Thomas Jefferson Papers

The Senate to John Adams, [23 May 1797]

The Senate to John Adams

[23 May 1797]


The Senate of the United States request you to accept their acknowledgments for the comprehensive and interesting detail you have given, in your speech to both Houses of Congress, on the existing state of the Union.

While we regret the necessity of the present meeting of the Legislature, we wish to express our entire approbation of your conduct in convening it on this momentous occasion.

The superintendance of our national faith, honour and dignity, being, in a great measure, constitutionally deposited with the Executive, we observe, with singular satisfaction, the vigilance, firmness and promptitude exhibited by you, in this critical state of our public affairs, and from thence derive an evidence and pledge of the rectitude and integrity of your administration. And we are sensible, it is an object of primary importance, that each branch of the government should adopt a language and system of conduct, which shall be cool, just and dispassionate; but firm, explicit and decided.

We are equally desirous, with you, to preserve peace and friendship with all nations, and are happy to be informed, that neither the honour or interests of the United States forbid advances for securing those desirable objects, by amicable negociation, with the French republic. This method of adjusting national differences, is not only the most mild, but the most rational and humane, and with governments disposed to be just, can seldom fail of success, when fairly, candidly and sincerely used. If we have committed errors, and can be made sensible of them, we agree with you, in opinion, that we ought to correct them, and compensate the injuries, which may have been consequent thereon, and we trust the French republic will be actuated by the same just and benevolent principles of national policy.

We do therefore most sincerely approve of your determination to promote and accelerate an accommodation of our existing differences with that republic by negociation, on terms compatible with the rights, duties, interests and honour of our nation. And you may rest assured of our most cordial co-operation so far as it may become necessary in this pursuit.

Peace and harmony with all nations is our sincere wish; but such being the lot of humanity that nations will not always reciprocate peaceable dispositions: it is our firm belief that, effectual measures of defence, will tend to inspire that national self-respect and confidence at home, which is the unfailing source of respectability abroad, to check aggression and prevent war.

While we are endeavouring to adjust our differences with the French republic by amicable negociation, the progress of the war in Europe, the depredations on our commerce, the personal injuries to our citizens and the general complexion of affairs, prove to us your vigilant care, in recommending to our attention, effectual measures of defence.

Those which you recommend, whether they relate to external defence, by permitting our citizens to arm for the purpose of repelling aggressions on their commercial rights, and by providing sea convoys, or to internal defence, by increasing the establishments of artillery and cavalry, by forming a provisional army, by revising the militia laws and fortifying, more completely, our ports and harbours, will meet our consideration under the influence of the same just regard for the security, interest and honour of our country, which dictated your recommendation.

Practices so unnatural and iniquitous, as those you state, of our own citizens, converting their property and personal exertions into the means of annoying our trade, and injuring their fellow-citizens, deserve legal severity commensurate with their turpitude.

Although the Senate believe, that the prosperity and happiness of our country does not depend on general and extensive political connexions with European nations, yet we can never lose sight of the propriety as well as necessity of enabling the Executive, by sufficient and liberal supplies, to maintain, and even extend our foreign intercourse, as exigencies may require, reposing full confidence in the Executive, in whom the constitution has placed the powers of negotiation.

We learn with sincere concern, that attempts are in operation to alienate the affections of our fellow-citizens from their government. Attempts so wicked, wherever they exist, cannot fail to excite our utmost abhorrence. A government chosen by the people for their own safety and happiness, and calculated to secure both, cannot lose their affections, so long as its administration pursues the principles upon which it was erected. And your resolution to observe a conduct just and impartial to all nations, a sacred regard to our national engagements, and not to impair the rights of our government, contains principles which cannot fail to secure to your administration the support of the National Legislature, to render abortive every attempt to excite dangerous jealousies among us, and to convince the world that our government and your administration of it, cannot be separated from the affectionate support of every good citizen. And the Senate cannot suffer the present occasion to pass, without thus publicly and solemnly expressing their attachment to the constitution and government of their country, and as they hold themselves responsible to their constituents, their consciences and their God, it is their determination by all their exertions to repel every attempt to alienate the affections of the people from the government, so highly injurious to the honour, safety and independence of the United States.

We are happy, since our sentiments on the subject are in perfect unison with yours, in this public manner to declare, that we believe the conduct of the government has been just and impartial to foreign nations, and that those internal regulations which have been established for the preservation of peace, are in their nature proper, and have been fairly executed.

