Cabinet Meeting. Opinion on Writing to the
King of Prussia Concerning the
Marquis de Lafayette
[Philadelphia, Jaunary 14, 1794]
At a meeting of the heads of departments at the President’s, on the fourteenth day of January 1794.
It was propounded by the President, whether in consideration of the eminent services of M. de la Fayette, to the U. S. and his present sufferings,1 it be not adviseable for the President, in a private, and unofficial character, to address to the King of Prussia a letter, requesting his release on parole, founded on motives of personal friendship only. The opinion is, that such a letter is proper to be written.2
D, in the handwriting of Edmund Randolph and signed by H, Henry Knox, and Randolph, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.
1. After the suspension of Louis XVI on August 10, 1792, Lafayette failed in an attempt to raise a force to march on Paris to save the King. On August 19, 1792, Lafayette fled to the Austrian Netherlands, and the French Assembly formally declared him a traitor (Archives Parlementaires description begins Archives Parlementaires de 1787 à 1860 (Paris, 1868– ). description ends , XLVIII, 387–88). He was captured on August 20 at Nivelle and imprisoned, in the Prussian prison of Wesel, then at Magdeburg during 1793, and at Olmütz in Austria in 1794.
2. On January 15, 1794, Washington wrote to the King of Prussia: “… I cannot longer resist the impulse of friendship, to lay before you, who know so well, how to appreciate its force, my personal and affectionate anxiety for the welfare of M. de la Fayette. Report informs me, that he is under confinement in the dominions of Prussia, and therefore at your disposal.
“At any early period of his life—at a season, and on an occasion far remote from the time and causes, which have subjected him to his present condition, he pursued his military career, with so much benefit to my country, and honor to himself, that he acquired a most endearing place in my affections. A sincere attachment then commenced was strengthened by an intercourse which continued after the return of peace had seperated us until more active and interesting scenes served to interrupt it. Upon the events, which succeeded, I shall be silent, only entreating your Majesty to be persuaded, that, as I seperate myself, in this letter, from my official station, to render a tribute to your liberality, so I beg to be understood as intending to observe that delicacy, which becomes every man, whose country has, with perfect sincerity, cherished peace and impartiality toward the whole world.
“Permit me then to ask and obtain from your Majesty, a favor, in which the most lively sensibility of my fellow-citizens is engaged—the release of M. de la Fayette on his parole.…” (ALS, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.)
On January 16, 1794, Randolph wrote to Thomas Pinckney, United States Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain: “The case of the unfortunate Marquis de la Fayette has been before the President.… He has at length written the enclosed letter … to the King of Prussia, on whose will the fate of the Marquis seems to depend.… That the Chief magistrate of the United States should, as such, condescend to ask a personal favor from a crowned head, was inadmissible; and had its possible dangers from the discontent, which the French nation might feel at a solicitude, expressed in a public form, for the enlargement of a man, so obnoxious to them at this moment. Objections of this kind do not apply against the indulgence of private friendship, exerting itself in a private character.… If it were not, that the complexion of the private letter would be changed into the appearance of a public act; the occasion has really delicacy enough, attached to it, to render the prudence and management of an experienced Minister necessary, to its delivery into the King’s hands.… You will doubtless think that a native of the United States ought to be employed, and Mr. James Marshall of Virginia has been recommended to the President by Col. Hamilton, Gen’l Knox and myself, as qualified for the mission.… Your own judgment and easy access to the Prussian minister afforded by your residence at the same Court, will enable you to determine, thro’ what persons the King is to be approached … and in general what style of proceeding most promises success. Success is desirable, not only for the happiness which will accompany it, but also, because it will obviate the unpleasantness of having the request refused. This last idea is of so much magnitude, that, if Mr. Marshall shall clearly discover, that it will be abortive, the letter is to be withheld. The compensation to him you will be pleased to make as moderate as possible, consistently with the object …” (copy, RG 59, Diplomatic and Consular Instructions of the Department of State, 1791–1801, August 22, 1793–June 1, 1795, National Archives).
On June 21, 1794, Pinckney wrote to Randolph: “Mr. Marshall is returned from Berlin.… I have received Information since his return that M. la Fayette is removed to the Austrian Fortress of Olmutz in Moravia where he is still more rigorously confined than he was by the Prussians …” (LS, RG 59, Despatches from United States Ministers to Great Britain, 1791–1906, November 29, 1791–May 4, 1797, National Archives).