"Respectfully Dedicated to the Legislature of Virginia"

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In September of 1806, the Richmond Enquirer made a plea in an open letter to the Virginia legislature, requesting that they finally publish copies of acts "both private and public" passed by the Commonwealth before the year 1782, as they had elected back in 1796. The newspaper article, "Respectfully Dedicated to the Legislature of Virginia,"[1] includes the text of a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe,[2] in response to a request for Jefferson's aid in obtaining copies of the laws. Wythe had written, in January of 1796:

The general assembly, at their late session, enacted that a collection of the laws public and private, relative to lands, shall be printed, those who are appointed to perform the work, despair of doing it, without your aid. If you will permit your copies to be sent hither, I will be answerable for their restitution in the same order & when they shall be received. Be so good as let me know, if the copies may be obtained. In what manner they may be forwarded, with least inconvenience.[3]

Front pastedown of The Wolf Law Library's copy of A Collection of All Such Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia (Richmond, VA: Printed by Augustine Davis, Printer for the Commonwealth, 1794), with Thomas Jefferson's collection of Virginia laws from the Richmond Enquirer for September 2, 1806, pasted inside.

Jefferson created an inventory of his collection of Virginia public laws and Acts of Assembly, making multiple copies of the lists. He retained a copy for himself,[4] sent, apparently, the emended original to James Madison (who was representing Virginia in Congress in 1796),[5] and propably sent Wythe a rewritten copy with his emendations.

Thomas Jefferson's list of Virginia laws, as printed in the Richmond Enquirer, September 2, 1806. Jefferson also sent a copy of this list to James Madison.
Thomas Jefferson's list of Virginia laws, as printed in the Richmond Enquirer, September 2, 1806. Jefferson also sent a copy of this list to James Madison.

The text in the Enquirer is presented similarly to the 1796 broadside, as well as the same extract published in the Senate Journal for December 19, 1800, when a copy of Jefferson's letter and list were put before the state legislature by Governor Monroe.[6]

Article text, 2 September 1806

Page 4

In the year 1795, the legislature adopted an act for the collecting and publishing all laws relative to land, which had been passed from the first settlement of the colony to the year 1793; and Messrs. G. Wythe, J. Brown, J. Marshall, B. Washington, and J. Wickham were appointed a committee for the execution of this object.

Upon applying to Mr. Jefferson "for his copies of the acts, more compleat than could be elsewhere procured," he returned the following answer, in which he recommended the publication of all the laws which had been enacted in Virginia.—The committee immediately "declined entering upon" the objects of their commission, until the sentiments of the legislature upon this more enlarged proportion could be known.

In 1797, the legislature repealed their first law of 1795.

In the session of 1800, Gov. Monroe submitted the following letter to their consideration. The subject was taken up in course of their session, and a bill passed the house of Delegates for publishing a certain number of copies of this inestimable work. Upon coming before the senate, they introduced some amendments, the principal of which, it is believed, tended to reduce the number of copies. The bill was returned, with its amendments into the lower house, where it was consigned to that legislative "tomb of all the Capulets", the ominous "4th Wednesday in April next."—They however adopted a resolution, which was agreed to by the senate, that "the executive be requested to lay before the next General Assembly an estimate of the probable expenses which will attend the collecting and publishing the acts, both private and public, passed by the legislature of Virginia prior to the year 1782." Here, it is believed, this important subject at present sleeps. The journals of the next session of the legislature are not before us; but it is almost reduced to a certainty, that they never revived it.

But will the time of its resurrection never arrive? Will the legislature forever disregard the advantages of collecting and perpetuating our legislative records?

Much of the property of individuals rests upon what are called private acts of assembly. If these be lost, innumerable controversies may occur. Not to speak of the variety of other subjects, embraced by these private acts, which posterity may thank us for preserving.

The history of every country is obscure, unless the laws of a public nature that are in force at different times, and even many of the private acts, are within the reach of the learned historian. But ransack all our codes, and there will be found but few of the general laws, that were in force one hundred years ago.

How many instructive and amusing matters may then be irretrievably lost to us, if Mr. Jefferson's collection be suffered to moulder unto dust! But a few years more, and most of these valuable monuments may be illegible.

Let then the legislature take some steps to carry into effect, this most useful proposition produced by the experience of Mr. Jefferson and adopted by all the zeal of Mr. Wythe. There can be little doubt, that a subscription almost equal to the expense, might be collected, or so nearly so, as to render the residue of the cost to be paid by the state, of small amount. Meantime it may be expected, that other individuals who have the means of extending this collection, will fail in no effort to swell the code of their country. Their papers might be preserved by transmitting them to some secure place of deposit, such as the library of Mr. Jefferson or the Council chamber.



