Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 6 November 1791

To Thomas Pinckney

Philadelphia Nov. 6. 1791.


The mission of a Minister Plenipotentiary to the court of London being now to take place, the President of the United States is desirous of availing the public of your services in that office. I have it in charge therefore from him to ask whether it will be agreeable that he should nominate you for that purpose to the Senate. We know that higher motives will alone influence your mind in the acceptance of this charge. Yet it is proper at the same time to inform you that as a provision for your expences in the exercise of it, an Outfit of 9000. Dollars is allowed, and an annual salary to the same amount payable quarterly. On recieving your permission, the necessary orders, for these sums, together with your credentials, shall be forwarded to you, and it would be expected that you should proceed on the mission as soon as you can have made those arrangements for your private affairs which such an absence may render indispensable. Let me only ask the favor of you to give me an immediate answer, and by duplicate, by sea and post, that we may have the benefit of both chances for recieving it as early as possible.—Tho’ I have not the honor of a personal acquaintance with you, yet I beg you to be assured that I feel all that anxiety for your entrance on this important mission which a thorough conviction of your fitness for it can inspire; and that in it’s relations with my office, I shall always endeavor to render it as agreeable to you as possible.—I have the honour to be &c.,

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); lacks part of complimentary close and signature, which are supplied from Tr (DNA: RG 360, DL); caption on latter reads: “To Major Thomas Pinckney.”

As soon as it became apparent during the summer of 1791 that Great Britain was about to send an officially accredited diplomatic representative to the United States a number of aspirants for the post of minister to the Court of St. James appeared. William Knox, U.S. consul in Dublin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, governor of South Carolina, and William Stephens Smith, the former secretary to the American legation in London, were among the most active in seeking the appointment (William Knox to Henry Knox, 18 July 1791 and 3 Aug. 1791, MHi: Knox Papers; Pinckney to Madison, 6 Aug. 1791, Rutland, Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M.E. Rachal, Robert A. Rutland and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, Chicago and Charlottesville, 1962—, 14 vols. description ends , xiv, 66–8; and Smith to John Adams, 21 Oct. 1791, with enclosed letter from Smith to Washington of the same date, MHi: AM). But there is no evidence that their contacts ever brought these candidates to the attention of Washington, perhaps because of the belief that Gouverneur Morris “stands very high in the opinion of the Presidt.” and was destined to be nominated minister to Great Britain (Edward Rutledge, Jr., to William Short, 3 Aug. 1791, DLC: Short Papers).

George Hammond’s arrival in Philadelphia late in October 1791 finally prompted Washington to select the first American minister to London and other European capitals since the adoption of the Constitution. The appointments began with a private consultation between the President and the Secretary of State over Washington’s choices for the more important posts. Without consulting beforehand with any member of his administration, Washington met with TJ on 6 Nov. and unexpectedly informed him that he intended to nominate Thomas Pinckney minister to Great Britain. It is likely that he also mentioned a preference for Gouverneur Morris if Pinckney were to decline, and indicated he might appoint Morris minister to France if Pinckney accepted. TJ had no objections to giving Pinckney a major diplomatic appointment, but Morris’ well known hostility to the French Revolution rendered him undesirable as minister to France in TJ’s view. Accordingly, he tried to persuade the President to send Pinckney to Paris. In drafting the present letter to Pinckney after their meeting, TJ, hoping that Washington was still open to persuasion, left a blank space after the words “to the court of” and transmitted the letter to the President with a promise to fill in the blank “when you shall have made up your mind on it” (TJ to Washington, 6 Nov. 1791; TJ to William Short, 9 Nov. 1791). The subject was again discussed when he met with Washington two days later and suggested that it would be more fitting to send Pinckney to Paris and Morris to London. But Washington, refusing to be swayed by his Secretary of State, returned the Pinckney letter to TJ the next day with instructions to insert London in the blank (Washington to TJ, 9 Nov. 1791, RC in DLC; endorsed as received 9 Nov. 1791 but not recorded in SJL). TJ promptly complied and forwarded the letter to South Carolina with a brief note addressed to “The Post Master at Charleston,” requesting swift and sure conveyance to Pinckney (PrC in DLC; FC in DNA: RG 360, DL). The postmaster replied that he had received this letter on 26 Nov. 1791 and forwarded it immediately, and he now sent Pinckney’s reply of 29 Nov. 1791 (Thomas Hall to TJ, 30 Nov. 1791, RC in DNA: RG 59, MLR; endorsed by TJ as received 14 Dec. 1791 and so recorded in SJL).

TJ’s efforts to prevent Gouverneur Morris’ nomination as minister to France had led him to advise Washington to consider William Short for that crucial diplomatic post, but the President did nothing more than agree to nominate him minister to the Netherlands in the event Morris was dispatched to Paris (TJ to Short, 9 Nov. 1791). The issue was settled when, on 14 Dec. 1791, TJ received a letter from Pinckney announcing his willingness to represent the United States at the Court of St. James. TJ prepared a list of three appointments on 21 Dec. 1791 (Nominations of ministers to France, Great Britain, and Netherlands, 21 Dec. 1791, PrC in DLC), and the next day Washington submitted to the Senate his nominations of Pinckney as minister to Great Britain, of Morris as minister to France, and of Short as minister to The Hague (see Pinckney to TJ, 29 Nov. 1791; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States … to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress, Washington, D.C., 1828 description ends , i, 92). Having failed to prevent Morris’ nomination, TJ suppressed his doubts about the New Yorker’s fitness to represent the American government in France and dutifully supported all three of the President’s nominees in the face of sometimes strong senatorial opposition (see TJ to Short, 3 Jan. 1792; TJ to the Senate, 4 Jan. 1792; TJ to Pinckney, 17 Jan. 1792).

Although Pinckney’s nomination excited little public comment when it was made, it later became a matter of political controversy. In 1799 Tench Coxe, who by then had become a bitter opponent of the Federalists, arranged for the publication in the Philadelphia Aurora of a letter John Adams had written to him in May 1792 which expressed suspicion that the British had unduly influenced Pinckney’s appointment. While Republicans cited this letter as incontrovertible evidence of Federalist subservience to Great Britain, Washington indignantly denied the substance of Adams’ allegation, Pinckney incorrectly denounced the letter as a forgery, and Hamilton cited it in his famous pamphlet attack on Adams during the election of 1800 as irrefutable proof of his contention that Adams was unfit to serve as President (Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, 1931–1944, 39 vols. description ends , xxxvii, 428–9; Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–1979, 26 vols. description ends , xxv, 110 n. 23, 198–204; Jacob E. Cooke, Tench Coxe and the Early Republic [Chapel Hill, 1978], p. 358–60, 378–9). Thus, in a consummate stroke of irony, Washington’s appointment of Pinckney, which in one respect had been intended to strengthen the bonds of union by giving South Carolina her proper share of federal patronage, served in the end to exacerbate the fatal schism among Federalists that played so large a role in bringing about TJ’s election in 1800.

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