George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Marshall, 12 February 1789

From Thomas Marshall

Fayette County [District of Ky.]

Dear General12th Feby 1789

The nature of the subject upon which I do myself the honor to address you will I hope be admitted as an excuse for the trouble you will have in reading this letter. The political situation of this western country appears to me to be something crittical & there therefore I have undertaken tho’ reluctantly to give you a state of facts preceeding our present situation so far as they have fallen within my knowledge.

In the spring 1787 Genl Wilkinson went to New Orleans with a cargo of Tobo. &c. And was requested by the Governor of that place to give his sentiments freely in writing respecting the political interest of Spain and the Americans of the United States inhabiting the western waters. This he did in an Essay as he calls it contain’d in about 15 or 20 sheets of paper. I saw the Governors letter to him acknowledging the receit of it & informing him that he would lay it before the King of Spain; A copy of this essay he produced and read in our late convention held for the District, and as well as my memory (which I acknowledge is not very accurate) serves me the substance of it as follows.1

He urges our natural right of following the current of rivers flowing through our country into the Sea. He states the extent of our country, the richness of our soil abounding in choice productions proper for foreign markets, to which we have no means of conveying them should the Missisipi be shut up against us. He states the advantages Spain might derive from allowing us the free use of that river. He goes on to shew the rappid population of this country and the eagerness with which every individual looks forward to that navigation. He states the general abhorrence with which the people of the western waters recieved the intelligence that Congress was about to sacrifice their dearest interest by ceeding to Spain the navigation of the Missisippi for 29 or 30 years, and represents it as a fact that they are on the point of seperating themselves totally from the union on that account. He addresses himself to their fears by a pompous display of our force & urges that should Spain be so blind to her true interest as to refuse us an amiable participation in the navigation of that river, & thereby forces us into violent measures “Great Britain stands with her arms expanded ready to recieve us” & assist our efforts for the accomplishment of that object, and quotes a conversation he had a few years ago with a member of the British Parliament to that effect. He states the facility with which their province of Louisana might be invaded by the united forces of the British and Americans by means of the river Illinois, and the practicability of proceeding from thence to their province of New Mexico, it not being more than twenty Days. Britain he says will in that case aim at the possession of Louisana & New Orleans for herself & leave the freedom of the navigation to America; and urges pretty forcibly the great danger the Spanish interest in North America would be in from the British power should that nation possess herself of the mouth of the Missisippi and thereby hold the two grand portals of North America—that river and the St Lawrence; and concludes with an apology for the freedom with which he has treated the subject, and adds that it has at their own particular request been drawn from a man “whose head may err but whose heart cannot decieve”.

This essay has I am told been laid before the Court of Madrid; and as a violent seperation from the United States seems to be laid down as the ground work upon which every other consequence depends, I think probably has produced instructions from that Court to the Spanish resident at Congress that if the western Country should declare itself seperate from the Union, to avail himself of that event.2 I found this conjecture upon Mr Browns confidential letters from Congress to his friends in this District, some of those letters I have seen. He mentions that in a private conversation which he had with Don Gardoqui he was informd that so long as this country remained a part of the Union we had nothing to expect from Spain; but were we to declare ourselves seperate from & independant of the United States he was authorised to treat with us respecting commerce and the navigation of the Missisipi. Mr Brown having returnd from Congress was called upon in conversation in Novr last to give such information respecting our affairs in Congress as might be proper for us to know. He told us that he did not think himself at liberty to mention what past in private conversation between himself and Don Gardoqui respecting us: but this much in general he would venture to inform us, that provided we were united in our councils every thing we could wish for was within our reach, meaning as it appeard fully to me that if we would assume government and declare seperate from the union Spain would give us every indulgence we could ask for.3

