Category Archives: Jefferson, Thomas


from A Bill for Proportioning Crimes    and Punishments in Cases    Heretofore Capital
from Letter to Dr. Samuel Brown


Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was a person of remarkably broad interests. He was a leading architect of his day, played the violin in chamber music concerts, was an avid planter, and served as president of the American Philosophical Society. Born in Shadwell, Virginia, Jefferson grew to be an active participant in the state legislature, and later worked to create the University of Virginia. He traveled widely in Europe and was conversant with many currents of European thought.

Jefferson’s best known contributions are found in the political thought, public service, and diplomatic activities that he gave to the newly formed United States of America. Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and presented it to Congress (July 2, 1776). After the new country was formed, Jefferson served as its minister to France, as Secretary of State, and, from 1801 to 1809, as President.

Jefferson’s writings recommend a minimum of governmental intervention and urge respect for certain human liberties: freedom of religion, press, speech, and other civil rights. Although he owned many slaves, he also held that slavery was wrong and hoped that the institution would eventually be abolished.

Jefferson did not address the issue of suicide at length, but two short notes exhibit his attitudes toward the practice and the laws governing it. In the various states forming the new United States, it was the law, as in England, that the property of a suicide would be forfeited, thus depriving the surviving family. In his footnote to the Virginia Crimes Bill of 1779, Jefferson argues against such legislation, drawing heavily on the arguments put forth by Beccaria [q.v.].

The personal, philosophic, and botanically minded sides of Jefferson are reflected in his letter of midsummer 1813 to Dr. Samuel Brown, a fellow member of the American Philosophical Society, who was practicing medicine at the time in Natchez. In this correspondence, Jefferson comments on the capacity of a certain poisonous plant to promote a quick and painless death, though he expresses concern about the dangers of a drug of such high lethality should it fall into the hands of others. He appears to accept its use in certain circumstances, especially incurable cancer: “There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief.”

Many of Jefferson’s letters are responses to deaths of family members of his correspondents, and he often discussed death in objective terms. But he also had direct experience of its effects on family members: Jefferson’s wife died in 1782, when he was 39, leaving him stunned and distraught, and five of his six children died during his lifetime. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson, Revisal of the Laws 1776–1786, Bill #64: “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital.” Also available from the University of Chicago Press; “Letter to Dr. Samuel Brown,” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Definitive Edition, ed. Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. XIII. Washington, DC: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907, pp. 310-311.


Whereas it frequently happens that wicked and dissolute men resigning themselves to the dominion of inordinate passions, commit violations on the lives, liberties and property of others, and, the secure enjoyment of these having principally induced men to enter into society, government would be defective on it’s principal purpose were it not to restrain such criminal acts, by inflicting due punishments on those who perpetrate them; but it appears at the same time equally deducible from the purposes of society that a member thereof, committing an inferior injury, does not wholly forfeit the protection of his fellow citizens, but, after suffering a punishment in proportion to his offence is entitled to their protection from all greater pain, so that is becomes a duty in the legislature to arrange in a proper scale the crimes which it may be necessary for them to repress, and to adjust thereto a corresponding gradation of punishments.

And whereas the reformation of offenders, tho’ an object worthy the attention of the laws, is not effected at all by capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming, and should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens, which also weaken the state by cutting off so many who, if reformed, might be restored sound members to society, who, even under a course of correction, might be rendered useful in various labors for the public, and would be living and long continued spectacles to deter others from committing the like offences.

And forasmuch the experience of all ages and countries hath shewn that cruel and sanguinary laws defeat their own purpose by engaging the benevolence of mankind to withhold prosecutions, to smother testimony, or to listen to it with bias, when, if the punishment were only proportioned to the injury, men would feel it their inclination as well as their duty to see the laws observed.

For rendering crimes and punishments therefore more proportionate to each other: Be it enacted by the General assembly that no crime shall be henceforth punished by deprivation of life or limb except those hereinafter ordained to be so punished.

If a man do levy war against the Commonwealth or be adherent to the enemies of the commonwealth giving to them aid or comfort in the commonwealth, or elsewhere, and thereof be convicted of open deed, by the evidence of two sufficient witnesses, or his own voluntary confession, the said cases, and no others, shall be adjudged treasons which extend to the commonwealth, and the person so convicted shall suffer death by hanging, and shall forfiet his lands and goods to the Commonwealth.

