George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the United States Senate, 18 February 1791

To the United States Senate

United States February 18th 1791.

Gentlemen of the Senate—

The aspect of the Affairs in Europe during the last summer, and especially between Spain and England, gave reason to expect a favourable occasion for pressing to accomodation the unsettled matters between them and us. Mr Carmichael, our Chargé des Affaires at Madrid, having been long absent from his Country, great changes having taken place in our circumstances and sentiments during that interval, it was thought expedient to send some person in a private Character, full acquainted with the present state of things here to be the bearer of written and confidential instructions to him, and at the same time to possess him in full and frequent conversations, of all those details of facts, and topics of argument, which could not be conveyed in writing, but which would be necessary to enable him to meet the reasonings of that Court with advantage. Colo. David Humphreys was therefore sent for these purposes.

An additional motive for this confidential mission arose in the same quarter. The Court of Lisbon had, on several occasions, made the most amicable advances for cultivating friendship and intercourse with the United States. The exchange of a diplomatic character had been informally, but repeatedly suggested on their part. It was our interest to meet this nation in its friendly dispositions, and to concur in the exchange proposed. But my wish was, at the same time, that the Character to be exchanged should be of the lowest and most economical grade. To this it was known that certain rules, of long standing at that Court, would produce obsticles. Colo. Humphreys was charged with dispatches to the Prime Minister of Portugal, and with instructions to endeavour to arrange this to our views. It happened, however, that, previous to his arrival at Lisbon, the Queen had appointed a Minister Resident to the United States. This embarrassment seems to have rendered the difficulty completely insurmountable. The Minister of that Court, in his conferences with Colo. Humphreys, professing every wish to accommodate, yet expresses his regrets that circumstances do not permit them to concur in the grade of Chargés des Affaires; a grade of little privilege or respectability by the rules of their Court, and held in so low estimation with them, that no proper Character would accept it, to go abroad. In a letter to the Secretary of State he expresses the same sentiments, and announces the appointment, on their part, of a Minister Resident to the United States, and the pleasure with which the Queen will receive one from us at her Court.1 A copy of his letter and also of Colo. Humphreys’ giving the details of this transaction, will be delivered to you.2

On consideration of all circumstances, I have determined to accede to the desire of the Court of Lisbon, in the article of Grade. I am aware that the consequences will not end here, and that this is not the only instance in which a like change may be pressed. But should it be necessary to yield elsewhere also, I shall think it a less evil, than to disgust a government so friendly, and so interesting to us, as that of Portugal.

I do not mean that the change of grade shall render the mission more expensive.

I have therefore nominated David Humphreys, Minister Resident from the United States to her most faithful Majesty the Queen of Portugal.3

Go: Washington

LS, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, 1789–1791, Records of Executive Proceedings, President’s Messages—Foreign Relations; copy, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers; LB, DLC:GW.

1For the background to this letter, see Jefferson to GW, 8 Aug. 1790. Humphreys’ mission to Spain had been a closely guarded secret, details of which were known only to a small circle, including GW, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and John Brown of Kentucky.

2GW presented the Senate with a copy of Humphreys’ letter to Jefferson of 30 Nov. 1790 and a copy of the letter of the Portuguese secretary for foreign affairs, Luis Pinto de Souza, to Jefferson of the same date. Humphreys’ letter to Jefferson announced that Maria I of Portugal had appointed the chevalier de Freire as minister resident to the United States. Humphreys wrote that he had informed Pinto that while the American government wished to reciprocate, Congress had authorized the appointment and pay of a chargé d’affaires but not a minister resident to the Portuguese court. Pinto, Humphreys reported, had replied that a diplomat below the grade of minister resident could not expect to be treated with great respect at the Portuguese court, because the Portuguese themselves would not be “able to select a sufficiently worthy and dignified Character, who would consent to go such a distance, in only the Capacity of Chargé des Affaires.” Pinto added that “it was impossible for the Queen to receive a Diplomatic Character of a different denomination from that which she sent,” suggesting that the United States might pay a minister resident to the Portuguese court at the rate of a chargé d’affaires without compromising his reception at court (Humphreys to Jefferson, 30 Nov. 1790, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 18:102–6). Pinto’s letter of 30 Nov. 1790 to Jefferson recapitulated much of what Humphreys reported and urged the appointment of a minister resident on the grounds Pinto had presented to Humphreys (ibid., 108–9). The Portuguese insistence on the appointment of a minister resident reopened the issue of executive authority over the grades of American diplomats abroad, a subject that had occasioned some controversy between GW and the Senate the year before (see Jefferson to GW, 24 April 1790).

3GW’s message was delivered to the Senate by Tobias Lear on 18 Feb. 1791. The Senate confirmed Humphreys’ appointment as minister resident on 21 Feb. 1791 (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 2:117–18). Jefferson wrote to Humphreys on 15 Mar. 1791 informing him of the appointment and enclosing his letter of credence to the queen (Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 19:572–74).

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