Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Elias Shipman and Others (1801)

Why did Jefferson have to defend his removal of Goodrich? What is the basis for this power according to Jefferson?
In what ways does Jefferson’s explanation resemble James Madison’s case for removal powers (1789)? In what ways is it different? How might this letter clarify Jefferson’s First Inaugural (1801)?

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Once in office, Jefferson had to decide what to do about the Federalist officeholders in the executive branch. Initially, he announced that only midnight appointments – appointments made by John Adams after Adams knew that he lost the election of 1800 – and those who had abused their office would lose their appointments; no man would be removed for his beliefs alone. But Jefferson soon changed course and announced a broader removal policy aimed at restoring a proper proportion of Republicans. This partisan defense of removals provoked an outcry from Federalists, including a group of merchants in New Haven, Connecticut, who sent a letter to Jefferson complaining about Jefferson’s removal of the customs collector in New Haven. In reply to the New Haven merchants, Jefferson published an open letter arguing that the administration must reflect the will of nation as it was revealed in the presidential election. Jefferson’s defense of the removal power thus went beyond Madison’s by emphasizing the partisan nature of presidential accountability.

—Jeremy D. Bailey

Source: From Thomas Jefferson to the New Haven Merchants, 12 July 1801, Founders Online, National Archives, https://goo.gl/tAqQ9y.


I have received the remonstrance you were pleased to address to me, on the appointment of Samuel Bishop to the office of Collector of New Haven, lately vacated by the death of David Austin; the right of our fellow citizens to represent to the public functionaries their opinion, on proceedings interesting to them, is unquestionably a constitutional right, often useful, sometimes necessary, and will always be respectfully acknowledged by me.

Of the various Executive duties, no one excites more anxious concern than that of placing the interests of our fellow citizens in the hands of honest men, with understandings sufficient for their station. No duty, at the same time, is more difficult to fulfill. The knowledge of characters possessed by a single individual is of necessity limited. To seek out the best through the whole Union, we must resort to other information, which, from the best men, acting disinterestedly and with the purest motives, is sometimes incorrect.

…The removal, as it is called, of Mr. Goodrich, forms another subject of complaint.[1] Declarations by myself in favor of political tolerance, exhortations to harmony and affection in social intercourse, and to respect for the equal rights of the minority, have, on certain occasions, been quoted and misconstrued into assurances that the tenure of offices was to be undisturbed;[2] but could candor apply such a construction? It is not indeed in the remonstrance that we find it: but it leads to the explanations which that calls for.

When it is considered that, during the late administration, those who were not of a particular sect of politics were excluded from all office; when, by a steady pursuit of this measure, nearly the whole offices of the United States were monopolized by that sect; when the public sentiment at length declared itself, and burst open the doors of honor and confidence to those whose opinions they more approved; was it to be imagined that this monopoly of the office was still to be continued in the hands of the minority? Does it violate their equal rights to assert some rights in the majority also? Is it political intolerance to claim a proportionate share in the direction of the public affairs? Can they not harmonize in society unless they have every thing in their own hands? If the will of the nation, manifested by their various elections, calls for an administration of government according with the opinion of those elected; if, for the fulfilment of that will, displacements are necessary, with whom can they so justly begin as with persons appointed in the last moments of an administration, not for its own aid, but to begin a career at the same time with their successors, by whom they had never been approved, and who could scarcely expect from them a cordial co-operation? Mr. Goodrich was one of these. Was it proper for him to place himself in office, without knowing whether those, whose agent he was to be, would have confidence in his agency? Can the preference of another, as the successor to Mr. Austin, be candidly called a removal of Mr. Goodrich? If a due participation of office is a matter of right, how are vacancies to be obtained? Those by death are few, by resignation none. Can any other mode then, but the removal, be proposed?

This is a painful office, but it is made my duty, and I meet it as such. I proceed in the operation with deliberation and enquiry, that it may injure the best men least, and effect the purposes of justice and public utility with the least private distress: that [this enquiry into and decision to remove officeholders] may be thrown, as much as possible on delinquency, on oppression, on intolerance, on antirevolutionary adherence to our enemies.

The Remonstrance laments “that a change in the administration must produce a change in the subordinate officers:” in the other words, that it should be deemed necessary for all officers to think with their principal. But on whom does this imputation bear? On those who have excluded from office every shade of opinion which was not theirs? Or on those who have been so excluded? I lament sincerely that unessential differences of opinion should ever have been deemed sufficient to interdict half the society from the rights and the blessings of self-government; to proscribe them as unworthy of every trust. It would have been to me a circumstance of great relief had I found a moderate participation of office in the hands of the majority. I would gladly have left to time and accident to raise them to their just share. But their total exclusion calls for prompter correctives. I shall correct the procedure, but, that done, return with joy to that state of things when the only questions concerning a candidate shall be, is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the Constitution? I tender you the homage of my high respect.


  1. 1. Elizur Goodrich was customs collector at the port of New Haven.
  2. 2. Jefferson endorsed all of these ideas in his First Inaugural Address (Document 6), which proclaimed, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
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