George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 5 June 1791

From Thomas Jefferson

Bennington [Vt.] June 5. 1791.


In my last letter from Philadelphia, I mentioned that mister Madison & myself were about to take a trip up the North river as far as circumstances should permit, the levelness of the roads led us quite on to Lake George, where taking boat we went through that, and about 25 miles into Lake Champlain. returning then to Saratoga, we concluded to cross over thro’ Vermont to Connecticut river and go down that instead of the North river which we had already seen, and we are so far on that rout. in the course of our journey we have had opportunities of visiting Still water, Saratoga, Forts Wm Henry & George, Ticonderoga, Crown point, & the scene of Genl Starke’s victory.1

I have availed myself of such opportunities as occurred to enquire into the grounds of the report that something disagreeable had taken place in the vicinities of the British posts. it seems to have been the following incident. they had held a small post at a blockhouse on the North Hero, an island on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, & something further South than their principal post at the Point au fer. the Maria, hitherto stationed at the latter, for Custom-house purposes, was sent to the Blockhouse, & there exercised her usual visits on boats passing to & from Canada. this being an exercise of power further within our jurisdiction became the subject of notice & clamour with our citizens in that quarter. the vessel has been since recalled to the Point au fer, & being unfit for service, a new one is to be built to perform her functions. this she has usually done at the Point au fer with a good deal of rigour, bringing all vessels to at that place, & sometimes under such circumstances of wind & weather as to have occasioned the loss of two vessels & cargoes. these circumstances produce strong sensations in that quarter, & not friendly to the character of our government. the establishment of a custom-house at Alburg, nearly opposite to Point au fer, has given the British considerable alarm. a groundless story of 200 Americans seen in arms near Point au fer, has been the cause, or the pretext, of their reinforcing that place a few days ago with a company of men from St John’s. it is said here they have called in their guard from the Block-house, but the information is not direct enough to command entire belief.2

On enquiring into the dispositions in Canada on the subject of the projected form of government there, we learn, that they are divided into two parties; the English who desire something like an English constitution but so modelled as to oblige the French to chuse a certain proportion of English representatives, & the French who wish a continuance of the French laws, moderated by some engraftments from the English code. the judge of their Common pleas heads the former party, & Smith the chief justice secretly guides the latter.3

We encounter the Green mountains tomorrow, with cavalry in part disabled, so as to render our progress a little incertain. I presume however I shall be in Philadelphia in a fortnight. I have the honour to be with sentiments of the most perfect respect & attachment, Sir, your most obedient & most humble servant

Th: Jefferson

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers; LB, DLC: Jefferson Papers; LB, DLC:GW.

1Jefferson wrote a more descriptive travel account to his son-in-law from Bennington on this day (see Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., 5 June, 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 20:464–66). His “last letter” to GW was dated 15 May.

2Two posts retained by the British after the Revolutionary War were located on northern Lake Champlain below the Canadian border of 45º latitude: at Point au Fer, five miles south of the border on New York territory, and at Dutchman’s Point on North Hero Island, twelve miles within Vermont territory. Dealing with complaints about the activities of their garrisons, of which Gov. George Clinton of New York informed GW on 21 May 1790, became a federal responsibility after Vermont joined the Union on 18 Feb. 1791. The “Act giving effect to the laws of the United States within the state of Vermont” of 2 Mar. 1791 designated Alburg, an unincorporated settlement of 446 people on disputed territory one-half mile north of Dutchman’s Point, as the only port of entry for the new federal customs district of Vermont (see GW to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, 9 Feb. 1791, source note, and 1 Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends 191, 197–98). See also George Beckwith’s report of 14 June enclosed in Lord Dorchester’s letter of 27 July to Lord Grenville, Brymner, Report on Canadian Archives, 1890, description begins Douglas Brymner. Report on Canadian Archives . . . 1890. (Being an Appendix to Report of the Minister of Agriculture.). Ottawa, 1891. description ends 171. GW appointed Stephen Keyes collector for the port of Alburg on 4 Mar. (GW to the U.S. Senate, 4 Mar. 1791 [first letter] and note 3), and Keyes immediately informed the British commander at Point au Fer of his appointment (Dorchester to Lieutenant Colonel Buckeridge, 16 May, Brymner, Report on Canadian Archives, 1890, description begins Douglas Brymner. Report on Canadian Archives . . . 1890. (Being an Appendix to Report of the Minister of Agriculture.). Ottawa, 1891. description ends Q. 50–1, pp. 288–89). Alexander Hamilton told Beckwith on 15 June that Keyes was “one of those busy characters, who are anxious to shew their own consequence; I have written to him in such terms, as will I trust obviate any sort of inconvenience in the discharge of his duty,” adding: “I understand that the place fixed upon by law for the Custom house is at least thirty miles from Pointe au fer” (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 8:475–77). He delayed implementing the provisions of the act of 2 Mar. 1791, and the customshouse was still unbuilt on 22 Aug., when Hamilton requested Keyes to procure a map of northwest Vermont and send a larger-scale sketch of the Alburg area along with his advice on where “the office may be established with the greatest degree of propriety and utility free from the inconveniences of the situation which has been fixed upon” (ibid., 9:91). Keyes two months later forwarded a map to Hamilton by John Doughty, whom Henry Knox had sent to the Champlain border as a secret observer (see Doughty to Knox, 26 Oct., in GW to Clinton, 14 Sept., n.2).

3On 25 Feb. 1791 the king announced to Parliament that he intended to divide Quebec into the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, and on 4 Mar. Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a bill in the House of Commons that created local legislatures in both provinces. For an American newspaper’s reports of the news, see General Advertiser and Political, Commercial and Literary Journal (Philadelphia), 16, 19 April. The Commons passed the Constitutional Bill on 18 May; it was considered in the House of Lords on 30 May and received the royal assent on 10 June (Parliamentary History of England, description begins The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. 36 vols. London, 1806–20. description ends 28:1271, 1376–79, 29:104–13, 359–430, 655–60). Jefferson had reversed the names and roles of the Canadian party leaders. Scotsman Adam Mabane (c.1734–1792), a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, member of the Council of Quebec, and adviser to Gov. Frederick Haldimand, was recognized as the leader of those who wished to protect the rights of the French majority. Chief Justice William Smith (1728–1793), a Yale College graduate and the Loyalist chief justice of New York who left New York City with Sir Guy Carleton in 1783 and went with him to Canada, became the chief opponent of Mabane and the French party.

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