up, nor till the 4th that it was decided; and it was signed by every member present, except Mr. Dickinson.

The subsequent signatures of members who were not then present, and some of them not yet in office, is easily explained, if we observe who they were; to wit, that they were of New York and Pennsylvania. New York did not sign till the 15th, because it was not till the 9th, (five days after the general signature,) that their convention authorized them to do so. The convention of Pennsylvania, learning that it had been signed by a minority only of their delegates, named a new delegation on the 20th leaving out Mr. Dickinson, who had refused to sign, Willing and Humphreys who had withdrawn, reappointing the three members who had signed, Morris who had not been present, and five new ones, to wit, Rush, Clymer, Smith, Taylor and Ross; and Morris and the five new members were permitted to sign, because it manifested the assent of their full delegation, and the express will of their convention, which might have been doubted on the former signature of a minority only. Why the signature of Thornton of New Hampshire was permitted so late as the 4th of November, I cannot now say; but undoubtedly for some particular reason which we should find to have been good, had it been expressed. These were the only post-signers, and you see, Sir, that there were solid reasons for receiving those of New York and Pennsylvania, and that this circumstance in no wise affects the faith of this declaratory charter of our rights and of the rights of man.

With a view to correct errors of fact before they become inveterate by repetition, I have stated what I find essentially material in my papers; but with that brevity which the labor of writing constrains me to use.

On the fourth particular articles of inquiry in your letter, respecting your grandfather, the venerable Samuel Adams, neither memory nor memorandums enable me to give any information. I can say that he was truly a great man, wise in council, fertile in resources, immovable in his purposes, and had, I think, a greater share than any other member, in advising and directing our measures, in the northern war especially. As a speaker he could not be compared with his living colleague and namesake, whose deep conceptions, nervous style, and undaunted firmness, made him truly our bulwark in debate. But Mr. Samuel Adams, although not of fluent elocution, was so rigorously logical, so clear in his views, abundant in good sense, and master always of his subject, that he commanded the most profound attention whenever he rose in an assembly by which the froth of declamation was heard with the most sovereign contempt. I sincerely rejoice that the record of his worth is to be undertaken by one so much disposed as you will be to hand him down fairly to that posterity for whose liberty and happiness he was so zealous a laborer.