Extract from Thomas Jefferson to John B. Colvin

The question you propose, Whether circumstances do not sometimes occur which make it a duty in officers of high trust to assume authorities beyond the law, is easy of solution in principle, but sometimes embarrasing in practice. a strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen: but it is not the highest. the laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property & all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means. when, in the battle of Germantown, Genl Washington’s army was annoyed from Chew’s house, he did not hesitate to plant his cannon against it, altho’ the property of a citizen. when he besieged Yorktown, he levelled the suburbs, feeling that the laws of property must be postponed to the safety of the nation. while that army was before York, the Govr of Virginia took horses, carriages, provisions & even men, by force, to enable that army to stay together till it could master the public enemy; & he was justified. a ship at sea in distress for provisions meets another having abundance, yet refusing a supply; the law of self preservation authorises the distressed to take a supply by force. in all these cases the unwritten laws of necessity, of self-preservation, & of the public safety controul the written laws of meum & tuum.

PoC (DLC). Tr (ViU: TJP-CC). Published in PTJRS, 3:99–101.
Date Range
September 20, 1810