Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Shelby, 28 June 1793

To Isaac Shelby

Philadelphia June 28. 1793


The bearer hereof Mr. Michaud is a citizen of the French republic who has resided several years in the US. as the Conductor of a botanical establishment belonging to the French1 nation. He is a man of science and merit, and goes to Kentuckey in pursuit of objects of Natural history and botany, to augment2 the literary acquirements of the two republicks. Mr. Genet the Minister of France here, having expressed to me3 his esteem for Mr. Michaud and good opinion of him, and his wish that he should be made known to you, I take the liberty of recommending him to your notice, your counsels, and good offices.4 His character here persuades me they will be worthily bestowed on him, and that your5 further knowlege of him will justify6 the liberty I take of making him known to you. This will the more need7 justification, as I have not the honor of being personally known to you myself.8 This9 circumstance however has not prevented my entertaining for you those sentiments of esteem and respect which your10 character is entitled to inspire, and which I beg leave to tender you, with sincere assurances of attachment and regard from11 Your Excellency’s Most obedt & most humble servt

PrC (DLC); incorporating some revisions made to Dft on 5 July 1793; at foot of text: “H.E. Governr. Shelby.” Dft (DLC); variant text with penciled emendations added on 5 July 1793. PrC (DLC); lacks penciled emendations. Tr (DLC); 19th-century copy of final PrC. Recorded in SJPL.

Although this letter to the governor of Kentucky appears to be nothing more than a routine introduction for the French botanist André Michaux—who with TJ’s encouragement had accepted a commission from the American Philosophical Society in April 1793 to undertake a search for a western water route to the Pacific—it was also a subtle exercise in calculated ambiguity stemming from two conflicting forces that converged late in June and early in July 1793 with potentially explosive implications. On the one hand, TJ’s conviction that the intrigues of Spanish officials in Louisiana with the Southern Indians were threatening to provoke a war between Spain and the United States predisposed him to look with qualified and unofficial favor on a plan by the French minister, Edmond Charles Genet, to employ Michaux as an agent to help carry out a Girondin-inspired project to liberate Louisiana from Spanish rule using a force of American and Indian volunteers to be raised in Kentucky under the command of the Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. On the other hand, even though the plan might help the United States vindicate its right to navigate the Mississippi, Genet’s increasingly open defiance of American neutrality inclined TJ to distance himself from the obstreperous French minister (Editorial Note on Jefferson and André Michaux’s proposed western expedition, at 22 Jan. 1793; TJ to James Monroe, 28 June 1793; TJ to William Carmichael and William Short, 30 June 1793). In balancing these scientific and political concerns, TJ went as far as he could in his letter to Shelby to encourage Genet’s plans without endorsing his proposed expedition against Louisiana.

Despite identical datelines inscribed on the original and final versions of this letter, TJ prepared them a week apart—the former on 28 June and the latter on 5 July 1793 (Notes of Cabinet Meeting and Conversations with Edmond Charles Genet, 5 July 1793). TJ’s retention of the original date when revising the letter on 5 July has led some historians to conclude that he prepared the final version before Genet revealed his plans for the Louisiana expedition (Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, Boston, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , iii, 105–7; Peterson, Jefferson description begins Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, New York, 1970 description ends , 496–8). While there is reason to question whether TJ was aware of the connection between Michaux’s mission to Kentucky and the projected invasion of Louisiana when he wrote the original version of the letter, there can be no doubt that he knew of Genet’s plans for the expedition when he prepared the final version.