If any person commit Petty treason, or a husband murder his wife, a parent his child, or a child his parent, he shall suffer death by hanging, and his body be delivered to Anatomists to be dissected.

Whosoever committeth murder by poisoning shall suffer death by poison.

Whosoever committeth murder by way of duel, shall suffer death by hanging; and if he were the challenger, his body, after death, shall be gibbeted.  He who removeth it from the gibbet shall be guilty of a misdemeanor; and the officer shall see that it be replaced.

Whosoever shall commit murder in any other way shall suffer death by hanging.

And in all cases of Petty treason and murder one half of the lands and goods of the offender shall be forfieted to the next of kin to the person killed, and the other half descend and go to his own representatives.  Save only where one shall slay the Challenger in at duel, in which case no part of his lands or goods shall be forfieted to the kindred of the party slain, but instead thereof a moiety shall go the Commonwealth.

The same evidence shall suffice, and order and course of trial be observed in cases of Petty treason as in those of others murders.

Whosoever shall be guilty of Manslaughter, shall for the first offence, be condemned to hard labor for seven years, in the public works, shall forfiet one half of his lands and goods to the next of kin to the person slain; the other half to be sequestered during such term, in the hands and to the use of the Commonwealth, allowing a reasonable part of the profits for the support of his family.  The second offence shall be deemed Murder.

And where persons, meaning to commit a trespass only, or larceny, of other unlawful deed, and doing an act from which involuntary homicide hath ensued, have heretofore been adjudged guilty of manslaughter, or of murder, by transferring such their unlawful intention to act much more penal than they could have in probable contemplation; no such case shall hereafter be deemed manslaughter, unless manslaughter was intended, not murder, unless murder was intended.

In other cases of homicide the law will not add to the miseries of the party by punishments or forfietures.

Whenever sentence of death shall have been pronounced against any person for treason or murder, execution shall be done on the next day but one after such sentence, unless it be Sunday, and then on the Monday following.

Whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy, or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at least.

But no one shall be punished for Polygamy who shall have married after probable information of the death of his or her husband or wife, or after his or her husband or wife hath absented him or herself, so that no notice of his or her being alive hath reached such person for 7. years together, or hath suffered the punishments before prescribed for rape, polygamy or sodomy.

Whosoever on purpose and of malice forethought shall maim another, or shall disfigure him, by cutting out or disabling the tongue, slitting or cutting off a nose, lip or ear, branding, or otherwise, shall be maimed or disfigured in like sort: or if that cannot be for want of the same part, then as nearly as may be in some other part of at least equal value and estimation in the opinion of a jury and moreover shall forfiet one half of his lands and goods to the suffer.

Whosoever shall counterfiet any coin current by law within this commonwealth, or any paper bills issued in the nature of money, or of certificates of loan on the credit of this Commonwealth, or of all or any of the United States of America, or any Inspectors notes for tobacco, or shall pass any such counterfeited coin, paper bills, or notes, knowing them to be counterfiet; or, for the sake of lucre, shall diminish, case, or wash any such coin, shall be condemned to hard labor six years in the public works, and shall forfiet all his lands and goods to the Commonwealth.

Whosoever committeth Arson shall be condemned to hard labor five years in the public works, and shall make good the loss of the sufferers threefold.

If any person shall within this Commonwealth, or being a citizen thereof shall without the same, wilfully destroy, or run away with any sea-vessel or goods laden on board thereof, or plunder or pilfer any wreck, he shall be condemned to hard labor five years in the public works, and shall make good the loss of the suffers three-fold.

Whosoever committeth Robbery shall be condemned to hard labor four years in the public works, and shall make double reparation to the persons injured.

Whatsoever act, if committed on any Mansion house, would be deemed Burglary, shall be Burglary if committed on any other house; and he who is guilty of Burglary, shall be condemned to hard labor four years in the public works, and shall make double reparation to the persons injured.

Whatsoever act, if committed in the night time, shall constitute the crime of Burglary, shall, if committed in the day be deemed Housebreaking; and whosoever is guilty thereof shall be condemned to hard labor three years in the public works, and shall make reparation to the persons injured.

