Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael and William Short, 23 March 1793

To William Carmichael and William Short

Mar. 23.1 1793.


It is intimated to us, in such a way as to attract our attention, that France means to send a strong force early this spring to offer independance to the Spanish American colonies, beginning with those on the Missisipi: and that she will not object to the receiving those on the East side into our confederation.2 Interesting considerations require that we should keep ourselves free to act in this case according to circumstances, and consequently that you should not, by any clause of treaty, bind us to guarantee any of the Spanish colonies against their own independance,3 nor indeed against any other nation. For when we thought we might guarantee Louisiana on their ceding the Floridas to us, we apprehended it would be seised by Great Britain who would thus completely encircle us with her colonies and fleets. This danger is now4 removed by the concert between Great Britain and Spain: and the times will soon enough give independance, and consequently free commerce to our neighbors, without our risking the involving ourselves in a war for them.

Dft (DLC); en clair text written and signed by TJ on 21 or 22 Mch. 1793, then substantially revised and date reworked on 23 Mch. 1793 (see note 3 below); at head of text: “to be in cypher”; at foot of text in the hand of George Washington: “The above meets the approbation of Go: Washington”; enclosed as emended in TJ to Washington, 24 Mch. 1793. RC (William M. Elkins, Philadelphia, 1945); unsigned; with reworked date (see note 1 below); in code except for salutation, dateline, and names of addressees, with interlined decipherment in Short’s hand; at foot of text: “Messrs. Carmichael & Short.” PrC (DLC); with date reworked in ink by TJ. FC (Lb in DNA: RG 59, DCI); entirely en clair; includes “Philadelphia” in dateline and contains complimentary close and TJ’s name at foot of text. The Editors have verified the Dft against the encoded RC and Short’s interlinear decipherment using partially reconstructed Code No. 10. RC enclosed in TJ to David Humphreys, 22 Mch. 1793.

This instruction to the American commissioners in Madrid, triggered by intelligence recently received from William Stephens Smith that France would send a strong force early this spring to liberate the Spanish colonies in America, reflected a significant change in the Washington administration’s policy toward Spain (see Notes on Conversations with William Stephens Smith and George Washington, 20 Feb. 1793). When Great Britain and Spain nearly went to war in 1790 over the Nootka Sound crisis, TJ had instructed Carmichael to explore the prospects of obtaining all Spanish territory east of the Mississippi in return for an American guarantee of her trans-Mississippi possessions. The peaceful resolution of this confrontation made such an agreement very unlikely. Although TJ did not withdraw the authorization to Carmichael, he did not mention the scheme in later letters to him and gave it only passing reference in the otherwise comprehensive report on Spanish negotiations he sent to the commssioners in March 1792 (TJ to Carmichael, 2 Aug. 1790, and enclosure, Document ii in a group of documents on the war crisis of 1790, in Vol. 17: 111–17; Report on Negotiations with Spain, 18 Mch. 1792).

If the original guarantee was no longer in the forefront of the Secretary of State’s thinking, he was nevertheless still prepared to sanction a more limited guarantee as late as 22 Mch. 1793, when he sent the President a draft of the present letter offering, in exchange for the Floridas, to guarantee Spanish possession of Louisiana against Britain, though not against a bid for independence by its own inhabitants. The decision only a day later to abandon the guarantee altogether very likely resulted from the President’s initiative, for he did not approve the draft when the Secretary of State submitted it on 22 Mch. Two days later, however, after reading the draft as revised by TJ, Washington took the unusual step of inscribing it with his formal approval, which was also registered emphatically in the President’s journal. Although the growing concert between great Britain and Spain, capped by their treaty of alliance of 25 May 1793, would soon remove any need by Spain to negotiate such a guarantee, TJ had received no foreign dispatches about this rapprochement between writing and revising the draft that might have led him to change his strategy. Rather it seems likely that Washington had become wary of any guarantee that might lead to war with Britain, even in exchange for major territorial advantages (TJ to Washington, 24 Mch. 1793; Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 99, 104; Bemis, Pinckney’s Treaty description begins Samuel Flagg Bemis, Pinckney’s Treaty: America’s Advantage from Europe’s Distress, 1783–1800, rev. ed., New Haven, 1960 description ends , 169).

With this dispatch TJ sent another copy of a 15 Nov. 1781 letter from Lachlan McIntosh to Edward Telfair and Noble Wymberly Jones, then Georgia delegates to the Confederation Congress, supporting the American position on the disputed Florida-Georgia boundary (PrC of Tr in DLC; in a clerk’s hand, but partly overwritten in a later hand; at head of text in TJ’s hand in ink: “Copy” and “3plicate sent by Capt. Cutting. Mar. 23. 93.”; recorded in SJL under 23 Mch. 1793). TJ had previously enclosed a copy of the letter with his 18 Mch. 1792 instructions to the commissioners (see note to Report on Negotiations with Spain, 18 Mch. 1792).

1Second digit reworked from “1” or “2” in Dft and RC. TJ made the same alteration in ink on the PrC.

2TJ first wrote “confederacy” before altering the word.

3Remainder of text substituted for “but only <against Gr> that of Louisiana against those who hold Canada also, and that only in consideration of their ceding the Floridas to us. We are very anxious to hear from you. Th: Jefferson.” TJ canceled this passage, together with the subjoined address to “Messrs. Carmichael & Short,” after conferring with Washington.

4Word interlined.

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