Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, with Levi Lincoln, [17] March 1801

To David Humphreys, with Levi Lincoln

Department of State
Washington [17] March 1801


Mr. Madison the Secretary of State being not yet arrived at this place, and a favorable apportunity of addressing you, offering itself by a government vessel going to France with our late convention with that country, I avail myself of it being authorized by the President of the United States to perform the duties of this department per interim. The Country in which you reside having as well in itself, as in its foreign possessions many interesting relations with ours, its government will naturally be anxious, on the late entire change of administration, to learn something of its dispositions towards that government. I therefore embrace this early occasion of authorising you to assure them on the part of the President that he considers the relations of friendship and commerce subsisting between the two nations as among the first in importance to the interests and prosperity of those over whom he presides, that he will cause to be observed with fidelity all the offices of good neighborhood towards the adjoining possessions of Spain, and particularly encourage the Indians, neighbor to both countries, in the preservation of peace and friendship with its subjects, firmly persuaded, from the long established character of the Spanish government for rectitude and good faith, that it will reciprocate towards us dispositions which may so much contribute to mutual interest and prosperity.

The President learns with regret on his coming to the helm of government that the two countries will no longer be benefited by the intermediation of the Chevalier de Yrujo the present envoy of Spain residing here: the good sense, honor and friendly dispositions of that gentleman could not fail to render him an useful organ of communication between the two countries, and he will carry with him our best wishes for his personal welfare, this testimony in his favor is but an act of justice to him, and is rendered as such with sincerity and satisfaction. Be pleased to communicate it to his government. I am desired by the President to recall to your recollection that previous to your departure from New York on your appointment to the court of Lisbon, he informed you of a rule of practice which he had recommended to General Washington and which was approved by him, as one to which we would conform generally, that no person should remain in foreign mission beyond the term of six or seven years. In a country changing so rapidly as this does, one who has been absent that term knows little more of it than an entire stranger, you were probably sensible of this during the first, tho’ a short term of your absence in Europe; You have now been absent nearly eleven years, the change has never been greater than within that period, of this you will be more sensible on your return than those who have remained here. The President on this consideration solely, proposes shortly to name a successor to you, of which this intimation is given at present that you may have the more time for those preparatory arrangements which such a circumstance may require, not doubting that yourself will be sensible of the expediency of observing a condition deemed useful for the public, and notified at the time of your appointment, the President wishes to consider this return as consistent with your own desires, and to make the nomination on that ground, this will take place at an early period, but the precise time of departure of your successor cannot now be ascertained, so however as to secure you time for a passage before the winter sets in.

I have the honor to be &c.

Levi Lincoln

FC (Lb in DNA: RG 59, DCI); in a clerk’s hand; at head of text: “David Humphreys Esqr.”; day of month left blank in dateline, but Humphreys acknowledged this as a letter of 17 Mch. (Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser., 1:361); in margin: “This letter should have been Recorded among the March letters.” Not recorded in SJL.

For TJ’s composition of this letter, see TJ to Thomas McKean, 26 Mch.

Country in which you reside: Humphreys had been minister plenipotentiary to Spain since 1796. He was named minister to the Portuguese court at Lisbon in 1791. He was already in Europe at that time. TJ may have told him about the rule of practice governing the tenure of diplomatic appointments in August 1790, when Humphreys, who had been George Washington’s secretary, prepared to leave the United States on a secret diplomatic mission (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; Vol. 17:125–6; Vol. 19:294, 572–4).

On 6 June 1801 TJ addressed a letter to King Carlos stating that he had granted Humphreys permission to return to the United States and had directed the departing minister “to assure you of our friendship and sincere desire to preserve and strengthen the harmony and confidence, which so happily subsist between the two nations. We are persuaded, that he will do this in the manner most expressive of these sentiments and of the respect with which they are offered. We pray God to keep your Majesty under his holy protection” (FC in Lb in DNA: RG 59, Credences; in a clerk’s hand, including TJ’s signature and Madison’s countersignature; at foot of text in Jacob Wagner’s hand: “To our Great and Good Friend His Catholic Majesty”).

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