Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from George Mason, 10 January 1791

From George Mason

Virginia Gunston-Hall January 10th. 1791.

Dear Sir

As I well know Your Attachment to the sacred Cause of Liberty must interest You in the Success of the French Revolution, it is with great pleasure I can inform You, that it is still going on prosperously; notwithstanding the Evils which have been predicted from the large Emissions of Paper Money. I have a Letter from my Son John, dated as late as the 10th. of Novemr. in which he informs me, that the Sales of the Church and Crown Lands are going on successfully, in every Part of the Kingdom; and the Paper Money absorbed by them, as fast as it comes into Circulation; being publickly burnt as it is taken in; and that from the Experiments already made, it is generally thought the Proceeds of the public Lands will be more than three times the Amount of the Paper ordered to be issued; in Consequence of which, Exchange with foreign Countrys (which had been so extreamly low) is beginning to look up again.

The public Lands, in the different Districts, are laid off in Lotts, numbered and valued, by Commissioners on Oath, and after having been advertised six weeks (one lott at a time in each District) it is sold to the highest Bidders. The first lott in the City of Bourdeaux consisting of nine Houses or Tenements, was sold on the 5th. of Novemr. A prodigious Croud of People attended, and many Purchasers, bidding with great Alacrity, 1, 2 and 3 thousand livres at a time above each other, and the Lott sold, upon an Average, at about 50 per cent. above it’s Valuation; and by Advices from Paris, and other Parts of the Kingdom, the Sales were going on every where, in nearly the same Proportion.

This is a most fortunate Event for the French Revolution; it is a Proof of great and general Confidence; and I hope will give the finishing Stroke to it. There is something very extraordinary in these Sales. It was natural to suppose, that the Distrust of many in the new Government, the religious Scruples, or Superstition of others, with respect to the Church Lands, and the great Quantity of Land brought suddenly to Market, wou’d have occasioned very low Sales; against the last, however, the Mode of selling has wisely guarded. Nothing has yet been decided upon the Subject of the Farm; a late Plan has been proposed, with Respect to Tobacco, which they term, a regie, a Sort of second Farm in the Hands of the Nation; the Nation proposing to take into their Hands, exclusively, the Purchase and Sale of Tobacco; whether this will be adopted, or the Trade made entirely free, is yet uncertain.—The Crop of Wheat in France has turn’d out much shorter than was expected, and foreign Supplies will again be wanted. A Scarcity has already begun to be felt in Bourdeaux, and a Company has been lately formed there, of some of the most wealthy Merchants, under the Auspices of the Municipality, in which 700,000livre tournois has been already subscribed, to purchase wheat abroad, for the Consumption of the City, and orders given for the Purchase on the Baltic; but this is an Object of only a few weeks Consumption; the Dayly Consumption of the City being computed at 1,800 Boisseaux.

By the last Couriers from Paris, they were informed in Bourdeaux, that the Spanish Ambassador had announced to the King, the signing at Madrid an Arangement between the Courts of Madrid and London, which will put a Stop to the Hostilities, for which they have been so long, and so vigorously, preparing; that Spain is to cede to Great Britain a right to trade, and make Establishments in the Bay of Nootka; but not a word of the reimbursment of Expences; which Great Britain held, at first, as a sine qua non. This News was believed, but not absolutely confirmed.

My Son John was admitted, about the latter End of last Summer, a Member of the great Constitutional Committee for the City of Bourdeaux, an Appointment with which I am very well pleased; not only as it shows that he is well known and esteemed in the City, but as it will make him acquainted with some of the first Characters in that Part of the Kingdom, and will be the Means of much Information and Improvement. He intends, after visiting most of the principal Manufactories in France, to imbark for America in May next, and if he meets with a good Ship for that Port, to come first to Charles Town in S.C. but as he purposes to establish a House, in the Commission Line, upon Potomack River, I believe I shall advise him to take the french and spanish west Indies, in his way. Their House in Bourdeaux will still be continued, under the Management of Mr. Fenwick. John is very anxious to know the place where the Seat of the General Government will be fixed, as it will in some Measure determine the place of his Establishment; and desires to know my Opinion, whether Congress can ever be got out of the Whirlpool of Philadelphia? I shall answer him, that it is my Opinion it can not, for half a Century to come.

