George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 13 October 1789

To Gouverneur Morris

New York 13th October 1789


My letter to you, herewith inclosed,1 will give you the Credence necessary to enable you to do the Business which it commits to your management, and which I am persuaded you will readily undertake.

Your inquiries will commence by observing, that as the present Constitution of Government and the Courts established in pursuance of it remove the objections heretofore made to putting the United States in possession of their frontier posts, it is natural to expect from the assurances of his Majesty and the national good faith, that no unnecessary delays will take place.2 Proceed then to press a speedy performance of the treaty, respecting that object.

Remind them of the article by which it was agreed that negroes belonging to our Citizens should not be carried away; and of the reasonableness of making compensation for them.3 Learn with precision, if possible, what they mean to do on this head.

The commerce between the two Countries you well understand—you are apprized of the sentiments and feelings of the United States on the present State of it; and you doubtless have heard that in the late Session of Congress, a very respectable number of both Houses were inclined to a discrimination of duties unfavorable to Britain; and that it would have taken place but for concilitary considerations, and the probability that the late change in our Government and circumstances would lead to more satisfactory arrangements.4

Request to be informed therefore, whether they contemplate a treaty of commerce with the United States, and on what principles or terms in general. In treating this subject, let is be strongly impressed on your mind, that the privileges of carrying our productions in our vessels to their Islands, and bringing in return the productions of those Islands to our own ports and markets, is regarded here as of the highest importance, and you will be careful not to countenance any idea of our dispensing with it in a treaty. Ascertain if possible their views on this point; for it would not be expedient to commence negociations without previously having good reasons to expect a satisfactory termination of them.

It may also be well for you to take a proper occasion of remarking, that their omitting to send a Minister here, when the United States sent one to London, did not make an agreeable impression on this Country; and request to know what would be their future conduct on similar occasions.

It is in my opinion very important that we avoid errors in our system of policy respecting Great Britain, and this can only be done by forming a right judgment of their disposition and views. Hence you will perceive how interesting it is that you obtain the information in question, and that the business be so managed, as that it may receive every advantage which abilities address and delicacy can promise and afford. I am Sir your most obedt humble servant

Go. Washington

LB, DNA: RG 59, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to France; LB, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, Records of Executive Proceedings, President’s Messages—Foreign Relations.

In the fall of 1789 GW considered sending an unofficial envoy to Great Britain to settle outstanding problems between that country and the United States. Among the points of contention were the retention by the British of the western posts on United States territory, the delay in the payment of British creditors by several of the states, and the lack of a commercial treaty between the two powers. Earlier attempts during the Confederation years for similar conversations and for an exchange of ministers had resulted in rebuffs by the British government. If the appointment of the envoy was unofficial, there would be less risk of humiliation for the administration if the British refused to negotiate. On 7 Oct. GW approached John Jay “on the propriety of takg. informal means of ascertaining the views of the British Court with respect to our Western Posts in their possession and to a Commercial treaty” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:454). Jay had just communicated to GW the purport of instructions received by Sir John Temple, the British consul in New York, from the duke of Leeds, British secretary for foreign affairs, that Temple should collect extensive information concerning American trade, duties, commodities, manufactures, emigration, and population (ibid.). Jay approved the idea of dispatching an unofficial envoy to Britain and “mentioned as a fit person for this purpose, a Doctr. [Edward] Bancroft as a man in whom entire confidence might be placed.

“Colo. Hamilton on the same subject highly approved of the Measure but thought Mr. Gouvr. Morris well qualified” (ibid., 454–55). The president approached James Madison on 8 October. Madison “thought if the necessity did not press it would be better to wait the arrival of Mr. Jefferson who might be able to give the information wanted on this head—and with me thought, that if Mr. Gouvr. Morris was employed in this business it would be a commitment for his appointment as Minister if one should be sent to that Court or wanted at Versailles in place of Mr. Jefferson—and Moreover if either of these was his Wish whether his representations might not be made with an eye to it. He thought with Colo. Hamilton, and as Mr. Jay also does, that Mr. Morris is a man of superior talents—but with the latter that his imagination sometimes runs a head of his judgment—that his Manners before he is known—and where known are oftentimes disgusting—and from that, and immoral & loose expressions had created opinions of himself that were not favourable to him and which he did not merit” (ibid., 456). Madison followed what may have been a verbal opinion with a written statement of his views: “On the supposition that the business can be more properly conducted by a private Agent at London, than a public Minister at a third Court, the letter and instructions for the former character appear to be well adapted to the purpose. If any remark were to be made, it would relate merely to the form, which it is conceived would be made rather better by transposing the order of the two main subjects. The fulfilment of the Treaty already made seems to be primary to the enquiries requisite to a subsequent Treaty.

