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Thomas Jefferson Signed Judiciary Act of 1793
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That the attendance of only one of the justices of the supreme court, at the several circuit courts of the United States, to be hereafter held, shall be sufficient....

At the request of Congress, Attorney General Edmund Randolph offered his critique of the new federal justice system with suggestions for improvements (see #26590). Chief among them was his recommendation to remove justices of the Supreme Court from their circuit court duties to allow them to focus on more important appellate decisions.[1] Soon after, all of the Supreme Court Justices together wrote to President Washington complaining of the burden of their duties. Congress took up the issue two days after Washington mentioned it in his November 6, 1792 State of the Union Address, and a day after he forwarded the Justices’ letter to Congress. This Act was passed on February 27, and signed into law by Washington on March 3, 1793.

Jefferson was required by a prior Act to authenticate two copies for each state of ever Act of Congress. By this time, there were 15 states, so Jefferson would have signed only 30 copies, of which very few survive. 



[1] Edmund Randolph, Report of the Attorney-General. Read in the House of Representatives, December 31, 1790 (Philadelphia: Francis Childs & John Swaine, 1791), 7-10.

THOMAS JEFFERSON. Printed Document Signed, as Secretary of State, “An Act in addition to the act, entitled, ‘An act to establish the judicial Courts of the United States,’” Philadelphia, March 2, 1793. 2 pp., 9⅝ x 15⅛ in.

Inventory #26594.99       Price: $150,000

Historical Background
By the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress created the Supreme Court of the United States with a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices, and two lower levels of federal courts: district courts and circuit courts. The boundaries of district courts generally followed state lines (Massachusetts and Virginia each had two), and each court had a district judge. The law also established three circuits. Twice yearly, two U.S. Supreme Court justices and the district judge would convene a circuit court to try more important cases and appeals.

In August 1792, all of the justices of the Supreme Court sent a letter to President George Washington protesting the extensive travel necessary for circuit courts: “We really, Sir, find the burthens laid upon us so excessive that we cannot forbear representing them in strong and explicit terms.On extraordinary occasions we shall always be ready, as good Citizens, to make extraordinary exertions; but while our Country enjoys prosperity, and nothing occurs to require or justify such severities, we cannot reconcile ourselves to the idea of existing in exile from our families, and of being subjected to a kind of life, on which we cannot reflect, without experiencing sensations and emotions, more easy to conceive than proper for us to express.” The enclosed “Representation” noted the general understanding that the 1789 Act “was to be considered rather as introducing a temporary expedient, than a permanent System, and that it would be revised as soon as a period of greater leisure should arrive.” They insisted “that the task of holding twenty seven circuit Courts a year, in the different States, from New Hampshire to Georgia, besides two Sessions of the Supreme Court at Philadelphia, in the two most severe seasons of the year, is a task which considering the extent of the United States, and the small number of Judges, is too burthensome.”[1]

When Washington asked his Cabinet to recommend matters to include in his annual “state of the union” address, Attorney General Edmund Randolph replied in late October, focusing on “the necessity of reforming our judicial system. The detail of them would be almost infinite; and certainly too minute for a communication from the executive: Nor can the congress forget the admonitions, which they have already received on this head. And yet I am so deeply impressed with the dangers to which the government is exposed from this quarter, that it would be a happy circumstance, if they could be stimulated to the discussion.”[2]

On November 6, in his annual message to Congress (now known as the State of the Union Address), President Washington said, “I cannot forbear to bring again into the view of the Legislature the subject of a Revision of the Judiciary System.… In the course of the execution of the laws, considerations arise out of the structure of that system, which, in some cases, tend to relax their efficacy. As connected with this subject, provisions to facilitate the taking of bail upon processes out of the Courts of the United States, and a supplementary definition of Offences against the Constitution and laws of the Union, and of the punishment for such Offences, will, it is presumed, be found worthy of particular attention.”[3]

The following day, Washington transmitted the representation from the Justices, “stating the difficulties and inconveniencies which attend the discharge of their duties according to the present Judiciary System.”[4] Before Congress could act, Associate Justice Thomas Johnson of Maryland resigned on January 16, 1793, citing the difficulties of traveling to circuit courts: “I cannot resolve to spend six Months in the Year of the few I may have left from my Family, on Roads at Taverns chiefly and often in Situations where the most moderate Desires are disappointed: My Time of Life Temper and other Circumstances forbid it.”[5]

Congress began considering changes the next day. This act was passed on February 27, and signed into law by President Washington on March 2, 1793. While it did not relieve the Supreme Court Justices from circuit court duty altogether, it lessened their responsibility by having only one Justice sit in each circuit court, reducing the number of circuit courts on which each justice had to sit from roughly nine to five or six. The act also adjusted a variety of other practices, including bail and subpoenas.

Over the next century, the number of federal judicial districts and therefore sites for circuit courts grew dramatically as the nation’s geographic extent and population grew. Except for a brief respite in 1801-1802, U.S. Supreme Court Justices continued to ride circuits until the Judicial Code of 1911 abolished the circuit courts, though transportation improvements (especially railroads) eventually eased the difficulty of traveling between courts.

Jefferson’s Signature

According to the provisions of the 1789 “Act to provide for the safe keeping of the Acts, Records, and Seal of the United States, and for other purposes,” directed the Secretary of State to ensure that all such acts were published in at least three public newspapers and to deliver two printed copies “duly authenticated” (with his signature) to the governors of each state. This is one of the rare authenticated copies signed by Jefferson. The 15th state, Kentucky, had been admitted on June 1, 1792, so Jefferson signed only 30 copies of this Act. The Secretary of State also distributed one unsigned, printed copy on smaller paper to each senator and representative in Congress.

Condition: Three horizontal creases with light browning and short marginal separations and reinforcement; upper corners lost; half maroon morocco folding-case, chemise.

Reference:ESTC W14493; Evans 26329



[1] Supreme Court Justices to George Washington, August 9, 1792, Record Group 46, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages, National Archives.

[2] Edmund Randolph to George Washington, October 28, 1792, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

[3] George Washington, Address to the … Senate and House… November 6, 1792, Record Group 46, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages, National Archives.

[4] George Washington to the … Senate and House … November 7, 1792, Record Group 46, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages, National Archives.

[5] Thomas Johnson to George Washington, January 16, 1793, Record Group 59, Miscellaneous Letters, National Archives.


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