And we are equally happy, in possessing an entire confidence in your abilities and exertions in your station, to maintain untarnished, the honour, preserve the peace, and support the independence of our country; to acquire and establish which, in connexion with your fellow-citizens, has been the virtuous effort of a principal part of your life.

To aid you in the honourable and arduous exertions, as it is our duty, so it shall be our faithful endeavour. And we flatter ourselves, Sir, that the proceedings of the present session of Congress will manifest to the world, that although the United States love peace, they will be independent. That they are sincere in their declarations to be just to the French, and all other nations, and expect the same in return.

If a sense of justice, a love of moderation and peace, shall influence their councils, which we sincerely hope, we shall have just grounds to expect, peace and amity between the United States and all nations will be preserved.

But if we are so unfortunate, as to experience injuries from any foreign power, and the ordinary methods by which differences are amicably adjusted between nations shall be rejected, the determination “not to surrender in any manner the rights of the government,” being so inseparably connected with the dignity, interest and independence of our country, shall, by us, be steadily and inviolably supported.

Thomas Jefferson { Vice-President of the
United States and
President of the Senate.

FC (smooth journal in DNA: RG 46, Senate Records, 5th Cong., 1st sess.); under this date; in a clerk’s hand. Printed in JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1820–21, 5 vols. description ends , ii, 363–5.

Although a committee dominated by Federalists composed this communication, it was TJ’s responsibility as president of the Senate to read the address to John Adams. Immediately after Adams delivered his message to Congress on 16 May, the Senate named three Federalists—Uriah Tracy of Connecticut, John Laurance of New York, and Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire—to prepare an answer, a draft of which was presented two days later. The committee report included only a brief consideration of negotiations with France, noting that the door “ought still to remain unclosed,” and emphasized instead support for the specific defense measures advocated by Adams. It contrasted the impartial foreign policy of the United States with the injuries inflicted on the country by France, concluding that if “they will not hear, nor even receive our Ministers and neither listen to just terms of accommodation, nor offer us any but unconditional submission,” appropriate action needed to be taken to maintain the rights of the United States (committee report of [18 May 1797] in DNA: RG 46, Senate Records, 5th Cong., 1st sess., in Tracy’s hand and endorsed as “1st Draft” of report on president’s message). TJ characterized the report as “perfectly an echo and full as high toned” as the president’s speech (TJ to Madison, 18 May 1797).

The following day, however, the Senate recommitted the report and added Henry Tazewell and John Henry to the committee. The subsequent report of 20 May differed substantially from the first one. While there is no evidence that TJ influenced the composition of the revised report, how to respond to the president’s address may have been discussed at the hotel where TJ and Henry resided. TJ credited Henry with objecting to the 18 May report and obtaining its recommittal, which led to “considerable alterations.” TJ also had a close relationship with Tazewell and was known to communicate with him on Senate committee business (TJ to Madison, 1 June 1797; TJ to Tazewell, 27 Jan. 1798). The changes from the 16 May report included an expanded emphasis on amicable negotiation with the French Republic, a promise to consider the measures of defence advocated by Adams but without an enthusiastic endorsement of them, and an elimination of criticisms directed expressly at the French, including the insinuation that they were attempting to alienate the American people from their government, stressing instead that the government would retain the affections of the people as long as it was administered according the principles upon which it was erected. Senate Republicans also attempted to delete the paragraph that declared that the administration had been just and impartial to foreign nations and had fairly executed regulations established for the preservation of peace. On 23 May the Senate decided, by an 11 to 15 vote, to retain the paragraph, adopted the report, and made arrangements to present it to the president (committee report of 20 May 1797 in DNA: RG 46, Senate Records, 5th Cong., 1st sess., in a clerk’s hand; Tazewell to Madison, 4 June, 1797 in Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, J. C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, Chicago and Charlottesville, 1962– , 26 vols. Sec. of State Ser., 4 vols. description ends , xvii, 15; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1820–21, 5 vols. description ends , ii, 362–3).

On 24 May, TJ and the Senate went to the president’s residence and, in the manner established during Washington’s administration, TJ verbally delivered the Senate’s address. While as vice president Adams had routinely left the seat of government before Congress adjourned, only once did he fail to arrive at the opening of a session in time to deliver the Senate’s address. In contrast, this is the only instance in which TJ performed this function. Subsequently he arrived after the response had been given, allowing the president of the Senate pro tempore to carry out the duty (JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1820–21, 5 vols. description ends , i, 22–3, 104–5, 221, 331–2, 457, II, 9, 127, 197–8, 300–302, 365, 410–11, 562, III, 7–8, 109; TJ to Mary Jefferson Eppes, 1 Jan. 1799).

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