Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 14 November 1786

To George Washington

Paris Nov. 14. 1786.


The house of Le Coulteux, which for some centuries has been the wealthiest of this place, has it in contemplation to establish a great company for the fur trade. They propose that partners interested one half in the establishment should be American citizens, born and residing in the U.S. Yet if I understood them rightly they expect that that half of the company which resides here should make the greatest part, or perhaps the whole of the advances, while those on our side the water should superintend the details. They had at first thought of Baltimore as the center of their American transactions. I have pointed out to them the advantages of Alexandria for this purpose. They have concluded to take information as to Baltimore, Philadelphia and N. York for a principal deposit, and having no correspondent at Alexandria, have asked me to procure a state of the advantages of that place, as also to get a recommendation of the best merchant there to be adopted as partner and head of the business there. Skill, punctuality, and integrity are the requisites in such a character. They will decide on their whole information as to the place for their principal factory. Being unwilling that Alexandria should lose it’s pretensions, I have undertaken to procure them information as to that place. If they undertake this trade at all, it will be on so great a scale as to decide the current of the Indian trade to the place they adopt. I have no acquaintance at Alexandria or in it’s neighborhood. But believing you would feel an interest in it from the same motives which I do, I venture to ask the favor of you to recommend to me a proper merchant for their purpose, and to engage some well informed person to send me a representation of the advantages of Alexandria as the principal deposit for the fur trade.

The author of the Political part of the Encyclopedie methodique desired me to examine his article ‘Etats unis.’ I did so. I found it a tissue of errors. For in truth they know nothing about us here. Particularly however the article ‘Cincinnati’ was a mere Philippic against that institution: in which it appeared that there was an utter ignorance of facts and motives. I gave him notes on it. He reformed it as he supposed and sent it again to me to revise. In this reformed state Colo. Humphreys saw it. I found it necessary to write that article for him. Before I gave it to him I shewed it to the Marq. de la fayette who made a correction or two. I then sent it to the author. He used the materials, mixing a great deal of his own with them. In a work which is sure of going down to the latest posterity I thought it material to set facts to rights as much as possible. The author was well disposed: but could not entirely get the better of his original bias. I send you the Article as ultimately published. If you find any material errors in it and will be so good as to inform me of them, I shall probably have opportunities of setting this author to rights. What has heretofore passed between us on this institution, makes it my duty to mention to you that I have never heard1 a person in Europe, learned or unlearned, express his thoughts on this institution, who did not consider it as dishonourable and destructive to our governments, and that every writing which has come out since my arrival here, in which it is mentioned, considers it, even as now reformed, as the germ whose developement is one day to destroy the fabric we have reared. I did not apprehend this while I had American ideas only. But I confess that what I have seen in Europe has brought me over to that opinion: and that tho’ the day may be at some distance, beyond the reach of our lives perhaps, yet it will certainly come, when, a single fibre left of this institution, will produce an hereditary aristocracy which will change the form of our governments from the best to the worst in the world. To know the mass of evil which flows from this fatal source, a person must be in France, he must see the finest soil, the finest climate, the most compact state, the most benevolent character of people, and every earthly advantage combined, insufficient to prevent this scourge from rendering existence a curse to 24 out of 25 parts of the inhabitants of this country. With us the branches of this institution cover all the states. The Southern ones at this time are aristocratical in their disposition: and that that spirit should grow and extend itself is within the natural order of things. I do not flatter myself with the immortality of our governments: but I shall think little also of their longevity unless this germ of destruction be taken out. When the society themselves shall weigh the possibility of evil against the impossibility of any good to proceed from this institution, I cannot help hoping they will eradicate it. I know they wish the permanence of our governments as much as any individuals composing them.2—An interruption here and the departure of the gentleman by whom I send this obliges me to conclude it, with assurances of the sincere respect and esteem with which I have the honor to be Dear Sir Your most obedt. & most humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (DLC: Washington Papers); written with TJ’s right hand; endorsed by Washington. PrC (DLC: TJ Papers). Tr of an extract (MHi: Knox Papers); in an unidentified hand; endorsed by Knox, to whom it was forwarded by Washington on 27 Apr. 1787. Enclosures: (1) Démeunier’s Essai sur les Etats-Unis (see under 22 June 1786). (2) The “Article [on the Cincinnati] as ultimately published,” referred to by Washington as a “translation” but by Hume as TJ’s notes on the Cincinnati; the actual enclosure is missing, but it was presumably a translation by Short of that part of the “Article as ultimately published” that pertained to the Cincinnati (Washington to Knox, 27 Apr. 1787, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxix, 208; E. E. Hume, ed., General Washington’s Correspondence Concerning the Society of the Cincinnati, p. 270).