EXTRACT OF A LETTER FROM THOMAS JEF-
FERSON TO GEORGE WYTHE,

Monticello, January 16, 1796

IN my letter which accompanied the box containing my collection of printed laws, I promised to send you by post a statement of the contents of the box. On taking up the subject I found it better to take a more general review of the whole of the laws I possess, as well Manuscript as printed, as also of those which I do not possess, and suppose to be no loner extant. This general view you will have in the inclosed paper, whereof the articles stated to be printed, constitute the contents of the box I send you. Those in MS, were not sent, because not supposed to have been within your view, and because some of them will not hear removal, being forgotten, that, on turning over a leaf, it sometimes falls into powder. These I preserve by wrapping and sewing them up in oiled cloth so that neither air nor moisture can have access to them. Very early in the course of my researches into the laws of Virginia, I observed that many of them were already lost, and many more on the point of being lost, as existing only in single copies in the hands of careful or curious individuals, on whose deaths they would probably be used for waste paper. I set myself therefore to work to collect all which were then existing, in order that when the day should come in which the public should advert to the magnitude of their loss in these precious monuments of our property and our history, a part of their regret might be spared by information that a portion has been saved from the wreck which is worthy of their attention and preservation. In searching after these remains, I spared neither time, trouble, nor expences and am of opinion that scarcely any law escaped me, which was in being as late as the year 1770, in the middle or southern parts of the state. In the northern parts perhaps something might still be found. In the clerk's offices in the antient counties some of those MS. copies of the laws may possibly still exist which used to be furnished at the public expence To every country before the use of the Press was introduced and in the same places, and in the bands of antient magistrate, or of their families, some of the fugitive sheets of the laws of separate sessions; which have been usually distributed since the practices commenced of printed them. But, returning to what we actually possess, the question is, what means will be the most effectual for preserving these remains from future loss? All the care I can take of them will not preserve them from the worm, from the natural decay of the paper, from the accidents of fire, or those of removal, when it is necessary for any public purpose, as in the case of those now sent you. Our experience has approved to us that a single copy, or a few, deposited in MS, in the public offices, cannot be relied on for any great length of time. The ravages of fire and of ferocious enemies have but too much part in producing very loss we now deplore. How many of the precious works of antiquity were lost, while they existed only in manuscript? has there ever been one lost since the art of printing has rendered it practicable to multiply & disperse copies? This leads us then to the only means of preserving those remains of our laws now under consideration, that is, a multiplication of printed copies. I think therefore that there should be printed at the public expence, an edition of all the laws ever passed by, our legislatures which can now be found; that a copy should be deposited in every public library in America, in the principal public offices within the state, and some perhaps in the most distinguished public libraries of Europe, and that the rest should be sold to individuals towards reimbursing the expences of the edition. Nor do I think that this would be a voluminous work. The MSS. Would probably furnish matter for one printed volume in folio and would comprehend all the laws from 1624 to 1701, which period includes Pervis—My collections of fugitive sheets forms, as we know, two volumes, and comprehends all the extant laws from 1734 to 1783, and the laws which can be gleaned up, from the revisals, to supply the chasm between 1780, and 1784, with those from 1703, to the close of the present century (by which term the work might be compleated) would not be more than the matter of another volume. So that four volumes in folio probably would give every law every passed which is now extant; whereas those who wish to possess as many of them as can be procured, must now buy the six folio volumes of Revisals, to wit, Pervis, and those of 1732, 1748, 1768, 1788, & 1784, & in all of them possess not one half of what they wish. What would be the expence of the edition, I cannot say; nor how much would be reimbursed by the sales; but I am sure it would be moderate compared with the rates which the public have hitherto paid for printing their laws, provided a sufficient latitude be given as to printers and places. The first step would be to make out a single copy from the MSS. which would employ a clerk about a year, or something more; to which expence about a fourth should be added for the collation of the MSS. which would employ three persons at a time about half a day, or a day, in every week. As I have already spent more time in making myself acquainted with the contents and arrangement of these MSS. than any other person probably ever will, and their condition does not admit their removal to a distance, I will cheerfully undertake the direction and superintendence of this work, if it can be done in the neighboring towns of Charlottsville [sic] or Milton, farther than which I could not undertake to go from home. For the residue of the work, any printed volumes might be delivered to the printer.

