Thomas Jefferson Papers

VI. Secretary of State to William Short, 10 August 1790

VI. Secretary of State to William Short

New York Aug. 10. 1790.

Dear Sir

This letter, with the very confidential papers it incloses, will be delivered you by Mr. Barrett with his own hands. If there be no war between Spain and England, they need be known to yourself alone. But if that war be begun, or whenever it shall begin, we wish you to communicate them to the Marquis de la Fayette, on whose assistance we know we can count in matters which interest both our countries. He and you will consider how far the contents of these papers may be communicated to the Count de Montmorin, and his influence be asked with the court of Madrid. France will be called into the war, as an ally, and not on any pretence of the quarrel being in any degree her own. She may reasonably require then that Spain should do every thing which depends on her to lessen the number of her enemies. She cannot doubt that we shall be of that number, if she does not yield our right to the common use of the Missisipi, and the means of using and securing it. You will observe we state in general the necessity, not only of our having a port near the mouth of the river (without which we could make no use of the navigation at all) but of it’s being so well separated from the territories of Spain and her jurisdiction, as not to engender daily disputes and broils between us. It is certain that if Spain were to retain any jurisdiction over our entrepot her officers would abuse that jurisdiction, and our people would abuse their privileges in it. Both parties must foresee this, and that it will end in war. Hence the necessity of a well defined separation. Nature has decided what shall be the geography of that in the end, whatever it might be in the beginning, by cutting off from the adjacent countries of Florida and Louisiana, and inclosing between two of it’s channels, a long and narrow slip of land, called the island of New Orleans. The idea of ceding this could not be hazarded to Spain, in the first step; it would be too disagreeable at first view: because this island, with it’s town, constitutes at present their principal settlement in that part of their dominions, containing about 10,000 white inhabitants of every age and sex. Reason and events however, may, by little and little, familiarize them to it. That we have a right to some spot as an entrepot for our commerce, may be at once affirmed. The expediency too may be expressed of so locating it as to cut off the source of future quarrels and wars. A disinterested eye, looking on a map, will remark how conveniently this tongue of land is formed for the purpose; the Ibberville and Amit channel offering a good boundary and convenient outlet on the one side for Florida, and the main channel an equally good boundary and outlet on the other side for Louisiana; while the slip of land between is almost entirely morass or sand-bank; the whole of it lower than the water of the river, in it’s highest floods, and only it’s Western margin (which is the highest ground) secured by banks and inhabited. I suppose this idea too much even for the Count de Montmorin at first, and that therefore you will find it prudent to urge, and get him to recommend to the Spanish court only in general terms ‘a port near the mouth of the river, with a circumjacent territory sufficient for it’s support, well defined, and extraterritorial to Spain,’ leaving the idea to future growth.

I inclose you the copy of a paper distributed by the Spanish commandant on the West side of the Missisipi, which may justify us to M. de Montmorin for pushing this matter to an immediate conclusion. It cannot be expected we shall give Spain time, to be used by her for dismembering us.

It is proper to apprise you of a circumstance which may shew the expediency of being in some degree on your guard even in your communications to the court of France. It is believed here that the Count de Moustier, during his residence with us, concieved a project of again engaging France in a colony upon our continent, and that he directed his views to some of the country on the Missisipi, and obtained and communicated a good deal of matter on the subject to his court. He saw the immediate advantage of selling some yards of French cloths and silks to the inhabitants of N. Orleans. But he did not take into account what it would cost France to nurse and protect a colony there till it should be able to join it’s neighbors, or to stand by itself; and then what it would cost her to get rid of it. I hardly suspect that the court of France could be seduced by so partial a view of the subject as was presented to them; and I suspect it the less since the National assembly has constitutionally excluded conquest from the objects of their government. It may be added too that, the place being ours, their yards of cloth and silk would be as freely sold as if it were theirs.

You will perceive by this letter, and the papers it incloses, what part of the ideas of the Count d’Estain coincide with our views. The answer to him must be a compound of civility and reserve, expressing our thankfulness for his attentions; that we consider them as proofs of the continuance of his friendly dispositions, and that tho’ it might be out of our system to implicate ourselves in trans-Atlantic guarantees, yet other parts of his plans are capable of being improved to the common benefit of the parties. Be so good as to say to him something of this kind, verbally, and so as that the matter may be ended as between him and us.

On the whole, in the event of war, it is left to the judgment of the Marquis de la Fayette and yourself how far you will develope the ideas now communicated to the Count de Montmorin, and how far you will suffer them to be developed to the Spanish court.