About this time arived from Canada the famous Doctor (now Colonel) Connelly his ostensible business was to enquire after & repossess himself of some lands he formerly held at the falls of Ohio, but I believe that his real business was to sound the disposition of the leading men of this district respecting this Spanish business.4 He knew that both Colonel Muter5 & myself had given it all the opposition in Convention we were able to do, & before he left the District paid us a visit tho’ neither of us had the honor of the least acquaintance with him. He was introduced by Colonel John Cambell formerly a prisoner taken by the Indians & confined in Canada, who previously inform’d us of the proposition he was about to make.6 He (Connelly) presently enterd upon his subject, Urged the great importance the navigation of the Missisipi must be of to the inhabitants of the western waters, shew’d the absolute necessity of our possessing it and concluded with assurances that were we dispos’d to assert our right respecting that navigation Lord Dorchester was cordially dispos’d to give us powerful assistance;7 that his Lordship had (I think he said) four thousand British Troops in Canada beside two Regiments at Detroit, & could furnish us with arms ammunition cloathing & money: that wth this assistance we might possess ourselves of New Orleans fortify the Balise at the mouth of the river & keep possession inspight of the utmost efforts of Spain to the contrary. He made very confident professions of Lord Dorchesters wishes to cultivate the most friendly intercourse with the people of this country and of his own desire to become serviceable to us & with so much seeming sincerity that had I not before been acquainted with his character as a man of intrigue and artful address I should in all probability have given him my confidence. I told him that the minds of the people of this country were so strongly prejudiced agains[t] the British, not only from circumstances attending the late war, but from a persuasion that the Indians were at this time stimulated by them against us, and that so long as those Savages continued to commit such horrid cruelties on our defenceless frontiers & were recieved as friends and allies by the British at Detroit it would be impossible for them to be convinced of the sincerity of Lord Dorchesters offers let his professions be ever so strong; and that if his Lordship would have us believe him really dispos’d to be our friend he must begin by shewing his disapprobation of the ravages of the Indians. He admitted of the justice of my observation and said he had urged the same to his Lordship before he left Canada. He denied that the Indians are stimulated against us by the British & says Lord Dorchester observ’d that the Indians are free & independant nations & have a right to make peace or war as they think fit, and that he could not with propriety interfere. He promisd however on his return to Canada to repeat his arguments to his Lordship on the subject; and hopes, he says, to succeed. At taking his leave he beg’d very politely the favor of our corrispondance: we both promis’d him provided he would begin it and devise a means of carrying it on. He did not tell me that he was authorised by Lord Dorchester to make us these offers in his name, nor did I ask him; but General Scott informs me that he told him that his Lordship had authorised him to use his name in this business.8

It appears plain to me that the offers of Lord Dorchester as well as those of Spain are founded on a supposition that it is a fact, that we are about to seperate from the Union: else why are these offers not made to Congres⟨s? we⟩ shall I fear never be safe from the machinations of our Enemies as well internal as external until we have a seperate state and are admitted into the union as a federal member. I have the honor to be with the most respectful esteem and regard Your most obedient and very humble servant

T. Marshall


Thomas Marshall (1730–1802), father of Chief Justice John Marshall, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses in the 1760s and 1770s and commanded a Virginia regiment during the Revolution. In 1781 he was appointed surveyor of Fayette County, District of Kentucky, and, probably in late 1782 or early 1783, settled there with his family on a plantation called Buck Pond. He soon became a large landowner. In the mid–1780s Marshall assumed leadership in the “country party,” supporting Virginia’s Kentucky bill which provided for a legal separation of the district from Virginia and protected the existing land titles in Kentucky.

