Today’s featured auction item consists of a bunch of court documents from a lawsuit that Thomas Jefferson brought in 1817 against a local canal company. A press release from Christie’s Auction House summarizes these papers as follows:
“An extensive and fascinating archive of legal documents relating to Thomas Jefferson’s lawsuit against the Rivanna Company is the largest Jefferson manuscript – 72 pages in length – ever to be offered at auction (estimate: $250,000-400,000). Included are a Bill of Complaint addressed to Judge John Brown of the Superior Court of Chancery at Staunton, VA, six transcriptions of court documents, and a draft legislative bill, regarding the Rivanna Co.”
The listing page for the documents provides some pictures, as well as additional details regarding the lawsuit:
“The Rivanna Co., founded in 1806, moved goods by boat down the Rivanna river, and obtained the use of the canal Jefferson constructed for his grist mill. In 1810, Jefferson was ‘astonished and confounded’ when company director William D. Meriwether told him in ‘a high & peremptory tone’ that Jefferson was compelled to expand the height of his own dam, as well as build and mainatin a new set of locks that the Rivanna Co. wanted further upstream. Furthermore, when there was insufficient water to operate both the canal and the mill, the canal should have priority over Jefferson’s mill. Meriwether’s logic was that since the Rivanna company’s charter allowed them the use of Jefferson’s canal, there was an ‘implied grant of the water also, without which it would be useless,’ so therefore Jefferson was obligated to build and maintain the locks.
“In the restrained language of his complaint, Jefferson explains that he ‘retired from the meeting in the persuasion that he ought no longer to trust the condition of his title to the fugitive remembrance of verbal conversations, and indefinite understandings.’ Jefferson was outraged by Meriwether’s claims, and turned–as he did in the Declaration of Independence–to natural law to make his case. There was nothing in natural or civil law, he pointed out, that gave anyone the right to infringe his control over his own property without his consent, or without some compensation. He sued ‘to establish his clear and undivided right in his property’ and to make sure that he leaves his heirs ‘lands and not lawsuits for their future subsistence.’
“Jefferson categorically denied that there was any ‘contract’ obligating him to do anything for Rivanna other than allowing them to pass through his canal. He and the directors had previously had ‘loose conversations’ about the need for locks, but these were but ‘inchoate and preparatory’ discussions that fell far short of any notion of a contract. It would have been, Jefferson writes, as if one person agreed to build a house for another ‘without settling the articles of materials, size, form, time or price, an agreement which no court would undertake to supply or carry into execution, but would dismiss the parties to finish their bargain for themselves, and not trouble a court to do it for them.’
. . .
“The court agreed with Jefferson and ruled in December that he did not have to build and support the locks as Meriwether demanded. It did, however, affirm that the public had the right to use Jefferson’s canal, but that his property rights must be respected. On the question of water rights, the court agreed that when there was sufficient water only for the mills or the canal, Jefferson’s mills had priority.”
Other notable upcoming auction items with a connection, however tenuous, to the law include:
- this copy of the 1675 title Hughes’s Quaeries. Or, Choice Cases for Moots (described elsewhere as “The only early modern collection of mooted cases, continuing a tradition existing before the Inns of Courts were established, setting forth the facts, the issues, and sometimes tentatively the conclusions” of hypothetical cases; the auction page lacks photos of this book, but some pictures of the title can be found here) (Christie’s [June 19]; estimate: $942 – $1,413);
- this July 1787 letter by Luther Martin, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention, asking for payment for some legal work he had performed for a client (Christie’s [June 22]; estimate: $1,500 – $2,000);
- George Washington’s personal copy of the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and “other key acts of the first Congress in 1789,” (Christie’s [June 22]; estimate: $2,000,000 – $3,000,000)
- this 1977 letter by an East German dissident to a local solicitor, asking for help in being “sold” to the West (Mullock’s [June 28]; estimate: $470 – $783); and
- this 1981 petition, signed by Steven Spielberg, requesting an exemption from California child-labor laws so that child actors could film scenes in the movie that would become “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins and Collectibles [June 30, 2012]; estimate: $500-$1,000).