George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, 10 March 1791

To Thomas Jefferson

Thursday 3 Oclock, [10 March] 1791

The P. has given the enclosed letters an attentive reading & consideration,1 and has found nothing in them but what is just, and in the hands of a prudent user proper; but at the end of the words of the letter to Mr C. “this wrong” 2d page 10th line may it not be well to add—“yet with that prudence & circumspection which will not commit the Government to the necessity of proceeding to extremity.”2 And may not the expression of the last page be too strong for events and the interest of this Country?3 reconsider them.


ALS, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers.

1The enclosures apparently consisted of Jefferson’s drafts of letters to William Carmichael, U.S. chargé d’affaires in Madrid, and William Short, U.S. chargé d’affaires in Paris, regarding changes in American policy toward Spain. The occasion was presented by the case of Joseph St. Marie, an American citizen, whose property, consisting of a boat and trade goods, had been confiscated by the Spanish in 1788 on the eastern banks of the Mississippi near Chickasaw Lake (for the details of the case, see Winthrop Sargent to GW, 29 July 1790). Shortly after the incident, St. Marie had directed a remonstrance to John Francis Hamtramck, American commander at Vincennes, seeking assistance in recovering his property. This effort not meeting with success, St. Marie sent a second memorial, dated 22 July 1790, to Winthrop Sargent, secretary and acting governor of the Northwest Territory. This memorial made its way to Philadelphia by December 1790, where it was deposited in the office of the secretary of state.

Jefferson quickly perceived that the case offered the American government an opportunity to increase pressure on the Spanish to open the free navigation of the Mississippi to Americans in the wake of David Humphreys’ secret mission to Madrid. Jefferson’s letter to Carmichael reflects the growing urgency of the Mississippi Question in American politics. In the early months of 1791, the threat that the West might detach itself from the Union in order to secure the navigation of the Mississippi continued to be a vital concern to the administration, and Jefferson apparently was willing to hold out the possibility that the United States might be drawn into war with Spain over the issue rather than permit the dismemberment of the Union. The draft of this letter that Jefferson presented to GW has not been found, but there is no reason to believe that the text differed significantly from the final version, which reads: “I enclose you a statement of the case of Joseph Ste. Marie a citizen of the United States of America, whose clerk Mr. Swimmer was, in the latter part of the year 1787, seized on the Eastern side of the Mississippi, in latitude 34º–40′, together with his goods, of the value of 1980 dollars, by a party of Spanish soldiers.—They justified themselves under the order of a Mr. Valliere their officer, who avowed authority from the Governor of New Orleans, requiring him to seize and confiscate all property found on either side of the Missisippi below the mouth of the Ohio—The matter being then carried by Ste. Marie before the Governor of New Orleans, instead of correcting the injury, he avowed the Act and it’s principle, and pretended orders from his County for this and more. We have so much confidence however in the moderation and friendship of the Court of Madrid, that we are more ready to ascribe this outrage to Officers acting at a distance, than to orders from a just sovereign. We have hitherto considered the delivery of the post of the Natchez on the part of Spain, as only awaiting the result of those arrangements which have been under amicable discussion between us; but the remaining in possession of a post, which is so near our limit of 31.º as to admit some colour of doubt whether it be on our side or theirs, is one thing, while it is a very different one to launch 250 miles further, and seize the persons and property of our citizens; and that too in the very moment that a friendly accommodation of all differences is under discussion. Our respect for their candour and good faith does not permit us to doubt that proper notice will be taken of the presumption of their Officer, who has thus put to hazard the peace of both Nations; and we particularly expect their indemnification will be made to the individual injured. On this you are desired to insist in the most friendly terms, but with that earnestness and perseverance which the complexion of this wrong requires. The papers enclosed will explain the reasons of the delay which has intervened. It is but lately they have been put into the hands of our Government.

“We cannot omit this occasion of urging on the Court of Madrid the necessity of hastening a final acknowledgment of our right to navigate the Missisippi: a right which has been long suspended in exercise, with extreme inconvenience on our part, merely with a desire of reconciling Spain to what it is impossible for us to relinquish. An accident at this day, like that now complained of, would put further parley beyond our power; yet to such accidents we are every day exposed by the irregularities of their officers, and the impatience of our citizens. Should any spark kindle these dispositions of our borders into a flame, we are involved beyond recall by the eternal principles of justice to our citizens, which we will never abandon. In such an event, Spain cannot possibly gain, and what may she not lose?

“The boldness of this act of the Governor of New Orleans and of his avowal of it, renders it essential to us to understand the Court of Spain on this subject.

You will therefore avail yourself of the earliest occasions of obtaining their sentiments, and of communicating them to us” (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 19:522–24).

Jefferson in fact already had committed himself to pursue a vigorous policy of the Mississippi navigation in a private letter to Harry Innes, dated 7 Mar., sent to Innes in Kentucky by way of John Brown when the latter left Philadelphia on 9 Mar. 1791. Jefferson wrote: “Mr. Brown will tell you . . . that we are not inattentive to the interests of your navigation. Nothing short of actual rupture is omitted. What it’s effect will be we cannot yet foretell; but we should not stop even here, were a favourable conjuncture to arise. The move we have now made must bring the matter to issue. I can assure you of the most determined zeal of our chief magistrate in this business, and I trust mine will not be doubted so far as it can be of any avail. The nail will be driven as far as it will go peaceably, and farther the moment that circumstances become favorable” (ibid., 521–22).

2GW’s suggestion would have altered the third sentence from the end of the first paragraph to read: “On this you are desired to insist in the most friendly terms, but with that earnestness and perseverance which the complexion of this wrong requires, yet with that prudence and circumspection which will not commit the Government to the necessity of proceeding to extremity.” This suggestion is consistent with GW’s long-standing inclination to treat the Spanish with delicacy in regard to the Mississippi navigation and his preference for keeping his policy choices free from self-imposed constraints. In this case Jefferson’s desire to declare a more vigorous and determined American policy in terms that would obviate any possibility of misconception prevailed.

3It is likely that GW was objecting to the threat of war implied at the end of the second paragraph. It is uncertain whether the final text of this paragraph reflects changes made in accordance with GW’s instructions, but it seems probable that Jefferson’s original language was allowed to remain in this case as well. Such close attention to the wording of the letter was imperative, because the letter was not transmitted in cipher, almost ensuring that the Spanish ministry would read the letter even before it reached Carmichael.

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