1Serving in the American Revolution as an aide to Horatio Gates and secretary to the Board of War, James Wilkinson (1757–1825) ended the war with a brevet commission of brigadier general. After the war Wilkinson moved to Kentucky and established a tobacco warehouse in the area of present-day Frankfort. During the political crises created by the question of the separation of Kentucky from Virginia, Wilkinson quickly assumed leadership in the so-called court party. Kentuckians had never accepted the closing of the Mississippi to American vessels after the peace in 1783, and the leaders of all parties were deeply disturbed in the mid–1780s by the Jay-Gardoqui negotiations (see James Madison to GW, 26 Sept. 1788, n.1). Leaders of the court party favored immediate separation from Virginia, not only because they considered both Virginia and Congress indifferent to Kentucky’s necessity for free navigation on the Mississippi but also because the act of the Virginia legislature granting Kentucky independence recognized all Virginia land grants as valid, forbade new grants interfering with those already made, stipulated that Kentucky must assume its share of Virginia’s public debt, and provided that Kentucky’s independence would be contingent upon acceptance into the union by the Continental Congress. See “An act concerning the erection of the district of Kentucky, into an independent state” (12 Hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 37–40). In the spring of 1787 Wilkinson decided to chance a trip down the Mississippi to make contact with Spanish officials at New Orleans. After an unsuccessful attempt to secure a passport from the governor of Virginia (see John Marshall to Wilkinson, 5 Jan. 1787, in Johnson and Cullen, Marshall Papers, description begins Herbert A. Johnson et al., eds. The Papers of John Marshall. 12 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1974–2006. description ends 1:199–201), Wilkinson left Kentucky in April 1787 with a flatboat loaded with tobacco and provisions. Reaching New Orleans on 2 July he presented a memorial to the Spanish governor Estéban Miro, 21 Aug. 1787, emphasizing the growing separatist movement in Kentucky and warning that unless the Mississippi was opened to western commerce a filibustering expedition launched against Spanish posts might well open the river by force. To avert this eventuality, Wilkinson suggested, Spain should either offer concessions to Kentuckians in order to build up a Spanish party in the district or encourage immigration from the frontier to Spanish territory. In his memorial Wilkinson contended that a group of leading Kentucky citizens “chafing under the inconveniences and privations they suffer through the restrictions placed on its commerce, suggested and pleaded that I make this voyage in order to penetrate, if this were possible, the attitude of Spain toward their country and to discover, if this were practicable, whether it would be agreeable to open a negotiation, to admit us under its protections as vassals, with certain privileges in matters of religion and politics. . . . I would have brought my commission in writing from Kentucky (about to become a free and independent State) were it not that it continues to be subordinated to the republic of Virginia, but as I observed above that the people of this district, after they have organized their government will make their representation to the Court of Spain upon the subject. . . . I will with the greatest satisfaction employ all my abilities to this end” (Littell, Political Transactions, description begins William Littell. Political Transactions in and concerning Kentucky, From the First Settlement Thereof, Until it Became an Independent State in June, 1792. 1806. Reprint. Filson Club Publications: No. 31. Louisville, Ky., 1926. description ends cxxxiv). Wilkinson’s memorial was transmitted to the Spanish ministry on 25 Sept. 1787 by Miro and Martin Navarro, together with Miro’s and Navarro’s reply to Wilkinson, dated 6 September. Copies of these documents are in Archivo General de Indias, Santo Domingo, legajo 2552. By late February 1788 Wilkinson was back in Kentucky (Kentucke Gazette [Lexington], 1 Mar. 1788).

The “late convention” to which Marshall refers was Kentucky’s seventh statehood convention, which convened on 3 Nov. 1788 at Danville. The abbreviated accounts of the convention published in the Kentucke Gazette, 30 Jan. and 7 Feb. 1789, and in Brown, Political Beginnings of Kentucky, description begins John Mason Brown. The Political Beginnings of Kentucky. A Narrative of Public Events Bearing on the History of that State up to the Time of Its Admission into the American Union. Louisville, Ky., 1889. description ends 257–63, make no mention of Wilkinson’s reading of the essay, but on 10 Nov. the convention “Resolved, That this Convention highly approve the Address presented by Gen’l James Wilkinson to the Governor and Intendant of Louisiana, and that the President be requested to present him the thanks of the Convention for the regard which he therein manifested for the Interest of the Western Country” (ibid., 263). Since the minutes of the convention do not relate the proceedings of the committee of the whole into which the convention resolved itself on most days, Wilkinson’s paper may have been read on one of these occasions. On 6 Nov. the convention appointed a committee, including Wilkinson, Marshall, Harry Innes, George Muter, and John Brown, to draw up an address to Congress for procuring “the Navigation of the River Mississippi.” The committee reported on 10 Nov., and Wilkinson read the address to the convention. The address bears little resemblance to Marshall’s description of Wilkinson’s remarks (see ibid., 260–61). Since the portions of the “essay” paraphrased by Marshall, however, are remarkably similar to Wilkinson’s first memorial to Spanish officials at New Orleans, Wilkinson probably read an expurgated version of this memorial. In his History of Kentucky, 1:359–61, Humphrey Marshall (1760–1841), nephew and supporter of Thomas Marshall, gives a version of Wilkinson’s essay in virtually the same words used by Marshall in his letter to GW, noting that it is a “faithful transcript from the notes of one of the members of the convention.” The notes may well have been kept by Thomas Marshall.

