Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 17 October 1792

To George Washington

Philadelphia Oct. 17. 1792.


In a letter from Monticello I took the liberty of saying that as soon as I should return here, where my letter books were, I would take the liberty of troubling you with the perusal of such parts of my correspondence from France as would shew my genuine sentiments of the new constitution. When I arrived in Philadelphia, the 5th. inst. I found that many of my letters1 had been already put into the papers, by the gentleman possessed of the originals, as I presume, for not a word of it had ever been communicated to me, and the copies I had retained were under a lock of which I had the key. These publications are genuine, and render it unnecessary to give you any further trouble than to see extracts from two or three other letters which have not been published, and the genuine letter for the payment of the French debt. Pardon my adding this to so many troubles as you have. I think it necessary you should know my real opinions that you may know how to make use of me, and it is essential to my tranquillity not to be mis-known to you. I hope it is the last time I shall feel a necessity of asking your attention to a disagreeable subject, being with sincere wishes for your tranquility & happiness, & with perfect respect, Sir Your most obedt & most humble servt

Th: Jefferson

RC (DLC: Washington Papers); at foot of text: “The President of the U.S.”; endorsed by Washington. PrC (DLC: James Monroe Papers). Enclosures: Extracts of (1) TJ to Alexander Donald, 7 Feb. 1788. (2) TJ to Edward Carrington, 27 May 1788. (3) TJ to John Brown Cutting, 8 July 1788 (Trs in DLC: Washington Papers; entirely in TJ’s hand). Fourth enclosure printed below.

This letter and its accompanying enclosures were TJ’s last direct defense of himself against the barrage of public criticism unleashed against him by the Secretary of the Treasury at various intervals during the last half of 1792. In response to a rising tide of Republican criticism of his policies, especially as voiced by the National Gazette under the editorship of Philip Freneau, who was also employed by TJ as a translator in the Department of State, Hamilton set out to undermine his critics by striking back at Freneau and TJ, the man he regarded as the leader of the opposition. To this end Hamilton produced four separate series of pseudonymous newspaper essays that were published in the Gazette of the United State between July and December 1792. Writing first as “T.L.,” then as “An American,” next as “Catullus,” and finally as “Metellus,” Hamilton denounced Freneau as a hireling journalist whose editorial policies were secretly determined by TJ, whom he portrayed as the cunningly ambitious leader of the Republican opposition whose hostility to the Constitution and the funding program threatened to bring economic distress and political instability to the new American nation. Hamilton also accused TJ of impropriety in using his office as Secretary of State to help Freneau establish the National Gazette, a newspaper, Hamilton charged, whose sole purpose was to discredit the very government TJ served. To emphasize TJ’s alleged fiscal and moral irresponsibility, Hamilton maintained that during his ministry to France TJ had dishonorably proposed the transfer of the French debt to a group of Dutch investors. In support of this charge, Hamilton cited a 1787 report of the Board of Treasury, which included a very brief extract from a letter TJ had written to John Jay (see note to enclosure below; and Syrett, Hamilton, description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends xii, 107, 123–4, 157–64, 188–94, 224, 379–85, 393–401, 498–506, 578–87, 613–17, xiii, 229–31, 348–56). According to a Republican partisan in Philadelphia, Hamilton’s criticism on this point carried great weight with the public, because “many, are disposed to think, that the writer speaking from official information, would not have dared, so to state it, if untrue” (John Beckley to James Madison, 2 Sep. 1792, Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, Chicago and Charlottesville, 1962–, 17 vols. description ends , xiv, 355).

Hamilton was recognized almost immediately as the author of these essays. Adhering to his longstanding aversion to public controversy, TJ refused as a matter of principle to don the mask of pseudonymity and reply in kind to the Secretary of the Treasury. Instead, he confined his direct rebuttal of Hamilton’s charges to this letter and one other to the President from Monticello of 9 Sep. 1792.

If TJ was unwilling to become involved directly in newspaper polemics, he was not averse to making indirect use of the press to defend himself against the Secretary of the Treasury. In September 1792 Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser published the first of six unsigned letters, written by James Monroe with the assistance of Madison, which rebutted Hamilton’s accusations point by point. The first two installments described TJ’s genuine sentiments of the new constitution by quoting copiously from a number of letters he had written to Madison during the struggle over ratification, while the third defended TJ’s appointment of Freneau as translator (Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, 22 Sep., 10, 20, and 30 Oct. 1792). Monroe and Madison apparently published these extracts without first securing TJ’s permission, but the Secretary of State did provide Monroe with a copy of the latter part of the enclosure printed below, which in the last three installments Monroe used to good effect in defending TJ against Hamilton’s criticisms in the matter of the proposed transfer of the French debt. Monroe’s efforts nevertheless failed to win a retraction from Hamilton (Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, 8 Nov., 3 and 31 Dec. 1792; Syrett, Hamilton, description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends xii, 229–31, 348–56; and Philip M. Marsh, ed., Monroe’s Defense of Jefferson and Freneau Against Hamilton [Oxford, Ohio, 1948]). For differing assessments of Hamilton’s criticism and TJ’s defense of himself on this issue, see Malone, Jefferson, description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, Boston, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends ii, 457–77, which argues that Hamilton’s attacks unintentionally elevated TJ in public opinion to the top rank among Republican leaders; Peterson, Jefferson description begins Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, New York, 1970 description ends , 471; Mitchell, Hamilton, description begins Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1957–62, 2 vols. description ends ii, 212–13; and McDonald, Hamilton, description begins Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography, New York, 1979 description ends 254–5.

1Preceding two words interlined in place of “them.”

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