I inclose you a pamphlet by Hutchins for your further information on the subject of the Missisipi, and am with sentiments of perfect esteem & attachment Dr. Sir Your most obedient & most humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (CLU). FC (DNA: RG 59, PCC No. 121). Enclosures: (1) TJ to Carmichael, 2 Aug. 1790 (the text enclosed is the item there described as Tr of Extract, which omitted the references to Humphreys’ mission). (2) TJ’s outline of policy on the Mississippi Question, enclosed in the foregoing (the text sent Short is presumably that approved by Washington: for its identity, see notes to enclosure, TJ to Carmichael, 2 Aug. 1790). (3) Thomas Hutchins, An historical and topographical description of Louisiana, and West-Florida (Philadelphia, 1784). This pamphlet had excited TJ’s attention since 1784 when he corresponded with Hutchins about it and pointed out errors in its map (see Hutchins to TJ, 11 Feb. 1784, where the pamphlet is erroneously conjectured to be Hutchins’ Topographical Description of Virginia, Pennsylvania, &c. [London, 1778; see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1959, 5 vols. description ends No. 525]). TJ was undoubtedly influenced at that time by Hutchins’ perception of the strategic importance of the Mississippi: “The safety and commercial prosperity which may be secured to the United States by the definitive treaty of peace, will chiefly depend upon the share of the navigation which shall be allowed to them. Is it not amazing, true as it is, that few amongst us know this to be the key to the northern part of the western continent? … To expect the free navigation of the Mississippi is absurd, whilst the Spaniards are in possession of New Orleans” (Hutchins, An historical and topographical description of Louisiana, p. 23). TJ’s description of the “long and narrow slip of land, called the island of New Orleans” is based on that of Hutchins, though he makes the population of the city 10,000 instead of the 7,000 that Hutchins estimated (same, p. 25–8). (4) The “copy of a paper distributed by the Spanish commandant” has not been identified, but Washington and TJ were well informed of Spanish-American intrigues in the Southwest. The President had received from Gov. Beverley Robinson of Virginia a copy of a letter from “the Spanish Governor of New Orleans to a respectable Gentleman in Kentucky” (Esteban Miró to Benjamin Sebastian) continuing the correspondence of the previous year in which Miró gave Sebastian and others “liberty to settle in any part of Louisiana, or any where on the east side of the Mississippi below the Yazou river,” offering as inducements grants of land up to 3000 acres, exemption from taxation, freedom of religion, and trading privileges (Randolph to Washington, 30 May 1790; Miró to Sebastian, 16 Sep. 1789, both under the former date in DNA: RG 59, MLR; Washington to Randolph, 14 June 1790, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 49n.). The Anglo-Spanish war crisis produced in the Southwest precisely the same sort of intrigues threatening dismemberment of the United States that were taking place in Vermont. James O’Fallon, representing the South Carolina Yazoo Company, equalled in secret negotiations, in grandiose schemes, and in fanciful rhetoric what Ethan Allen had proposed to Dorchester in 1789. In taking advantage of the crisis to convert the enterprise of the company he represented to that of an independent buffer colony with close links to Spain, he definitely saw himself as the leader of a Southwestern Vermont—the embodiment of the spirit against which TJ’s policy was directed. He offered to Miró to bring from three to five thousand well-armed men to a location on the Yazoo “clear of the old Line of West Florida, but on its Margin; so that, should any attack be made upon them, in that acknowledged Spot of rightful possession; the three most Southern States, from whence the Colonists have come, and in which the Gentlemen of the three Company’s bear greatest sway) must insist on federal aid and protection. This the Congress dare not, from the terms of the constitution, refuse them, in such circumstance. In such circumstances, the old claims about territorial boundaries, and the diplomatic right of freely navigating the Mississippi must again be ushered into view … and the Kentucky men, and the Frankliners now galled under the pressure of Commercial regulations, at New Orleans, would most cheerfully conspire, to bring all those ancient disputes to an issue, on principles of Self-interest…. But if, on the other hand, the terms of union now ofered by the South Carolina Yazou Company be properly embraced and acceded to—; all this trouble will be everlastingly precluded—; Louisiana will have a robust Ally of Americans, independent among themselves, like Vermont, or Rhode Island for its Barrier; and … the people of Kentucky, Franklin and Cumberland must, in their own defence, be induced, to have followed their example, and the whole to confederate among themselves … under the protection of his Majesty. It is a fact well known, and acknowledged throughout the whole of the Western Country (and Nations, like Individuals, are always, eventually, led by their Interests): that the Inhabitants thereof, can derive no Commercial or political advantage whatever, by their being subjected to Congressional Supremacy placed in the Atlantic States; and that their last hope of ever rising into any consequence, as a people, must be founded, on confederating, independently, among themselves, on the basis of a Separate Sovereignty from that of the present Congress and, on the Stipulation of a general Market or free trade at New Orleans, for their productions, firmly to coalesce, as sincere Allies, with that European power, who shall hold it” (O’Fallon to Miró, 16 July 1790, Lexington, Lawrence Kinnaird, ed., “Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765–1794,” Am. Hist. Assn., Ann. Rept., 1945, iii, p. ii, 359–60; O’Fallon even surpassed in flattery what Ethan Allen had said to Dorchester; on the overtures made by O’Fallon and their failure, see Kinnaird, same, xxvii-x, and Whitaker, Spanish-American Frontier, p. 140–4).

On the ideas proposed by D’estain[g], see D’Estaing to Washington, 20 Mch. 1790, Vol. 16: 555–9.

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