George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Nicholas, 6 April 1794

From John Nicholas

Sunday [6 April 1794]


In a crisis like the present nothing can require apology which may proceed from patriotism. The object of my letter may perhaps induce a suspicion that I am governed by party views, but when I disclaim the influence of numbers I may expect so far to escape imputation as to leave my opinions in their just force—I claim your attention from the motive which determined me to make this address rather than promote the united expression of a sentiment, common to many, which might have wounded your feelings and in the end committed your reputation—whatever may be my reception I hold it a duty to proceed under an impression that your information of the public opinion must be partial & that to forbear would be to expose you to censure for a conduct which may be proper in the supposed state of things.

It is rumoured in the city that you are about to send an Envoy to the court of Great Britain and that your choice will probably fall on the Secretary of the treasury1—You will pardon me for saying that the measure in itself is improper because unnecessary and that when connected with the instrument it bodes infi nite mischief to yourself and your country.

I consider the measure as improper in the present state of things because they are liable to change at the will of the legislature & your own and the public dignity would be involved in the revocation of his authority—I cannot conceive it to be practicable to make a special mission which will not be liable to this fate, for I cannot conceive it be possible that Congress will adjourn without doing something which will no longer leave it optional with Great Britain to do us justice—If a measure of this sort should be adopted the mission will be improper because America will be the most convenient place for settling our losses & it is most honorable for us to extort in appearance as well as reality, the compensation we claim—If the operation of the measure is limited by law to the time when the British Court shall engage to make satisfaction, it is presumed that no executive declaration will be necessary on that subject & that, aided by the law the national honor will rest safely on our present minister2—When ostensible reasons fail for any measure secret ones will be sought after & these will be found in those subjects on which the public are most jealous and for which the appointed instrument will be most solicitous—at all events, with so little appearance of necessity, you must expect to incur the blame of every exceptionable act of his whether authorized or not.

I confess myself astonished to hear the nomination which is made for this office—at a time when perhaps more than half America have determined it to be unsafe to trust power in the hands of this person however remotely it is connected with many of the odious traits in his character—at a time when at least one half the legislature are afraid to exert themselves in the most trying situation of their country, lest his present powers should enable him to wrest them to purposes which he is supposed by them to entertain & which they dread more than the open attack of Great Britain—at a time when this person is the avowed friend of Great Britain in the most infamous contest, when all his measures have tended to throw this country into her arms & many entertain suspicion with some grounds that the present hostility of that country to this is partly intended to aid his well known attachment to it—to appoint him to an office in which he could immediately & successfully advance his purposes would be to stake the American happiness on the justice of one of two opinions where both are advocated by equal numbers—every man in a republic is a centinel on public safety and the warnings of danger should [be] listened to rather than the assurances of safety from the importance of the consequences which may follow—I confess my expectation was of a very different kind, that he who was elected to office by the love of the people would not exercise his power to the destruction of their happiness & is it less when he who is suffered to shares most of the authority of the government is suspected of undermining the public happiness—I may be told that these suspicions are groundless and that an equal number of men in America are strongly attached to him—both may be true & yet the injury remain unimpaired—if there are deep rooted prejudices which visibly gain strength is it not inhuman to continually resist them—if children are afraid of hobgoblins is it not unwise and cruel to cherish and alarm their fears—it is immaterial what is the truth unless it can be conveyed to our minds—let the rate of understanding be what it will men must be governed on an estimate of what it is & not what it might be—but he is supported by equal numbers—this if an argument at all will be found a strong one for his dismission—one side hopes an accession of good the other side the loss of all that is dear to them—is there an equality in these pretensions—there certainly would not be if the makers were unequal—the government no body will say depends on him—one half America determine that it will be ruined by him—In all governments it has been found necessary to consult the public opinion on the persons employed & it has ever been concluded that a continued favor to an unpopular servant ought to involve the master in the blame. In America this has not yet happened altho’ I greatly fear it is rapidly in progress—the unexampled affection of the people to you requires more to shake their confidence than is usually necessary but natural causes must operate & it is a well known principle that small injuries obliterate important services—this is not contradicted by present experience, for there is rather a suspension of opinion than a disregard of wrong—the present moment may determine the mind & to be sure the love of our country will fully justify the decision—to put a drawn sword into the hands of a suspected madman is to expose every body in his way to ruin & when the mischief shall happen it will be a poor satisfaction to say you did not believe it—the affection of the people has hitherto prevented their blame of your measures from lessening their confidence in you, but it will be a poor return for what should excite your gratitude to persevere in what is disagreable to them—the strongest affection cannot withstand injury whetted by insult—did it never occur to you that the divisions of America might be ended by the sacrafice of this one man—I do sincerely believe from my own knowledge of the causes of divisions & the obvious interest that his partizans have to unite in any mode of executing the government which will preserve it’s credit, that they would & to a heart solicitous for it’s countrys happiness the event must be most desireable.

