Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 18 December 1793

To Edmund Randolph

Philadelphia Dec. 18. 1793.


The Minister Plenipotentiary of France has inclosed to me the copy of a letter of the 16th. inst. which he addressed to you, stating that some libellous publications had been made against him by Mr. Jay, chief Justice of the US. and Mr. King one of the Senators for the state of New York, and desiring that they might be prosecuted. This letter has been laid before the President, according to the request of the Minister, and the President, never doubting your readiness on all occasions to1 perform the functions of your office, yet thinks it incumbent on him to recommend it specially on the present occasion, as it concerns a public character peculiarly entitled to the protection of the laws. On the other hand, as our citizens ought not to be vexed with groundless prosecutions, duty to them requires it to be added, that if you judge the prosecution in question to be of that nature, you consider this recommendation as not extending to it; it’s only object being to engage you to proceed in this case according to the duties of your office, the laws of the land and the privileges of the parties concerned. I have the honor to be with great respect & esteem Sir your most obedt. & most humble servt

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of text: “The Attorney General of the US.” PrC of Tr (DLC); in a clerk’s hand. FC (Lb in DNA: RG 59, DL). Tr (DLC: Genet Papers). Enclosed in TJ to Edmond Charles Genet and to George Washington, both 18 Dec. 1793.

The President approved a draft of this letter and returned it to the Secretary of State this day (Washington, Journal, description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends 269). TJ, however, remained unaware for at least two years that his communication to the Attorney General was partly responsible for eliciting a furious reaction from John Jay and Rufus King (Notes of a Conversation with Randolph, [after 15 Dec. 1795]). Later in the month, in order to enlist public support, Edmond Charles Genet published in Philadelphia newspapers seven letters relating to his demand that the Federal goverment prosecute the Chief Justice and the New York senator for libel for twice asserting in published statements that the French minister had threatened to appeal from the President to the American people during the Little Sarah affair in July 1793. Among these were the one to Randolph printed above and another of the same date from Randolph to Genet, also approved by the President, in which the Attorney General declined to prosecute Jay and King for libel but expressed confidence that Genet could find attorneys to pursue his suit (note to Proposed Public Statement on Edmond Charles Genet, [ca. 16 Dec. 1793]; enclosure to Genet’s second letter to TJ, 16 Dec. 1793, and note; Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser and Gazette of the United States and Evening Advertiser, both 24 Dec. 1793).

Angry at the apparent willingness of the Secretary of State and the Attorney General to allow Genet to take legal action against them, as well as at the President’s seeming approval of this course, Jay and King wrote a sharply worded protest to Washington shortly before TJ retired from office on the last day of 1793. Treating TJ and Randolph with “much severity,” Jay and King defended their conduct in the matter under dispute, complained about the President’s sanction of the two letters in question, demanded that he require TJ to provide them with a certified copy of his 10 July 1793 memorandum on his conversation with Genet about the Little Sarah case, and asked for Washington’s permission to publish it so that they could prove that Genet had indeed made the remark they had attributed to him and thereby defend themselves against his threatened libel suit. While Randolph urged the President to respond with a vigorous defense of the three high officials criticized by Jay and King, and while Alexander Hamilton counseled Washington to give the two irate Federalist leaders a copy of the memorandum they requested without conceding in any way the justice of their strictures against him, Henry Knox urged Jay and King to take back their letter and request a private meeting with Washington to “heal the wound” it had opened. Although they refused to retract their letter, Jay and King did indicate their willingness to meet with the President if he invited them. At length, in a meeting with the Chief Justice arranged by the President, Washington defended himself against Jay and King’s charges in their letter and expressed his belief that “nothing incorrect or unfriendly had been intended by Jefferson or Randolph” in theirs. In reply, Jay emphasized that he and King were entitled to a full disclosure of the facts about the French minister’s threat to appeal to the American people and offered to give Washington the original draft of their letter to him in return for an authenticated copy of TJ’s 10 July 1793 memorandum or at least of that part of it dealing with Genet’s disputed remark.

In accordance with the President’s acceptance of this arrangement, King on 20 Feb. 1794 delivered the draft to Washington, who allowed him to read “a paper in the President’s handwriting justifying his conduct,” after which Washington in King’s presence burned his paper as well as the draft and the recipient’s copy of the letter from Jay and King. On 3 Mch. 1794 the President met with King again and gave him a certificate containing the relevant extract from TJ’s memorandum on the express condition that it was not to be published during his presidency unless “very imperious circumstances” made it necessary, and then only with his consent (Statement by King, Feb. 1794, King, Life, description begins Charles R. King, ed., The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, New York, 1894–1900, 6 vols. description ends i, 476–8; Washington’s Certificate to Jay and King, 3 Mch. 1794, with his condition subjoined, NjP: Andre deCoppet Collection). Jay and King did not have to make use of the certificate because Genet abandoned his plan to sue them for libel after the arrival of the four commissioners the French government had appointed to replace him, the first two of whom reached Philadelphia on the day Washington first met with King (King, Life, description begins Charles R. King, ed., The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, New York, 1894–1900, 6 vols. description ends i, 478; Turner, CFM, description begins Frederick Jackson Turner, “Correspondence of French Ministers, 1791–1797,” American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1903, II description ends 278–9, 308).

1TJ here canceled “comply with the duties.”

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