Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Lee, [before 9] March 1801

From William Lee

Boston [before 9] March 1801—

Encouraged by a most respectable circle of friends I am induced to address the President of the United States on a subject highly interesting to myself and family.—But even with the flattering support which, I have the honor to enclose, I cannot hazard my present application to the supreme magistrate of the american people, without refering him to other partial testimonies in my favor, which, I presume may be found on the files of the Secretary of State. Having been a resident in France for several years, and bred to mercantile pursuits, I have been persuaded to suppose myself qualified to discharge the Office of Consul, in some one of the principal seaports, of that Republic, particularly at Bordeaux where, I have resided at different periods.—Should I meet the approbation of the President of the United States, in such an appointment, I can only promise, that no Exertions, or diligence, shall be wanting to promote the true interests of my country, which, would then be rendered doubly dear, to me, in the obtainment of his confidence.—

With the highest Veneration I have the honor to be the Presidents faithful servant—

William Lee

RC (DNA: RG 59, LAR); dated “March 1801”; at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson President of the United States”; endorsed by TJ as received 9 Mch. and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures: (1) Lee to John Marshall, 14 Nov. 1800, with Lee’s subjoined list of letters already in the secretary of state’s office to support his quest for a consulship, including a letter by envoys Elbridge Gerry, Marshall, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, another from Gerry, two from Benjamin Lincoln, two from William Tudor, one from John Coffin Jones, and one “signed by most of the merchants of Boston.” (2) Lincoln to John Adams, 16 Dec. 1800. (3) Tudor to [Adams], 16 Dec. 1800 (all Trs in same, in Lee’s hand).


William Lee (1772–1840) began his career as a commission merchant in Boston. In 1794 he married Susan Palfrey. Her father, William Palfrey, a Boston merchant who served as paymaster general during the War for Independence, had been made U.S. consul general to France but died in 1780 on his way to take up the post. In 1796 Lee journeyed to Bordeaux on business, traveling also in Britain and Holland and returning to the United States in 1798. Among the people he saw in Europe were Joel Barlow, Elbridge Gerry, and James Monroe. John Marshall, in Paris as a U.S. envoy, called Lee “a gentleman of good connections & good character.” On his return voyage Lee carried letters from various sources directed to recipients in America. After Lee arrived in the United States Oliver Wolcott took possession of a portion of that correspondence, including at least one letter addressed to TJ. Lee hoped for a consular appointment even at that time, and on 3 June 1801 TJ made him commercial agent at Bordeaux. John Adams had named Isaac Cox Barnet to that post, but Barnet was one of the February 1801 nominees who never received letters of appointment after TJ took office. In January 1802 the Senate approved TJ’s appointment of Lee. In 1811, while still holding the Bordeaux consulship, Lee acted as secretary of legation for Barlow, who had been appointed U.S. minister to France. Four years later, Lee schemed with others in an unsuccessful plan to evacuate the defeated Napoleon Bonaparte to America. Resigning his position at Bordeaux in 1816 and returning to the United States, Lee accepted an accounting position in the War Department and within a few months became second auditor of the Treasury. He lost that position in 1829 and spent the remainder of his life in Boston (Mary Lee Mann, ed., A Yankee Jeffersonian: Selections from the Diary and Letters of William Lee of Massachusetts, Written from 1796 to 1840 [Cambridge, Mass., 1958], 2, 52–3, 117, 158–9, 186, 211–12, 233–4, 299–300; Marshall, Papers description begins Herbert A. Johnson, Charles T. Cullen, Charles F. Hobson, and others, eds., The Papers of John Marshall, Chapel Hill, 1974–2006, 12 vols. description ends , 3:397; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States… to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress, Washington, D.C., 1828, 3 vols. description ends , 1:402; Paul H. Smith and others, eds., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. [Washington, D.C., 1976–2000], 1:684; Smith, Freedom’s Fetters description begins James Morton Smith, Freedom’s Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties, Ithaca, N.Y., 1956 description ends , 194–6, 198; Ammon, Monroe description begins Harry Ammon, James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity, New York, 1971 description ends , 351; Vol. 30:175, 183–7, 436, 499; Elbridge Gerry to TJ, 24 Feb., above).

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