I have extended this subject to great length without saying half that occurs & indeed it was only my intention to have given a testimony to public opinion which you may perhaps not have heard—I aver it to be as I have stated it—the consequences must be obvious to you—if the mission should be unfortunate you will bear the undivided odium—if it should be successful it will do you no service, for the event will be too late to stop the opinion that you are determined to govern America according to your own inclination & that of one half it’s inhabitants and in contempt of the most rooted opinions of the other half—Among them at present you possess almost universal confidence & it should be rendered dear to you by the reflection that it has stood the conflict of opinions unaided by the smallest dependence on your influence—I myself am one of those who have hitherto shut my eyes on those events which could even shake my confidence in your discernment & I declare I shall meet the event with grief which will persuade me that you are no longer your countrys bulwark.

Are you apprized of the clamour which is raised against the government by Mr Morris being employed in a service for which his principles render him so unfit3—Mr H. is understood to have the same wishes with respect to France & a position at London will be infinitely more favorable for their gratification than at Paris—faction has doubted whether you could be a friend to the revolutionary principle & throw such a stumbling block in it’s way—a second appointment of that sort will give distrust to every jealous defender of the right of self government.

Can you justify to America increasing the power of a man who is now under question for that which he already has?4 with so many objections to him will it not shew an excess of favoritism to appoint him to an office inconsistent with the duties of that which he already fills? May it not deserve consideration whether you can dispense with the exercise of official duty as you will do by sending the officer from America.

When the above was written it was my intention as you will perceive by the contents to have sent it without a signature & on one account I wished for concealment, but reflection tells me that I do justice neither to my principles nor present intentions in supposing that one or the other can be doubted—If the spirit in which it is written should be conveyed by it I shall have no reason to regret the want of those expressions of respect which I could honestly have mixed with my political opinions—If there is any information which I may be supposed to possess which is desireable to you I shall take pleasure in attending you5—I am with the greatest respect yr mo. ob. servt

John Nicholas

ALS, DLC:GW. GW’s docket reads, “6th Apl 1794.”

Attorney John Nicholas (c.1764–1819), a graduate of the College of William and Mary, was a brother of Edmund Randolph’s wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Nicholas Randolph (1753–1810). He represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1793–1801, before moving to Geneva, New York. He served in the New York State senate, 1806–9, and as a judge of the court of common pleas, 1806–19.

1For GW’s nomination of John Jay, and not Alexander Hamilton, as a special envoy to Great Britain, see his first letter to the U.S. Senate of 16 April.

2Thomas Pinckney was the U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain.

3Gouverneur Morris was the U.S. minister plenipotentiary to France. For GW’s nomination of James Monroe to replace Morris, see his letter to the U.S. Senate of 27 May (LS, DNA: RG 46, Third Congress, 1793–95, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages—Executive Nominations).

4On a recent inquiry by Congress into Hamilton’s conduct as secretary of the treasury, see Hamilton to GW, 24 March, and n.1 to that document.

5Nicholas wrote another letter to GW the following evening, 7 April, which reads: “As the anxiety occasioned by the subject on which I took the liberty of addressing you yesterday subsides, my apprehensions increase that in doing it I have violated the respect for you which no body feels more than myself—my pretensions to interfere in so important a deliberation were estimated by myself as small as they could be by any other person, but it was not possible for me to resist the incitement of zeal for my country & for the continuance of that public happiness to yourself which I consider as the most honorable testimony of the virtue of its citizens—hurried by feelings which have the utmost power over me it is not impossible that my sentiments may have been trusted with too little caution in expressing them & that an enthusiasm in the cause may have made me regardless of the conduct of it; but of this be assured that I never should have run the risque of contempt if I had not thought as an American I owed every thing to you from whom I received every thing—In any proper occasion I doubt not that I may convince you that altho’ the opinions are deeply rooted in me a want of respect never accompanied them” (DLC:GW). GW showed both letters to Randolph and asked him if he had encouraged Nicholas to write. For Randolph’s reaction, see his first letter to GW of 9 April.

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