I have troubled you with these details, because you are in the place where they may be used for the public service, if they admit of such use, and because the order of assembly, which you mention, shews they are sensible of the necessity of preserving such of these laws as relate to our landed property, and a little further consideration will perhaps convince them that it is better to do the whole work once for all, than to be recurring to it by piece-meal, as particular parts of it shall be required, and that too perhaps when the materials shall be lost.


A Statement of the particular acts of the assembly of Virginia in my possession either MS. or Printed, and of those not in my possession, and presumed to be lost.

1619, June,   the first session of assembly ever held in Virginia lost,
20 May lost.  
22   lost.  
March 5, I have in MS.
26 lost.  
29 Oct. 16. I have in ms.
30 March 24. I have in ms.
31 Feb. 21. I have in ms.
32 Sept. 4. 60 acts. I have in ms.
Feb. 1. 6 acts in ms.
38 Aug. 21. 16 acts in ms.
39 Jan. 5. in ms.
42 April 1. the 21st & 22d acts in ms.
4⅔ March 2. a revisal I have in ms.
44 Oct. 1. in ms.
45 Feb. 17. in ms.
45 Nov. 20. in ms.
46 Oct. 5. in ms.
47 Oct. 5. in ms.
48 Oct. 12. in ms.
49 Oct. 10. in ms.
52 April 26. in ms
  Nov. 25. in ms
53 July 5. in ms
54 Nov. 25. in ms
55 March   in ms
56 March 10. in ms
56 Dec. 1. in ms (?)
58 March 12. a revisal in ms
59 March 1. in ms
60 March 13. in ms
60 Oct. 11. in ms
61 March 23. in ms
March 23. Chap 1, to 138, inclusive p (?)
62 Dec. 2. or 23 Chap 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 21 23 p 14 16 19 20 22 in ms.
63 Sept. 10. Chap 1 2 4 7 8 9 10 11 14 16 17 p 3 5 6 12 13 15 18 in ms
64 Sept. 20. 9 acts p
65 Oct. 10. Chap 1 2 3 5 6 7 8 9 p 4 10 in ms
66 June 5. Chap 2 3 4 p 1 ms
  Oct. 23. Chap 1 2 3 5 6 7 9 10 11 12 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 p 4 8 14 in ms
67 Sept. 3. Chap 1 2 3 4 5 p 5 6 7 in ms
68 Sept. 17. Chap 1 to 9 p
69 Oct. 8. (?) Chap 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 p 11 in ms.
71 Sept. 20. Chap 1 4 5 6 p 2 3 7 in ms.
72 Sept. 21. Chap 1 2 3 4 5 7 8 9 10 p 6 11 in ms.
73 Oct. 20. Chap 1 to 5 p 6 7 in ms
74 Sept. 21. Chap 1 3 4 6 7 p 2 5 8 9 10 in ms.
76 March 7. Chap 3 p 1 2 4 in ms
76 June 5. Chap 1 to 20 in ms
77 Feb. 20. (?) Chap 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 14 16 17 20 p 1 2 3 5 12 15 18 19 in ms.
77 Oct. 10. Chap. 1 2 3 4 5 8 9 11 12 printed, 6 7 in ms.
79 April 25. Chap. 1 to 9 p. 10 11 in ms.
80 June 8. Chap. 1 to 17 p.
82 Nov. 10. Chap 1 to 13 p.
84 April 16. Chap. 2 p. 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 in ms
86 Oct. 20. Chap. 1 to 11 in ms.
91 April 16. Chap. 12 p. 1 to 11 & from 13 to 21 in ms.
92 April 1. Chap. 1 to 7 in ms.
  March 2. Chap. 1 to 7 in ms.
93 Oct. 10. Chap. 1 to 5 in ms.
95 April 18. Chap. 1 to 6 in ms.
96 Sept. 21. Chap. 1 to 14 in ms.
97 Oct. 21. Chap. 1 in ms.
98 Sept. 23. no law past at this session.
99 April. 27. Chap. 1 to 16 in ms.
1700 Dec. 5. Chap. 1 to 4 in ms
01 Aug. 6. Chap 1 to 5 (?) in ms
02 May 30. Chap 1 3 lost
  Aug 11. Chap 1 A part of it in ms 2 3 4 lost
03 March 19. no act passed
04 April 20. Chap 1 to 11 lost
05 April 18. Chap 1 to 4 lost
  Oct. 25. Chap 2 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 13 14 15 17 19 20 22 23 25 27 28 29 30 32 33 35 38 39 40 41 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 52 58 p
05 Oct 25 Chap 4 11 16 18 21 24 28 31 34 36 37 42 51 53 in ms 1 5 (?) lost
10 Oct 25 Chap 3 4 5 8 11 12 13 14 p 1 2 6 7 9 10 15 16 17 in ms
11 Nov 7 Chap 2 3 p 1 in ms—here the MS end 4 5 lost
12 Oct 22 Chap 4 5 p. 1 2 3 6 7 lost
13 Nov. 5 Chap 3 4 6 7 8 printed—1 2 5 9 10 11 12 lost
15 Aug. 3 Chap 1 2 3 lost
18 April 23 Chap 1 3—the substance printed in Beverley's abridgment, 2 4 lost
  Nov 11 Chap 1 2 lost
20 Nov 2 Chap 3 4 5 6 7 8 printed—1 2 substance in Beverly's abridgment, 9 to 18 lost
22 May 9 (?) Chap 1 to 3, 6 to 9 printed—4 5 and 10 to 16 lost
23 May 9 Chap 2 4 8 10 printed—1 3 5 (?) 6 7 9 11 to 15 lost
26 May 12 Chap 1 2 3 4 6 7 8 printed—5 9 (?) to 14 lost
27 Feb 1 Chap 3 5 to 14 printed—1 2 4 15 to 22 lost
30 May 21 Chap 1 to 15 printed—20 to 29 lost
32 May 18 Chap 1 to 20 printed—21 to 35 lost