2For the reaction of the Spanish council of state to Wilkinson’s proposals, see its decision dated 20 Nov. 1788, in Archivo Historico-Nacional, Madrid, Estado, legajo 3893A. A translation is in William R. Shepherd, ed., “Papers Bearing on James Wilkinson’s Relations with Spain, 1787–1789,” American Historical Review, 9 (1903–4), 749–50.

3John Brown (1757–1837), a native of Staunton, Va., served under Lafayette during the Revolution and studied law under Thomas Jefferson. In 1783 he moved to Kentucky and settled first at Danville and later at Frankfort. He was a member of the Virginia legislature from 1784 to 1788 and in 1787 and 1788 served in the Continental Congress. While he was in New York he presented Kentucky’s petition for statehood to Congress and, disillusioned with its reception, entered in June 1788 into discussions with Diego de Gardoqui, the Spanish representative to the United States. Brown’s “confidential letters” from New York to various friends in Kentucky included a letter to George Muter, 10 July 1788, in which he informed Muter of the lack of progress in Congress concerning the admission of Kentucky as a state: “The change which has taken place in the general government is made the ostensible objection to the measure; but the jealousy of the growing importance of the Western Country, and an unwillingness to add a vote to the southern interest, are the real causes of opposition, and I am inclined to believe that they will exist to a certain degree even under the new government. . . . In private conferrences which I have had with Mr. Gardoqui the Spanish minister at this place, I have been assured by him in the most explicit terms, that if Kentucky will declare her independence, and impower some proper person to negociate with him, that he has authority, and will engage to open the navigation of the Mississippi, for the exportation of their produce, on terms of mutual advantage” (Palladium [Frankfort, Ky.], 4 Sept. 1806). This letter, which was originally published in the Kentucke Gazette, 4 Sept. 1790, became one of the key documents in the charges made against Brown and Wilkinson in 1806 regarding their role in the so-called Spanish Conspiracy (see George Muter’s letter to the editor, 20 Aug. 1806, Palladium, 4 Sept. 1806). For Gardoqui’s account of his conversations with Brown, see his dispatch to Count Floridablanca, 25 July 1788, translation in Brown, Political Beginnings of Kentucky description begins John Mason Brown. The Political Beginnings of Kentucky. A Narrative of Public Events Bearing on the History of that State up to the Time of Its Admission into the American Union. Louisville, Ky., 1889. description ends , 146–48.

5George Muter (c.1730–1811), a native of Scotland, served in a Virginia artillery regiment during the Revolution and as commissioner of the Virginia war office. In 1785 he was appointed a district judge for Kentucky, and he was judge of the Kentucky appellate court from 1792 to 1806.

6John Campbell (d. 1799), who immigrated to America from Ireland in the 1760s, served for some years as a clerk for George Croghan in the Indian trade and then turned to land speculation. During the Revolution he operated a fur trading company at Pittsburgh in partnership with Joseph Simon. Campbell was taken prisoner on the Ohio around 1779 and was confined in Detroit and Quebec until the end of the war. By the late 1780s he claimed some four thousand acres of land, much of it in the area of the Falls of the Ohio (now Louisville). Campbell represented Jefferson County in the Virginia legislature, 1786–88 and 1790–91. An advocate of separation from Virginia, Campbell attended several of the Kentucky statehood conventions.

7Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester (1724–1808), was appointed lieutenant governor of Quebec in 1766 and from 1768 to 1778 was governor. Carleton was in charge of the defense of Canada against the American invasion in the early years of the war, and from 1782 to 1783 he was British commander in chief in North America. In 1786 he was appointed governor in chief of the province of Quebec and in 1791 governor in chief and captain general of the British provinces in North America, a post he held until 1796.

8Charles Scott (c.1739–1813) had a distinguished career in the Continental army, ending the war with the brevet rank of major general. Appointed in 1783 by the Virginia legislature to supervise the location of bounty lands on the frontier, he moved to Kentucky in 1785 and settled in Fayette (later Woodford) County. In 1789 and 1790 he was a member of the Virginia assembly. His military service on the frontier included participation in the ill-fated Harmar and St. Clair expeditions and an expedition against the Indians on the Wabash. In 1794 he was in command of 1,500 mounted Kentucky volunteers during the Wayne campaign against the western tribes. In 1808 he was elected governor of Kentucky.

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