TJ’s letter evidently arrived at Mount Vernon on 25 Apr. 1787, adding to the acute embarrassment Washington was experiencing over the question of attendance at the forthcoming general meeting of the Cincinnati scheduled for the first Monday in May (7 May 1787). On 31 Oct. 1786-no doubt recalling his experience of 1784—he had dispatched a circular letter to the various state societies saying that he could not attend the forthcoming meeting and expressing his desire not to be elected to the presidency since he would be “under the necessity of declining the acceptance of it” (Fitzpatrick, same, xxix, 31–3; Hume, same, 264–5). No sooner had this been written than Washington received Madison’s letter of 8 Nov. 1786 advising him that he had been designated at the head of the Virginia delegation to the Federal Convention, scheduled for the second Monday in May 1787. To this Washington replied on 18 Nov. 1786 that, despite his determination to retire from “the public walks of life,” he would have obeyed the wish of the General Assembly if it were not “now out of my power to do this with any degree of consistency”; informing Madison of his recent letter to the Society, he added: “Under these circumstances it will readily be perceived that I could not appear at the same time and place on any other occasion, without giving offence to a very respectable and deserving part of the Community, the late officers of the American Army” (Fitzpatrick, same, xxix, 71–2; he wrote similarly to Theodorick Bland the same day, p. 73). However, Madison’s insistence, Gov. Randolph’s formal notification, and other circumstances by mid-December brought Washington to a state of acute distress; sending to David Humphreys extracts of his correspondence with Madison and Randolph, he asked: “Should this matter be further pressed … what had I best do?” (Fitzpatrick, same, xxix, 76, 115, 119, 120, 127–9). By March Washington could write Jay: “My name is in the delegation … but it was put there contrary to my desire, and remains contrary to my request. Several reasons at the time of this appointment and which yet exist, conspired to make an attendance inconvenient, perhaps improper, tho’ a good deal urged to it.” At last, on 28 Mch. 1787, he informed Gov. Randolph that he would yield to the unusual “degree of sollicitude” of his friends and attend the convention provided the late afflictions of a “rheumatic complaint” did not interfere, but that if he did go, he would set off for Philadelphia “the first, or second day of May, that I may be there in time to account, personally, for my conduct to the General Meeting of the Cincinnati which is to convene on the first Monday of that month” (Fitzpatrick, same, xxix, 177, 187). It was in this context that TJ’s letter arrived with its disturbing implications. On Thursday, 26 Apr., Washington received “an Express between 4 and 5 Oclock this afternoon informing me of the extreme illness of my Mother and Sister Lewis” and “resolved to set out for Fredericksburgh by daylight in the Morning, and spent the evening in writing some letters on business respecting the Meeting of the Cincinnati, to the Secretary General of the Society, Genl. Knox” (Fitzpatrick, ed., Diaries of George Washington, iii, 205). There were two letters to Knox, both dated the 27th but evidently written the evening of the 26th. The first explained how he had yielded to the “wishes of many … friends” that he attend the Federal Convention, but that “(within this hour) I am called by an express, who assures me not a moment is to be lost, to see a mother and only sister (who are supposed to be in the agonies of Death) expire; and I am hastening to obey this Melancholy call after having just buried a brother who was the intimate companion of my youth, and the friend of my ripened age. This journey of mine then, 100 miles in the disordered frame of my body, will, I am persuaded, unfit me for the intended trip to Philadelphia, and assuredly prevent my offering that tribute of respect to my compatriots in Arms which results from affection and gratitude for their attachment to, and support of me, upon so many trying occasions.” He then explained that he had determined to “shew … respect to the General Meeting of the Society by coming there the week before” the meeting of the Convention, but that, since this was not possible, he was forwarding such papers as he had that required the attention of the Cincinnati. The letter, evidently intended to be read to the Society, closed thus: “I make a tender of my affectionate regard to the members who may Constitute the General Meeting of the Society” (Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxix, 208–10; Hume, ed., General Washington’s Correspondence Concerning the Society of the Cincinnati, p. 305, includes this letter to Knox with the heading: “General Washington notifies the Secretary General of the Cincinnati that he will attend the General Meeting after all”; but, despite the fact that Hume’s volume appeared two years after Fitzpatrick’s volume xxix, it does not include the other letter to Knox of the same date). Washington then—perhaps on the evening of the 26th, but giving “April 27, 1787” as the date—wrote Knox a second letter: “Hurried as I am I cannot (not expecting to see you in Philadelphia) withhold the copy of a Paragraph in a letter which came to my hands yesterday from Mr. Jefferson ‥‥ In my present state of mind I can hardly form an opinion whether it will be best to lay the matter before the Society as coming from Mr. Jefferson or as from a person of as good information as any in France. I must therefore leave it wholly with you to do as you may think most proper. You know my sentiments from the proceedings of the last General meeting and from my Circular” (Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxix, 208). Washington’s sentiments as expressed at the “last General meeting” had been profoundly affected by another timely interposition on the part of TJ (see Vol. 7: 105–10).