Whosoever shall be guilty of Horsestealing shall be condemned to hard labor three years in the public works, and shall make reparation to the person injured.

Grand Larceny shall be where the goods stolen are of the value of five dollars, and whosoever shall be guilty thereof shall be forthwith put in the pillory for one half hour, shall be condemned to hard labor two years in the public works, and shall make reparation to the person injured.

Petty Larceny shall be where the goods stolen are of less value than five dollars; whosoever shall be guilty thereof shall be forthwith put in the pillory for a quarter of an hour, shall be condemned to hard labor one year in the public works, and shall make reparation to the person injured.

Robbery or Larceny of Bonds, bills obligatory, bills of exchange, or promisory notes for the paiment of money or tobacco, lottery tickets, paper bills issued in the nature of money, or of certificates of loan on the credit of this commonwealth, or of all or any of the United States of America, or Inspectors notes for tobacco, shall be punished in the same manner as robbery or larceny of the money or tobacco due on, or represented by such papers.

Buyers and Receivers of goods taken by way of robbery or larceny, knowing them to have been so taken, shall be deemed Accessaries to such robbery or larceny after the fact.

Prison breakers also shall be deemed Accessories after the fact to traitors or felons whom they enlarge from prison.

All attempts to delude the people, or to abuse their understanding by exercise of the pretended arts of witchcraft, conjuration, inchantment, or sorcery or by pretended prophecies, shall be punished by ducking and whipping at the discretion of a jury, not exceeding 15. stripes.

If the principal offender be fled, or secreted from justice, in any case not touching life or member, the Accessories may notwithstanding be prosecuted as if their principal were convicted.

If any offender stand mute of obstinacy, or challenge peremptorily more of the jurors than by law he may, being first warned of the consequence thereof, the court shall proceed as if he had confessed the charge.

Pardon and Privilege of clergy shall henceforth be abolished, that none may be induced to injure through hope of impunity.  But if the verdict be against the defendant, and the court before whom the offence is heard and determined, shall doubt that it may be untrue for defect of testimony, or other cause, they may direct a new trial to be had.

No attainder shall work corruption of blood in any case.

In all cases of forfeiture, the widow’s dower shall be saved to her, during her title thereto; after which it shall be disposed of as if no such saving had been.

The aid of Counsel, and examination of their witnesses on oath shall be allowed to defendants in criminal prosecutions.

Slaves guilty of any offence punishable in others by labor in the public works, shall be transported to such parts in the West Indies, S. America or Africa, as the Governor shall direct, there to be continued in slavery.


Monticello, July 14, 1813

Dear Sir,—Your favors of May 25th and June 13th have been duly received, as also the first supply of Capsicum, and the second o[f]  the same article with other seeds.  I shall set great store by the Capsicum, if it is hardy enough for our climate, the species we have heretofore tried being too tender.  The Galvance too, will be particularly attended to, as it appears very different from what we cultivate by that name.  I have so many grandchildren and others who might be endangered by the poison plant, that I think the risk overbalances the curiosity of trying it.  The most elegant thing of that kind known is a preparation of the Jamestown weed, Datura-Stramonium, invented by the French in the time of Robespierre.  Every man of firmness carried it constantly in his pocket to anticipate the guillotine.  It brings on the sleep of death as quietly as fatigue does the ordinary sleep, without the least struggle or motion.  Condorcet, who had recourse to it, was found lifeless on his bed a few minutes after his landlady had left him there, and even the slipper which she had observed half suspended on his foot, was not shaken off. It seems far preferable to the Venesection of the Romans, the Hemlock of the Greeks, and the Opium of the Turks.  I have never been able to learn what the preparation is, other than a strong concentration of its lethiferous principle.  Could such a medicament be restrained to self-administration, it ought not to be kept secret.  There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief, e.g., the inveterate cancer.  As a relief from tyranny indeed, for which the Romans recurred to it in the times of the emperors, it has been a wonder to me that they did not consider a poignard in the breast of the tyrant as a better remedy. . . .

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Filed under Americas, Illness and Old Age, Jefferson, Thomas, Selections, The Early Modern Period