The Batture on the Mississippi River

Lawyers, no less than others, do not want to be sued. Thomas Jefferson was greatly upset when this occurred to him and tested his legal expertise. What became a stressful ordeal for him resulted from the claim by an Edward Livingston that he owned a batture, a stretch of beach along the Mississippi River. Jefferson, as president, on recommendation of the Attorney General, had ordered Livingston removed from the property. He retaliated by filing suit against Jefferson in the circuit court in Richmond. It added to Jefferson’s concern that John Marshall, in addition to his duties on the Supreme Court, was sitting in Richmond as the Circuit Court judge.

“Shocked at this unprecedented suit, Jefferson sprang into action. He hired three expert attorneys, George Hay, Littleton Waller Tazewell, and William Wirt. Jefferson had by then left the presidency, but he did not leave the matter to his lawyers. Jefferson proceeded to research and brief the legal issues, which Wirt praised as a “masterpiece of legal erudition.”

Livingston had been the US attorney in New York but while he was ill, a clerk appropriated funds from the office. Livingston accepted responsibility to repay these funds, but Jefferson would not give him time and demanded his resignation. Livingston surrendered his appointment and his property and moved to New Orleans, now in the new Louisiana Territory, to recoup his fortune.

Livingston was a formidable lawyer in his own right, and Jefferson sensed that animosity was behind Livingston’s claim against Jefferson personally, so Jefferson did not hesitate to use whatever defenses were available to him. It actually ended well with Livingston obtaining some portion of the land and reviving his career. John Tyler, the District Court judge, wrote an opinion with Marshall concurring that Jefferson could not be sued in Virginia for a cause of action arising out of land situated in the Louisiana Territory.

Jefferson was upset that the case did not go to trial. Still in a combative mood, he arranged for his brief to be published under the title, The Proceedings of the Government of the United States, in maintaining the Public Right to the beach of the Mississippi adjacent to New Orleans, Against the Intrusion of Edward Livingston.

A number of historians who have examined this case have faulted Jefferson for his treatment of Livingston. Indeed, legal maneuverings are always open to post hoc debate, but Jefferson had acted in the office of president, and was being sued personally for damages in the amount of $100,000. Livingston may have received the batture as a legal fee, so he would have been aware that the title was in dispute.

Jefferson was by now in his 70s and his legal career was four decades in the past, but his instincts remained. He approached the legal issues just as methodically as he did when a young lawyer in the General Court.

Richard Dixon