“The reasoning assigned to those who opposed a commercial discrimination, states the views of a part only of that side of the question. A considerable number, both in the Senate & H. of Reps. objected to the measure as defective in energy, rather than as wrong in its principle. In the former, a Committee was appointed, who reported a more energetic plan. And in the latter, leave to bring in a bill, was given to a member who explained his views to be similar. Both of these instances were posterior to the miscarriage of the discrimination first proposed.

“As Mr Jefferson may be daily expected, as it is possible he may bring informations throwing light on the subject under deliberation, and as it is probable use may be made of his own ideas with regard to it, A quere suggests itself, whether the advantage of consulting with him might not justify a delay, unless there be special reasons for expedition” (c.8 Oct. 1789, DLC: James Madison Papers). GW had evidently shown Madison an earlier draft of his letter, since he follows Madison’s advice on the transposition of the contents in the final version. He did not however follow his advice on waiting for Jefferson’s arrival in the capital.

Morris had been in France since early 1789 engaged, among other business affairs, in settling Robert Morris’s tobacco contract with the Farmers General and in negotiating a highly speculative enterprise to purchase the American debt to France. Not only was his presence abroad convenient but, since his appointment was unofficial, it would not have to run the gauntlet in the Senate where there was considerable suspicion of Morris’s political principles and personal morality. Morris received GW’s instructions on 21 Jan. 1790 and informed the president that he would leave for London “as soon as I possibly can.” See Morris to GW, 22 Jan. 1790. The British had at least some advance advice of Morris’s mission. In the course of discussions on improving relations between Britain and the United States with George Beckwith, unofficial agent of the British government in New York, Hamilton informed Beckwith on 25 Oct. that “I am not sufficiently Authorized to say so, it is not in my department, but I am inclined to think a person will soon be sent to England to sound the disposition of Your Court upon it” (Conversation with George Beckwith, October 1789, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 5:482–90). The information was forwarded to England on 25 Oct. 1789 (Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester, to William Wyndham Grenville, 25 Oct. 1789, Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario).

1The enclosure, also dated 13 Oct., reads: “It being important to both Countries, that the Treaty of Peace between Great Britain and the United States, should be observed and performed with perfect and mutual good faith; and that a Treaty of Commerce should be concluded by them on principles of reciprocal advantage to both, I wish to be ascertained of the Sentiments and intentions of the Court of London on these interesting subjects.

“It appears to me most expedient to have these Inquiries made informally, by a private Agent; and understanding that you will soon be in London, I desire you in that capacity, and on the Authority and Credit of this Letter, to converse with his Britannic Majesty’s Ministers on these Points—vizt—Whether there be any and what objections to now performing those Articles in the Treaty, which remain to be performed on his Part: and whether they incline to a Treaty of Commerce with the United States on any and what terms.

“This communication ought regularly to be made to you by the Secretary of State, but that Office not being at present filled, my desire of avoiding delays induces me to make it under my own Hand. It is my wish to promote Harmony and mutual satisfaction between the two Countries, it would give me great pleasure to find that the result of your Agency in the business now committed to you, will conduce to that end” (ALS, NNC: Gouverneur Morris Papers).

2It was generally assumed that the federal courts would deal with any violations of the 1783 treaty with Great Britain in respect to state barriers to the collection of legitimate debts owed to British creditors. British officials had frequently used such lack of compliance with article 4 of the treaty as an excuse for retention of the western posts.

3Article 7 of the treaty provided that the British army should withdraw from United States territory “with all convenient speed, & without causing any Destruction or carrying away any Negroes, or other Property of the American Inhabitants” (Miller, Treaties, description begins Hunter Miller, ed. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Vol. 2, 1776-1818. Washington, D.C., 1931. description ends 2:99). The dispute between the United States and Britain centered around the slaves that had been manumitted when they fled to British lines and were removed when the British evacuated their forces at the end of the war. The United States contended that such removal was a violation of the treaty while the British held that the slaves’ manumission had made them free men.

4GW is referring to the debates over the impost and tonnage bills in the House of Representatives in the spring and early summer of 1789. Led by James Madison, a considerable faction in the House advocated discriminatory duties against nations not in commercial treaty with the United States; duties on the products of those nations that had signed treaties would be assessed at a lower rate. Both the impost and tonnage bills from the House carried such discriminatory clauses—on distilled spirits and on tonnage—but the clauses were struck down in the Senate, an action reluctantly agreed to by the House.

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