George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 2 December 1793

From Thomas Jefferson

Dec. 2. 1793.

Th: Jefferson with his respects to the President has the honor to send him the letters & orders referred to in Mr Morris’s letter, except that of the 8th of April, which must be a mistake for some other date, as the records of the office perfectly establish that no letters were written to him in the months of March & April but those of Mar. 12. & 15. & Apr. 20. & 26. now inclosed. the enigma of Mr Merlino is inexplicable by any thing in his possession.1

He incloses the message respecting France & Great Britain. he first wrote it fair as it was agreed the other evening at the President’s. he then drew a line with a pen through the passages he proposes to alter, in consequence of subsequent information (but so lightly as to leave the passages still legible for the President) and interlined the alterations he proposes. the overtures mentioned in the first alteration, are in consequence of it’s having been agreed that they should be mentioned in general terms only to the two houses. the numerous alterations made the other evening in the clause respecting our corn trade, with the hasty amendments proposed in the moment had so much broken the tissue of the paragraph as to render it necessary to new mould it. in doing this, care has been taken to use the same words as nearly as possible, and also to insert a slight reference to mister Pinckney’s proceedings.2

On a severe review of the question whether the British communications should carry any such mark of being confidential as to prevent the legislature from publishing them, he is clearly of opinion they ought not. Will they be kept secret if secrecy be enjoined? certainly not, & all the offence will be given (if it be possible any should be given) which would follow their complete publication. if they could be kept secret, from whom would it be? from our own constituents only, for Gr. Britain is possessed of every tittle. Why then keep it secret from them? no ground of support for the Executive will ever be so sure as a complete knowlege of their proceedings by the people; and it is only in cases where the public good would be injured, and because it would be injured, that proceedings should be secret. in such cases it is the duty of the Executive to sacrifice their personal interests (which would be promoted by publicity) to the public interest. the negociations with England are at an end. if not given to the public now, when are they to be given? & what moment can be so interesting? if any thing amiss should happen from the concealment, where will the blame originate at least? it may be said indeed that the President puts it in the power of the legislature to communicate these proceedings to their constituents; but is it more their duty to communicate them to their constituents, than it is the President’s to communicate them to his constituents? and if they were desirous of communicating them, ought the President to restrain them by making the communication confidential? I think no harm can be done by the publication, because it is impossible England, after doing us an injury, should declare war against us merely because we tell our constituents of it: and I think good may be done, because while it puts it in the power of the legislature to adopt peaceable measures of doing ourselves justice, it prepares the minds of our constituents to go chearfully into an acquiescence under these measures, by impressing them with a thorough & enlightened conviction that they are founded in right. the motive too of proving to the people the impartiality of the Executive between the two nations of France and England urges strongly that while they are to see the disagreeable things which have been going on as to France, we should not conceal from them what has been passing with England, & induce a belief that nothing has been doing.3

Th: Jefferson

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC: Jefferson Papers; LB, DNA: RG 59, George Washington’s Correspondence with His Secretaries of State.

1Jefferson here replies to GW’s letter to him of 1 Dec. inquiring about the meaning of some passages in Gouverneur Morris’s letter to Jefferson of 25 June (for those passages, see notes 1 and 2 to GW’s letter). In fact Jefferson had written, but not recorded, a letter to Morris on 8 April in which he asked him to inquire about some dies for medals made at Paris.

His letter to Morris of 12 March discussed the “principles” that supported the legitimacy of the new French government—”We surely cannot deny to any nation that right whereon our own government is founded, that every one may govern itself according to whatever form it pleases, and change these forms at it’s own will. . . . The will of the nation is the only thing essential to be regarded”—discussed repayment of the debt owed to France, and urged Morris “to improve every opportunity which may occur in the changeable scenes which are passing, and to seize upon them as they occur, for placing our commerce with that nation and it’s dependancies, on the freest and most encouraging footing possible.”

His letter to Morris of 15 March desired him to “avail yourself of every opportunity of sounding the way towards” Lafayette’s “liberation.” The letter of 20 April directed Morris to obtain an “immediate decision” from the man offered employment as chief coiner for the Mint and discussed neutrality. The letter of 26 April enclosed GW’s Neutrality Proclamation for presentation to the French government (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 , 25:367–70, 387–89, 519–20, 575–76, 591–92).

2See GW to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 5 Dec., and notes. For the draft here submitted, see 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 , 27:474–79. Jefferson’s first draft of the message had been discussed at a cabinet meeting on 28 Nov. (see 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 , 27:453–56).

3According to Jefferson’s notes, at the cabinet meeting of 28 Nov., Alexander Hamilton had objected to the initial draft of this message as unfair to Great Britain. Even after editing, “He still was against the whole, but insisted that at any rate it should be a secret communication, because the matters it stated were still depending. These were 1. the inexecution of the treaty 2. the restraining our corn commerce to their own ports and those of their friends.” Although Hamilton’s desire for secrecy was supported by Henry Knox and in part by Edmund Randolph, GW “took up the subject with more vehemence than I have seen him shew, and decided without reserve” that both sections “should go in as public” (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 , 27:454–55).

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