Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 30 December 1793

To George Washington

Philadelphia, Decr. 30.1 1793.


Certain proceedings of the Ministers of the United States abroad, on behalf of M. de la Fayette rendering it necessary that I should do myself the honor of addressing you on that subject in order that the proper sanction may be obtained for what is done, I shall2 be justified by the interest which yourself and our fellow citizens generally feel in the fortunes and sufferings of that Gentleman in suggesting something more for his future aid.

Soon after his captivity and imprisonment, and before the Ministers had received our instructions to endeavor to obtain his liberation, they were apprised that his personal restraint, and the peculiar situation of his fortune disabled3 him from drawing resources from that, and would leave him liable to suffer for4 subsistence, and the common necessaries of life. After a consultation by letter, therefore, between our ministers at Paris, London, and the Hague, they concurred in opinion that they ought not in such a case to wait for instructions from hence, but that his necessities should be provided for until they could receive such instructions. Different sums have been therefore either placed at his disposal, or answered on his draughts, amounting, as far as we hitherto know to about twelve or thirteen hundred Guineas. This has been taken from a fund not applicable by law to this purpose nor able to spare it: and the question is whether, and how it is to be made good? To do this, nothing more is requisite than that the United States5 should not avail themselves of the Liberalities of M. de la Fayette, yielded at a moment when neither he nor we could foresee the time when they would become his only resource for subsistence. It appears by a statement from the War Office, hereto annexed, that his pay and commutation as a major General in the service of the United States, to the 3rd. of Nov. 1783. amounted to 24,100 dolls. thirteen Cents exclusive of ten years interest elapsed since that time, to the payment of which the following obstacle has occurred. At the foot of the original engagement by Mr. Deane, a copy of which is hereto annexed,6 that a certain roll of officers there named, and of which M. de la Fayette was one, should be taken into the american service in the grades there specified, M. de la Fayette alone has subjoined for himself a declaration that he would serve without any particular allowance or pension. It may be doubted whether the words in the original French do strictly include the general allowance of pay and commutation.7 And if they do, there is no8 evidence of any act of acceptance by Congress. Yet, under all the circumstances of the case, it is thought that the legislature alone is competent to decide it. If they decline availing the United States of the declaration of M. de la Fayette, it leaves a fund which not only covers the advances which have been made, but will enable you to take measures for his future relief. It does it too, in a way which can give offence to nobody, since none have a right to complain of the payment of a debt, that being a moral duty, from which we cannot be discharged by any relation in which the creditor may be placed as to them. I therefore take the liberty of proposing that this matter may be submitted to the consideration of the Legislature, who will determine in their wisdom whether the supplies already furnished, or any others in future, shall be sanctioned by them, and made good in the way here suggested, or in any other which they shall deem more proper. I have the honor to be, with the most perfect respect & attachment, Sir, Your most obedient and most humble servant

Th: Jefferson

RC (DNA: RG 46, Senate Records, 3d Cong., 1st sess.); in the hand of George Taylor, Jr., signed by TJ; at foot of first page: “The President of the US.”; with date reworked. Dft (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand; dated 31 Dec. 1793; only the most significant emendations are recorded below. Tr (Lb in DNA: RG 46, Senate Records, 3d Cong., 1st sess., TR). Not recorded in SJL. Enclosures: (1) Baron de Kalb, Lafayette, and Silas Deane, List of officers of infantry and light troops destined for service in the Continental Army, Paris, 7 Dec. 1776, showing that, among the twelve French and German officers whose ranks and initial dates of service were listed, Lafayette was to serve as a major general beginning 7 Dec. 1776; subjoined to which were statements of the same date by Deane, explaining that he had offered this rank to Lafayette, subject to congressional approval, because he would not accept a lesser one and because of the desirability of attaching such a prominent French noble to the American cause, and by Lafayette, announcing that he would serve the United States “sans aucune Pension ny traittement particulier” while reserving the liberty of returning to France when recalled by his family or his king (Tr in DNA: RG 46, Senate Records, 3d Cong., 1st sess.; with list in English and subjoined statements in French and English; Tr in Lb in same, TR). (2) Enclosure No. 2 listed at Henry Knox to TJ, 24 Dec. 1793. Letter and enclosures enclosed in George Washington to the Senate and the House of Representatives, 30 Dec. 1793.

In conformity with TJ’s recommendation, Congress in March 1794 passed an act making available to Lafayette 24,424 dollars, “being the amount of the pay and emoluments of a Major General during the time he was in the service of the United States, and that the same be paid out of any moneys which may be in the Treasury, and not otherwise appropriated” (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. The first two volumes of the set cited here have “Compiled … by Joseph Gales, Senior” on the title page and bear the caption “Gales & Seatons History” on verso and “of Debates in Congress” on recto pages. The remaining volumes bear the caption “History of Congress” on both recto and verso pages. Those using the first two volumes with the latter caption will need to employ the date of the debate or the indexes of debates and speakers. description ends , iv, 1428). For American efforts to succor Lafayette and speed his release from Prussian and Austrian captivity, see note to TJ to Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Pinckney, 15 Mch. 1793.

1Altered from “31.”

2In Dft TJ here canceled “indulge.”

3In Dft TJ first wrote “his own fortune <would leave him> rend” and then altered it to read as above.

4Preceding four words interlined in Dft in place of “as to the article of.”

5In Dft TJ first wrote “To do this, no new grants are necessary from the US. But only that they” and then altered it to read as above.

6Preceding clause interlined in Dft.

7In Dft TJ here canceled “However it may be well conceived that the officers of the government would not undertake in a case of doubtful construction.”

8In Dft TJ here canceled “other.”

Index Entries