There is a particular Circumstance, tho’ its Consequences have been little attended to, or thought of, which is continually sapping and contaminating the Republicanism of the United States, and if not timely altered, will corrupt the rising Generation. It may be, and I believe will be, a Work of Difficulty to prevent it’s baneful Influence; but it surely ought to be attempted. I hope I shall have the Pleasure of seeing You at Gunston, when You return to Virginia, and wish to have some Conversation with You on the Subject. I am, with the most sincere Regard and Esteem, dear Sir, Your affecte. Friend & Obdt. Servt.,

G. Mason

P.S. I beg the Favour of You to present my best Respects to our Friend Mr. Madison. He is one of the few men, whom from a pretty thorough Acquaintance, I really esteem; tho’ I have been apprehensive some late Difference (and it has only been a late one) on political Questions had caused a Coolness between Us. I am sure it has not on my Part; for if I know my own Heart, I have more Liberality, than to think the worse of a Friend for a Disagreement on any theoretical Opinions; and I well know that the iniquitous Attempts too frequently made in any Assembly, are almost enough to shake any Man’s democratical principles.

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 17 Jan. 1791 and so recorded in SJL.

Despite Mason’s professed belief that the seat of government would remain in Philadelphia for half a century, it seems clear that the principal object of this letter was to obtain access to the most closely held secret of the moment—that concerning the exact location of the Federal District, not disclosed until two weeks after the inquiry was made. The nature of the particular circumstance … sapping and contaminating the republicanism of the United States remains conjectural, despite TJ’s specific query in his response of 4 Feb. 1791. For the “surmise that it had reference to the power of the Federal Courts,” which seems implausible, see Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason (New York, 1892), ii, 333.

Another conjecture has been advanced in The Papers of George Mason, ed. Robert A. Rutland, iii, 1218–19n. On the basis of TJ’s letter to Washington of 23 May 1792, Rutland believes that Mason was concerned about “the speculation in public securities touched off by the Assumption Act.” But what distressed Mason was clearly “a particular Circumstance” whose consequences had been little noticed and this certainly could not be said of either assumption or speculation. In his remarkable summary of the direction and tendency of administration that had left “the public mind … no longer confident and serene,” TJ pointed to the obvious fact that evidences of the change—of which speculation was only one and not the most fundamental aspect—had been “hackneyed in the public papers in detail” (TJ to Washington, 23 May 1792). He could scarcely have done otherwise. TJ himself had long been aware of the divisive effects of assumption and speculation and in fact had anticipated opposition in the South by trying to prepare Mason and others for a palatable compromise (TJ to Mason, 13 June 1790). Only a few weeks before Mason wrote the above letter the Virginia resolutions and remonstrance against assumption had reverberated in the press. The first wave of speculation, now subsided, had been in anticipation of assumption and at this time the full tide of the script mania had not yet arrived. Being well aware of Virginia sentiment on national measures and their apparent tendency, TJ, as his response shows, was naturally puzzled as to what could have caused so grave a concern to be expressed in such guarded terms.

It seems clear, therefore, that Mason did not have in mind any subversive effects of major measures of the national government, for these measures had been challenged in Congress, in the press, and in private correspondence. A plausible explanation for his apprehension would appear to arise, as did so many of his views and concerns, closer at home. Perhaps it arose out of his long-standing battle with the “Alexandria Faction,” whose leaders he accused of frustrating the will of the General Assembly, of engendering and perpetuating party and faction, of corrupting and perverting the administration of justice, of being able “without Fear of Controul or Punishment, to oppress the People,” and of “continually gaining Strength by the Power of appointing Militia Officers, Commissioners of the Tax and other moneyjobs” (see Vol. 17: 458n.; Mason to Johnston, 3 Nov. 1790, Mason, Papers, ed. Rutland, iii, 1208–10; petition to the General Assembly, 11 Nov. 1790; same, 1211–16). Believing this, Mason may very well have persuaded himself that such a self-perpetuating oligarchy, if left unchallenged, would contaminate local government with the same kind of corruption that TJ saw in operation in the national legislature. He may have feared that its baneful influence, working through intimate connections of family and place, would nourish a system to which youth would become habituated. Thus the rising generation would become corrupted and perpetuate oligarchical rule. If this concern for the preservation of republican principles in local government was indeed the thing that disturbed Mason, he would have found 0TJ in full accord with the object, though certainly not sharing his alarmed conclusion that the greater of the discernible dangers to republicanism lay in the unit of government closest to the people.

Whatever it was that distressed Mason, it seems safe to conclude that it was something differentiated from the general climate of opposition in Virginia to the assumption, the excise, the bank, and the general measures of the national government apparent to every observer. Both the President and the Secretary of State appear to have been so conscious of the local cast of Mason’s political position and of his personal interests that this almost certainly was permitted to have a major if not a decisive role in the decision to locate the Federal District on tidewater (see Editorial Note, group of documents on location of the Federal District, under 24 Jan. 1791). The danger that Mason perceived, it seems clear, arose from a source close at hand.

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