On the 27th Washington began his journey “About sun rise … as intended.” He arrived at Fredericksburg early that same afternoon, finding his sister out of danger and his mother better than he had expected. He remained at Fredericksburg over the week-end, returning to Mount Vernon late in the afternoon of Monday the 30th. He was worn with fatigue, but “rid to all the Plantations on Tuesday,” 1 May, and all of the remainder of that week he was actively engaged in supervising his plantations. By 5 May his “rheumatic complaint” had improved, and he still intended to leave for Philadelphia (as originally planned) on Monday or early Tuesday. But on Sunday “Company, and several other matters” pressed upon him and obliged him to postpone his journey a day longer; the company included Dr. Craik to whom he had intrusted the Cincinnati documents to be carried to Philadelphia, and Col. John Fitzgerald and Dr. David Stuart who doubtless discussed the important matter of the fur trade opened up by TJ in the present letter (see Washington to TJ, 30 May 1787). Monday, 7 May, Washington spent at “home preparing for my journey.” Tuesday the 8th being “squally with showers,” he decided to postpone the start again. On Wednesday the 9th, a little after sunrise he crossed the Potomac and pursued the “rout by way of Baltimore.” On the fifth day, Sunday the 13th, he arrived in Philadelphia in the afternoon, alighted at Mrs. Mary House’s boarding-house at Fifth and Market streets, but was “pressed by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Morris to lodge with them,” which he did (Fitzpatrick, ed., Diaries of George Washington, iii, 205–16; Writings, xxix, 210–3). From this chronology it is evident that Washington was at no special pains to get to Philadelphia in time to participate in the General Meeting. But the delegates to the Federal Convention arrived slowly and tardily, the members of the Society were still in session, and, on the very day that Washington arrived in Philadelphia, Arthur Lee wrote from New York that he had received private information that the General Meeting intended to “re-elect you as their President, notwithstanding your letter. They think you are so plegd to them, by some of your letters that you cannot refuse the Presidency” (Hume, ed., General Washington’s Correspondence Concerning the Society of the Cincinnati, p. 307). Washington replied on the 20th, but made no allusion to Lee’s remark: on the 18th he had in fact been elected president-general. To TJ he wrote—stating that the present letter did not “come to my hands till the first of the present month”—that he had not been at Liberty to decline the presidency “without placing myself in an extremely disagreeable situation with relation to that brave and faithful class of men, whose persevering patriotism and friendship I had experienced on so many trying occasions” (Washington to TJ, 30 May 1787). The letter was signed by Washington, but that part of it pertaining to the Cincinnati was drafted by Humphreys, to whom he had turned for advice as on many other occasions. Thus in silence Washington accepted the embarrassing advantage that his former comrades in arms had taken of his reluctant presence in Philadelphia—a presence resulting from his conviction that it was “a public duty to which every private consideration should give way” (Washington to Jabez Bowen, 9 Jan. 1787, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxix, 138).

1This word interlined in substitution for “seen,” deleted.

2Tr of extract that Washington sent to Knox includes the text from the beginning of the paragraph to this point.

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