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By TEMPLE BODLEY
This volume is a reprint of two exceedingly rare and historically valuable little publications of over a century ago-Littell's Political Transactions In and Concerning Kentucky and the Letter from George Nicholas. Both concern a personal and political conflict between two Kentucky factions after the Revolution. This was the so-called "Spanish Conspiracy Controversy" which grew out of Spain's denial of our right to the free navigation of the Mississippi River through Louisiana, the neglect of the Kentucky people by Virginia and the Continental Congress, and their demand for separation from that state and the erection of a new state of their own.
Littell's book was published in 1806, eight years after the Nicholas Letter, but is given first place in this reprint because it mainly relates to transactions earlier than those discussed by Nicholas, and also gives a better idea of the origin and nature of the controversy.
The Political Transactions was written by William Littell at the instance of four eminent Kentuckians, namely, Harry Innes, who was attorney-general and the first federal judge of Kentucky, John Brown, its first representative in the Continental Congress and first United States Senator, Caleb Wallace, judge of the Kentucky Supreme Court, and Thomas Todd, who became a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. All of these men, as well as Colonel Nicholas, were personal and political friends of Madison, Jefferson, and other eastern leaders of national eminence.
Littell was a capable young lawyer who became well known as author of Littell's Reports of the decisions of the Kentucky Court of Appeals and of Littell's Laws of Kentucky. He was a friend of Innes, Wallace, Todd, and Brown, and shared their Jeffersonian Republican political faith.
Colonel George Nicholas, the writer of the reprinted letter, before removing to Kentucky was one of Virginia's honored men, best known for his earnest and able advocacy of the adoption of the Federal Constitution. During the famous debate in the Virginia Convention of 1788, he shared leadership in championing the new government
with Edmund Pendleton, James Madison, Edmund Randolph, John Marshall and Henry Lee, while their opponents were such men as Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, James Monroe, George Mason and Benjamin Harrison. Madison, himself a master-debater, declared Mason the greatest man in debate he ever knew; Patrick Henry's eloquence and skill in the art all know. It was indeed a battle of intellectual giants, and Nicholas was easily one of the strongest.
Two other members of the Convention who earnestly and ably advocated adoption of the Constitution were Judge Innes' brother, Colonel James Innes, the Attorney-General of Virginia, and George Nicholas' brother, Wilson Cary Nicholas, who commanded Washington's Life Guards during the Revolutionary War, and was afterwards United States Senator and Governor of Virginia.'
The Spanish conspiracy controversy in Kentucky grew out of a series of violent defamatory newspaper articles and pamphlets charging that Innes, Nicholas, Brown, Wallace, and other Kentucky leaders were conspiring with one another and the Spanish governors of Louisiana to detach Kentucky from the Union. The charge was made by their rancorous political and personal enemy, Humphrey Marshall, who afterwards elaborated it in his History of Kentucky.
Two considerations warrant the Filson Club in reprinting the Political Transactions and the Nicholas Letter. Few people at this time will care much about the merely personal aspects of a bitter polemical controversy carried on over a hundred years ago; but the Spanish Conspiracy controversy became far more than personal, nor was its influence limited to Kentucky. These reprinted works throw valuable light upon the momentous dispute between the United States and Spain over our claim to the free navigation of the lower Mississippi, which gave rise to angry dissensions between the northern and southern states, and between the people living on the "western waters" and those living east of the Alleghenies. These dissensions nearly wrecked the Confederation; they nearly defeated the adoption of the Federal Constitution; they nearly split the United States in two, with the Alleghenies as the dividing line.
1 The Nicholas brothers were men of distinguished and patriotic ancestry. Their father, Robert Carter Nicholas, was president of Virginia's famous revolutionary convention of 1775, judge of her High Court of Chancery, and later of the Court of Appeals. William Wirt Henry describes him as “of singular purity of character and strength of intellect-the leading lawyer of the colony." (Life of Patrick Henry, 73.) Colonel George Nicholas' son, Samuel Smith Nicholas, was long a distinguished jurist in Kentucky, Chancellor of the Louisville Chancery Court, and judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. His Conservative and Political Essays, written just before and early during the Civil War, disclose great ability and patriotism, and exercised great influence in preventing Kentucky's secession.
Brown's father was a prominent Virginia clergyman, his mother a daughter of Colonel William Preston. When a student at Princeton, John Brown joined Washington's army as a private while it was in retreat through New Jersey. Later he was a student at William and Mary College, then studied law, and in 1782 removed to Frankfort, Kentucky.
Another consideration calls for this reprint. Although Marshall's side of the controversy about the alleged Spanish Conspiracy was adroitly and fully presented and perpetuated in his History of Kentucky, the case for his opponents appeared only partially and in ephemeral publications, which have long been out of print and are now inaccessible save to a very few. That their side of the controversy may be more fully presented and better understood, it is the avowed purpose of this introduction—so far as limited space permitsto supplement the reprinted arguments of Littell and Nicholas with what seem important facts and considerations which they do not mention. Littell's little work was written during the excitement of an active and bitter controversy which filled the rival newspapers of the day and aroused intensest public interest. It was hurriedly prepared for the press to counteract Marshall's defamatory articles; and, being addressed to a public already more or less familiar with the subjects discussed, naturally omitted much that the present-day reader knows nothing about. The Nicholas letter was a hot vindication of his course against Marshall's charges. It was written to a Federalist friend, Colonel Thruston, and it, too, was intended to be read by people already familiar with facts which the readers of this introduction cannot be presumed to know. Marshall no doubt believed there was a real Spanish Conspiracy, and perhaps thought he was prompted by patriotic motives as well as personal enmity in making his charges; but it must be said the methods he used to support them were most misleading and unfair.
The statements and arguments in the Political Transactions and Nicholas Letter can hardly be understood without some knowledge of the general political and other conditions prevailing when the conspiracy controversy arose; and an attempt will now be made to explain those conditions very briefly.
During the Revolutionary War the amazing success of George Rogers Clark and his little Virginian army in driving the British from