George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James Seagrove, 20 May 1791

To James Seagrove

Augusta [Ga.] May 20th 1791.


The confidence, which your character inclines me to place in you, has induced me to commit the enclosed letter, from the Secretary of State to Governor Quesada, and the negotiation which will be consequent thereon to your care and management. The letter which is under a flying seal, to be closed before it is delivered, will inform you of the import, and serve to instruct you in the mode of conducting the object of your mission—delicate in its nature, it will require the greatest address and temper in its treatment—nor must any proposition or declaration be made, which in its consequence might commit the government of the United States.1

The enclosed copy of a letter, written by my direction, from the Secretary of State to the Governor of Georgia, which is now confidentially communicated to you, is another source, whence some information may be drawn2—but, as my ideas of your personal acquaintance with this business combined with my opinion of your character and talents to transact it, have determined me to appoint you, it is from your own knowledge, and the circumstances, which may arise, that you must decide on the best means to accomplish the negotiation—Your first care will be to arrest the farther reception of fugitive slaves, your next to obtain restitution of those slaves, who have fled to Florida, since the date of Governor Quesada’s letter to Mr Jefferson, notifying the orders of his catholic Majesty3—and your last object, which may demand the greatest address, will be to give a retrospective force to the orders of the Court of Spain, beyond the date of that letter, and to procure the Governor’s order for a general relinquishment of all fugitive slaves, who were the property of citizens of the United States. This last instruction will require peculiar delicacy, and must be entered on with caution and circumspection, or not be taken up at all, as appearances of compliance may justify the one or the other.

If your collectorate cannot furnish money to defray your expenses, in which you will observe due oeconomy, and of which you will transmit an account to the Secretary of State, you will supply yourself from the Collector of Savannah.4 I am Sir, Your most obedient Servant

G. Washington.


1On 20 May 1791 GW “Dined at a private dinner with Govr. Telfair to day; and gave him dispatches for the Spanish Govr. of East Florida, respecting the Countenance given by that Governt. to the fugitive Slaves of the Union—wch. dispatches were to be forwarded to Mr. Seagrove, . . . who was requested to be the bearer of them, and instructed to make arrangements for the prevention of these evils and, if possible, for the restoration of the property—especially of those Slaves wch. had gone off since the orders of the Spanish Court to discountenance this practice of recg. them” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:142–43, 144). Since the end of the Revolutionary War, Spanish East and West Florida had been a haven for Georgia and Carolina runaway slaves, criminals, and debtors fleeing their creditors. Georgia slaveowners had frequently entered Spanish territory to recover their slaves, prompting an official Spanish protest to the Confederation Congress in 1785. Thomas Jefferson wrote on the subject to American chargé at Madrid, William Carmichael, in August 1790, the same month that the newly installed Spanish governor of Florida, Juan Nepomuceno de Quesada, informed Jefferson that his instructions forbade him to permit the entry of fugitive slaves into the province. After Jefferson notified the governor of Georgia of the new Spanish policy, Edward Telfair wrote him on 12 Jan. 1791 requesting federal assistance in recovering the refugees, which resulted in James Seagrove’s mission (see Jefferson to Quesada, 12 Aug. 1790, source note, to Carmichael, 29 Aug. 1790, and Telfair to Jefferson, 12 Jan. 1791, 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 17:341,472–73, 18:491–92).

The enclosed letter from Jefferson to Quesada of 10 Mar. 1791 informed Quesada that GW’s administration appreciated the Spanish sovereign’s orders prohibiting the protection of fugitive American slaves in Florida and expressed confidence that Quesada would also assist the American slaveowners to recover their refugee slaves, noting: “The Bearer hereof James Seagrove Esqr. is authorized to wait on your Excellency to confer on this Subject, and to concur in such Arrangements as you shall approve for the Recovery of such Fugitives. I beg you to be assured that no Occasion shall be neglected of proving our Dispositions to reciprocate these Principles of Justice and Friendship, with the Subjects of his Catholic Majesty” (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 19:518–19). In a note Jefferson appended to his letter to Telfair (see note 2 below), he wrote to GW: “This letter leaves it to Govr. Telfair to explain to the President, (if he chuses) the number of negroes fled from Georgia into Florida, and which may probably be there now. If the value be so considerable, and the recovery so probable, as to induce the President to make the demand from the Governor of Florida, he will only have to fill up the blank in the letter . . . to Don Quesada, with the name of the person he may think proper to send” (ibid., 432). GW filled in Seagrove’s name in the blank.

2The enclosed letter from Jefferson to Gov. Edward Telfair, dated 26 Mar., originally was dated 16 Mar. and probably was submitted for approval to the president at Philadelphia. Jefferson observed that the Spanish orders referred to a future prohibition and questioned how far Quesada might think himself authorized to give up slaves who had already taken refuge in Florida: “an application from us to give them retrospective effect, may require his asking new orders from his court. The delay which will necessarily attend the answer, the doubts what that answer may be, and, if what we wish, the facility of evading the execution if there be a disposition to evade it, are circumstances to be weighed beforehand, as well as the probable amount of the interest which it would be possible to recover. If this last be small, it may be questionable how far the government ought in prudence to commit itself by a demand of such dilatory and doubtful effect.” Jefferson suggested that Governor Telfair personally explain the details of the problem to the president when he reached Augusta (ibid., 519).

3GW was probably referring to Quesada’s letter to Jefferson of 28 Aug. 1790 (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

4William Jackson on 20 May 1791 informed John Habersham, collector of customs at Savannah, that Seagrove was going to St. Augustine on public business and was authorized to draw from Habersham money to defray his expenses (DLC:GW). Seagrove wrote at least five letters to GW in July and on 16 and 25 Aug. 1791, none of which has been found. See GW to Seagrove, 14 Sept. 1791.

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