A few months earlier the Secretary of State had learned that France was contemplating an expedition under Francisco de Miranda to seize New Orleans and liberate the Spanish colonies south of it (Notes on Conversations with William Stephens Smith and George Washington, 20 Feb. 1793). Despite the abundant confirmation he received in May and early June of Genet’s unwillingness to respect American neutrality, there is no indication that TJ received any communication from the French minister about his western plans until after the middle of June 1793, when in accordance with his secret instructions Genet began to prepare in earnest for a coordinated land and sea attack on Louisiana. Appointing Michaux as his agent to facilitate matters in Kentucky, Genet asked TJ ca. 21 June to issue an exequatur for a commission naming him French consul in that state, and by the 24th he had prevailed upon Senator John Brown of Kentucky to write letters to Clark and Shelby introducing Michaux. Genet later reported that he had approached Brown on TJ’s recommendation after informing the Secretary of State about the proposed assault on Louisiana, but his dispatches home cannot always be accepted at face value, as Dumas Malone observed in connection with this episode. Moreover, Genet’s notes of a conversation with TJ on 26 June about an expedition against Louisiana remain ambiguous. In any event, although TJ rejected Genet’s request for an exequatur for Michaux, either at this meeting or at one held on the following day, he acceded to his appeal for a letter to Governor Shelby introducing Michaux (Editorial Note on André Michaux’s proposed western expedition, at 22 Jan. 1793; C. S. Sargent, “Portions of the Journal of André Michaux, Botanist, written during his Travels in the United States and Canada, 1785 to 1796,” APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, xxvi [1889], 90–1; Notes of Cabinet Meeting and Conversations with Edmond Charles Genet, 5 July 1793; AHA description begins American Historical Association description ends , Annual Report, 1896, i, 982–3; Genet to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, 25 July 1793, Turner, CFM description begins Frederick Jackson Turner, “Correspondence of French Ministers, 1791–1797,” American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1903, II description ends , 220–2; note to Genet to TJ, 26 June 1793; Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, Boston, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , iii, 107).

Whatever the degree of TJ’s knowledge of the true nature of Michaux’s Kentucky mission on 28 June 1793, the Secretary of State was fully aware of it a week later after Genet unofficially disclosed his plan in considerable detail and asked him to revise his letter to the governor. Retaining the original date in his final version, TJ emphasized at Genet’s request that the botanist enjoyed the French minister’s confidence—a comment Senator Brown had earlier included in his letter to Shelby—but toned down his original broad endorsement of Michaux’s activities (see notes 4 and 6 below). It is possible that TJ kept the earlier date in order to preserve plausible deniability of his knowledge of Michaux’s plans, and indeed some years later he was to stress that he had introduced Michaux as a botanist (Notes on Conversations with Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Benjamin Rush, 27 Mch. 1800). In any event, although TJ warned Genet on 5 July not to enlist Americans in this enterprise, almost two months elapsed before a formal complaint by Spain’s diplomatic agents in Philadelphia compelled him to inform the President of the French minister’s plan to overthrow Spanish rule in Louisiana—a serious omission considering the diplomatic consequences that might have ensued from an attack launched from American territory on part of the Spanish empire. The Secretary of State soon after instructed Shelby to take all necessary steps to thwart Genet’s plan, but there is no evidence that TJ ever disclosed his unofficial knowledge of the French minister’s scheme to the President or the Cabinet (Josef Ignacio de Viar and Josef de Jaudenes to TJ, 27 Aug. 1793, and enclosure; TJ to Shelby, 29 Aug., 6 Nov. 1793). For the collapse of Michaux’s mission to Kentucky and the projected French invasion of Louisiana in the aftermath of the fall of the Girondins in France, see Editorial Note on Jefferson and André Michaux’s proposed western expedition, at 22 Jan. 1793.

1Word interlined in pencil in Dft.

2Dft: “enrich.”

3Preceding two words not in Dft.

4In Dft TJ originally wrote “I take the liberty of making this gentleman known to you, and of recommending him to your notice, your counsels and good offices, as they may respect both his person and pursuits.” He subsequently revised the entire sentence in pencil to read “Mr. Genet the Min. of Fr. here having expressed his esteem for and confidence in Mr. Michaud and his wish that he should be made known to you, I take the liberty of recommending him to your notice, your counsels and good offices.”

5Sentence to this point interlined in pencil in Dft in place of “I am persuaded your.”

6Here in Dft TJ bracketed “any services you may render him, and” for deletion in pencil.

7In Dft TJ first wrote “It will the more require” before altering the passage in pencil to read as above.

8Word interlined in pencil in Dft.

9Sentence to this point in Dft reads: “But this.”

10Here in Dft TJ marked “own” for deletion in pencil.

11In Dft TJ originally wrote “and of which I beg permission to assure you; being with great respect” before revising the passage in pencil to read as above.

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