Letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, June 17, 1807

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Letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Hay  (1807) 
by Thomas Jefferson

This letter was Jefferson's second response to a subpoena ducues tecum issued by Chief Justice John Marshall in the treason trial of Aaron Burr. The letter was read into the record of the proceedings by its recipient, prosecutor George Hay. United States v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 55, 69 (C.C.D. Va. 1807).

Washington, June 17, 1807.

Sir: In answering your letter of the 9th, which desired a communication of one to me from General Wilkinson, specified by its date, I informed you in mine of the 12th that I had delivered it, with all other papers respecting the charges against Aaron Burr, to the attorney general when he went to Richmond; that I had supposed he had left them in your possession, but would immediately write to him, if he had not, to forward that particular letter without delay. I wrote to him accordingly on the same day, but having no answer I know not whether he has forwarded the letter. I stated in the same letter that I had desired the secretary of war to examine his office in order to comply with your further request to furnish copies of the orders which had been given respecting Aaron Burr and his property; and, in a subsequent letter of the same day, I forwarded you copies of two letters from the secretary at war, which appeared to be within the description expressed in your letter. The order from the secretary of the navy you said you were in possession of. The receipt of these papers has, I presume, so far anticipated, and others this day forwarded, will have substantially fulfilled the object of a subpoena from the district court of Richmond, requiring that those officers and myself should attend the court in Richmond, with the letter of General Wilkinson, the answer to that letter, and the orders of the department of war and the navy therein generally described. No answer to General Wilkinson’s letter, other than a mere acknowledgement of its receipt in a letter written for a different purpose, was ever written by myself or any other. To these communications of papers I will add, that if the defendant suppose there are any facts within the knowledge of the heads of departments or of myself, which can be useful for his defence, from a desire of doing anything our situation will permit in furtherance of justice, we shall be ready to give him the benefit of it, by way of deposition through any persons whom the court shall authorize to take our testimony at this place. I know indeed that this cannot be done but by consent of parties, and I therefore authorize you to give consent on the part of the United States. Mr. Burr’s consent will be given of course, if he suppose the testimony useful.

As to our personal attendance at Richmond, I am persuaded the court is sensible that paramount duties to the nation at large control the obligation of compliance with its summons in this case, as it would should we receive a similar one to attend the trials of Blennerhassett and others in the Mississippi territory, those instituted at St. Louis and other places on the western waters, or at any place other than the seat of government. To comply with such calls would leave the nation without an executive branch, whose agency nevertheless is understood to be so constantly necessary that it is the sole branch which the constitution requires to be always in function. It could not, then, intend that it should be withdrawn from its station by any co-ordinate authority.

With respect to papers, there is certainly a public and private side to our offices. To the former belong grants of land, patents for inventions, certain commissions, proclamations, and other papers patent in their nature. To the other belong mere executive proceedings. All nations have found it necessary that, for the advantageous conduct of their affairs, some of these proceedings, at least, should remain known to their executive functionary only. He, of course, from the nature of the case, must be the sole judge of which of them the public interest will permit publication. Hence, under our constitution, in requests of papers from the legislative to the executive branch, an exception is carefully expressed, ’as to those which he may deem the public welfare may require not to be disclosed,’ as you will see in the inclosed resolution of the house of representatives, which produced the message of January 22d, respecting this case. The respect mutually due between the constituted authorities in their official intercourse, as well as sincere dispositions to do for every one what is just, will always insure from the executive, in exercising the duty of discrimination confided to him, the same candor and integrity to which the nation has, in like manner, trusted in the disposal of its judiciary authorities. Considering you as the organ for communicating these sentiments to the court, I address them to you for that purpose, and salute you with esteem and respect.

Thos. Jefferson.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.