Here begins my collection of the Fugitive sheets of Laws printed for each session.
1734 Aug. 22. 31 acts printed
36 Aug. 5. 25 acts p.
38 Nov. 1. 25 acts p.
40 May 22. 15 acts p.
  Aug. 1. 1 act p.
42 May 6. 33 acts p.
44 Sept. 4. 46 acts p.
45 Feb. 23. 30 acts p.
46 July 11. 2 acts p.
47 March 30. 5 acts p.
48 Oct. 27. Chap. 1 to 55 57 77 printed 56 58 to 76 78 to 89 lost.
52 Feb. 27. 55 acts p.
53 Nov. 1. 28 acts p.
54 Feb. 14. 3 acts p.
  Aug. 22. 3 acts p.
  Oct. 17. 7 acts p.
55 May 1. 24 acts p.
  Aug. 5. 8 acts p.
  Oct. 27. 6 acts p.
56 March 25. 13 acts p.
  Sept. 20. 3 acts p.
57 April 14. 30 acts p.
58 March 30. 2 acts p.
  Sept. 14. 13 acts p.
  Nov. 9. 1 act p.
59 Feb. 22. 31 acts p.
  Nov. 1. 6 acts p.
60 March 4. 3 acts p
  May 19.           p
  Oct. 6. 4 acts p.
61 March 5. 31 acts p
  Nov. 3. 13 acts p
62 Jan. 14. 3 acts p
  March 30. 7 acts p
  Nov. 2. 44 acts p
63 May 13. 13 acts p
64 Jan. 12. 13 acts p
  Oct. 30. 54 acts p
66 Nov. 6. 61 acts p
68 March 31. 7 acts p
69 May 8. a convention, no act passed.
  Nov. 7. 89 acts p
71 July 11. 4 acts p
72 Feb. 10. 68 acts p
73 March 4. 15 (?) acts lost from my collection.
74 May 5. dissolved before any act passed.
75 June 1. the last assembly under the Royal government, it was discontinued by not meeting on its own adjournment, without having passed any law.
CONVENTIONS.
75 July 17. ordinances printed
  Dec.   ordinances p
76 May 5. ordinances p
ASSEMBLIES.
  Oct. 7. acts printed
77 May 5. ditto
  Oct. 20. ditto
78 May 4. ditto
  Oct. 5. ditto
79 May 5. ditto
  Oct. 4. ditto
80 May 1. ditto
  Oct. 16. ditto
81 March 1. ditto
  May 7. ditto
  Nov. 5. ditto
82 May 6. ditto
83 May 5. ditto
  Oct. 20. ditto
      Note that the terms 'Printed' or 'p' or in 'MS' mean that I have the laws printed or in MS.


See also

References

  1. The Enquirer (Richmond, VA), "Respectfully Dedicated to the Legislature of Virginia," September 2, 1806, 4.
  2. Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 16 January 1796, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  3. Wythe to Thomas Jefferson, 1 January 1796, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  4. Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 13 January 1796, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress..
  5. Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 16 January 1796, The James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.
  6. Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, December 19, 1800 (Richmond: Thomas Nicolson, 1800), 36-39.

External links