John Marshall to Henry Lee on Jefferson’s non-infallibility

This letter from John Marshall to Henry Lee is notable for many reasons. It is evidence of the long-lasting and deep-rooted enmity between Marshall and Jefferson, to be sure. But it is also evidence of Marshall’s appreciation for the difference between unjust asperity in political discourse and legitimate criticism.

Had anyone before, or has anyone since, spoken similarly of “the rights of political war”?

October 25th. 1830

Dear Sir

Your letter of the 25th. of July reached me a few days past. I am not surprized at the feeling with which you received the vote of the senate on your nomination. Although a serious perhaps successful opposition was looked for, the actual ⟨vote⟩ was not I beleive anticipated out of doors. Your mission however would I presume be now terminated, had your nomination been confirmed.

I have read, I need not say with astonishment and deep felt disgust, the correspondence of Mr. Jefferson published by his Grandson. Such a posthumous work was, I beleive, never before given to the world. The deep rooted prejudices of the American people in his favor and against those who supported the administration of General Washington would not be more fully illustrated than by the manner in which this work has been received. It has been said, I know not how truely, that the papers were selected by himself for publication.

However Mr. Jefferson may have wished to impress on the public a conviction that his charges on the federalists are the result “of his matured judgement,” I never have nor do I entertain that opinion. Mr. Jefferson cannot have been himself the dupe, in his quiet retirement, of those excitements which might have imposed upon his judgement while struggling for power. A great portion of the calumny heaped upon the federalists was founded on the fact that they supported their own government against the aggressions and insults of France. This he ascribed to hostility to republicanism and a desire to introduce a monarchy on the British model. That this opinion was fallacious, that he was wrong and the federalists right on this subject of the French revolution was surely demonstrated long before his death.

I had noticed the unjust, I cannot say peculiar asperity with which he speaks of your Father. To his eminence as the supporter of the Washington administration in Virginia, this may perhaps in a considerable degree be ascribed. Those Virginians who opposed the opinions and political views of Mr. Jefferson seem to be have been considered as rebellious subjects than legitimate enemies entitled to the rights of political war. To this may probably be added the part he took in the affair of Mrs. Walker. These causes may in some measure account for the bitterness ⟨dis⟩played with respect to him. The first cause operated against him and myself in common. I am certainly not regardless of the repeated unwarrantable aspersions on myself. In the first moments after perusing them, I meditated taking some notice of them and repelling them. But I have become indolent, and age has blunted my feelings. The impression made at first is in some degree worn out, and I do not renew it by reperusing the work. The parts of my conduct which form the subject of his most malignant censure are in possession of the public, and every fair mind must perceive in them a refutation of the calumnies uttered against me. To unfair minds any thing I could urge would be unavailing and probably unread. Nothing is unknown or can be misunderstood by intelligent men unless it be the motives which compelled the court to give its opinion at large on the case of Marbury vs Madison.

There is one paragraph in your letter from which I dissent entirely. You say “I must in fairness declare that I believe Mr. Jeffersons theoretical opinions on government are those most in accordance with the freedom and happiness of society that have ever been given to the world.”

On what, let me ask is this declaration founded? Not surely on his opinions that all political power originally resides in and must be derived from the people by their free consent, and ought to be exercised for their happiness; not from his opinions that rulers are accountable to the people for their conduct. These are common to all the people and statesmen of America. Mr. Jeffersons opinions on these subjects, though “in accordance with the freedom and happiness of society” are not more so than “have been given to the world” by every patriot of The United States. The preeminence you bestow on him then must be sustained by something else, by something peculiar to himself not possessed in common with all his country men.

What is this something?

Is his opinion, so frequently repeated and earnestly sustained, that all obligations and contracts civil and political expire of themselves at intervals of about (as well as I recollect) seventeen years, that to which you allude? Or is it the opinion, also frequently advanced, that a rebellion once in ten or twelve years, is a wholesome medicine for the body politic, tending to reinvigorate it? Or do you found this preeminence on his letter to Mr. Kerchival v 4th. p 285, ⟨in⟩ which, after a long and ingenious disquisition on the constitution of Virginia, he says “The sum of these amendments is 1. General suffrage, 2 Equal representation in the legislature. 3 An Executive ⟨chosen⟩ by the people. 4 Judges elective or amovable. 5 Justices, Jurors, and Sheriffs elective. 6 Ward divisions. And 7 Periodical amendments of the constitution.” These are I believe, some of them, among the peculiar opinions of Mr. Jefferson. Do they entitle him to the superiority you assign to him?

In truth I have been a skeptic on this subject from the time I became acquainted with Mr. Jefferson as Secretary of State. I have never beleived firmly in his infallibility. I have never thought him a particularly wise sound and practical statesman; nor have I ever thought those opinions which were peculiar to himself “most in accordinance with the freedom and happiness of society that have ever been given to the world.” I have not changed this mode of thinking. I am dear Sir with great regard your Obedt

J Marshall

You astonish me by your account of the treasure acquired with Algiers.

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