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To James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, 7–8 February 1783

From Thomas Jefferson

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Docketed by JM, “Feby. 7. 1783,” and further docketed in an unknown hand, “Ths. Jefferson 7. Feb. 1783.” The italicized words are those written by Jefferson in cipher and decoded interlinearly by JM. For the nature of the cipher, see Jefferson to JM, 31 Jan. 1783, ed. n.

Baltimore Feb. 7. 1783.

Dear Sir

I write by this post to the Minister of foreign affairs,1 but will repeat to you the facts mentioned to him & some others improper for a public letter, & some reflections on them which can only be hazarded to the ear of friendship. the cold weather having set in the evening of the 30th. Ult. (being the same in which I arrived here) the Chevalr. de Ville-brun was obliged to fall down with his ship & the Guardaloupe to about twelve miles below this;2 & the ice has since cut off all correspondence with him till yesterday, when I got a boat and attempted a passage. there having passed a small boat before us we got about half way with tolerable ease, but the influx of the tide then happening the ice closed on us on every side & became impenetrable to our little vessel, so that we could get neither backwards nor forwards. we were finally relieved from this situation by a sloop which forced it’s way down & put us on board the Romulus, where we were obliged to remain all night. the Chevalr. de Ville-brun communicated to me several letters of intelligence which deserves weight; by which we are informed that the enemy, having no other employment at New York, have made our little fleet their sole object for some time, and have now cruizing for us nothing less than

1. ship of 64. guns
4. 50.
2. 40.
18. frigates from 24 to 30. guns, a most amazing force for such an
25.

object.3 the merchants who intended to have sent their vessels out with us, have so far declined it, that two vessels only go with us, but they are unfortunately the greatest sluggards in the world.4 the Minister has given Ville-brun leave to remain if he thinks it expedient till the Middle of March but politely & kindly offered the Guardaloupe for my passage if I chose to run the risk.5 I find that having laid ten months under water she got perfectly sobbed,6 insomuch that she sweats almost continually on the inside. in consequence of which her commander & several of the crew are now laid up with rheumatisms: but this I should have disregarded had it not appeared that it was giving to the enemy the ship & crew of a friend, & delaying myself in fact by endeavoring at too much haste. I therefore have not made use of the liberty given me by the minister.7 Ville-brun seems certain he shall not sail till the first of March and I confess to you I see no reason to suppose that when that time arrives the same causes will not place our departure as distant as it now seems.8 What then is to be done? I will mention the several propositions which occur with some reflections on each.

1. to go to Boston & embark thence. would to God I had done this at first. I might now have been half-way across the Ocean, but it seems very late to undertake a journey of such length, thro’ such roads, & such weather: & when I should get there some delay would still necessarily intervene. yet I am ready to undertake it if this shall be thought best.

2. to stay here with patience till our enemies shall think proper to clear our coast. there is no certain termination to this object. it may not be till the end of the war.

3. to fall down to York or Hampton9 & there wait those favourable circumstances of winds & storms which the winter season sometimes presents. this would be speedier than the 2d. but perhaps it may not be approved of by the commander for reasons which may be good tho’ unknown to me. Should this however be adopted we ought to be furnished by the Marine department10 with, or authorised to employ one or more swift sailing boats to go out of the capes occasionally & bring us intelligence to York or Hampton wherever we should be.

4. to ask a flag for me from the enemy & charter a vessel here. this would be both quickest, & most certain, but perhaps it may be thought injurious to the dignity of the states, or perhaps be thought such a favour as Congress might not chuse to expose themselves to the refusal of. with respect to the last, nothing can be said: as to the first, I suppose, were history sought, many precedents might be found where one of the belligerent powers has received from the other, passports for their plenipotentiaries;11 & I suppose that Fitzgerald & Oswald got to Paris now under protection of a flag & passport.12 however these are tender points & I would not wish the sensibility of Congress to be tried on my account, if it would be probably disagreeable.

5. to await a truce. this cannot take place till after preliminaries signed, if then:13 & tho’ these are not definitive, yet it must be evident that new instructions & new or perhaps inconsistent matter would be introduced with difficulty & discredit.

There is an idle report here of peace being actually concluded. this comes by the way of the W. Indies, and must probably be founded on the settlement of preliminaries, if it has any foundation at all.14

Should you think that the interference of Congress might expedite my departure in any of the above ways or any other I have suggested these hasty reflections in hopes that you would do in it whatever you think right. I shall acquiesce in any thing, & if nothing further comes to me I shall endeavor to push the third proposition with the Commander,15 & if I fail in that shall pursue the 2d. I wish to hear from you as often as you have any thing new. I fear I shall be here long enough to receive many letters from you. my situation is not an agreeable one, and the less so as I contrast it with the more pleasing one I left so unnecessarily. Be so good as to present my esteem to the good ladies & gentlemen of your fireside16 & to accept yourself the warmest assurances of friendship from Dr. Sir

Your friend & servt

Th: Jefferson

Feb. 8. the preceding was written the last night. before I close my letter I will ask the favor of you to write me by the return of post and to let me have your own sentiments (whether any thing be, or be not determined authoritatively) which will have great weight with me.17 I confess that after another night’s reflection the 4th. is the plan which appears to me best on the whole, and that the demand from New York is nothing more than what is made at the close of almost every war, where the one or the other power must have a passport: it is no more than asking a flag to New-York. should this however be disapproved, the 3d seems the only remaining plan which promises any degree of expedition. perhaps the minister may have a repugnance to venture the Romulus at York or Hampton, in which case if I could receive his approbation I should be willing to fall down there with the Guardaloupe alone, & be in readiness to avail ourselves of a Northwesterly snowstorm or other favourable circumstance.

1Robert R. Livingston. For the letter, see Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , VI, 228–29.

2La Villebrune was aboard the “Romulus” (Jefferson to JM, 31 Jan. 1783, n. 4). A few days before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on 19 October 1781, the 28-gun British frigate “Guadeloupe” was scuttled by her crew to avoid capture (French Ensor Chadwick, ed., The Graves Papers and Other Documents Relating to the Naval Operations of the Yorktown Campaign, July to October, 1781 [New York, 1916], p. 151). Probably late the next summer the “Guadeloupe” was raised and added to La Villebrune’s command (Cal. of Va. State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , III, 350).

3Among the enemy craft cruising off, and sometimes within, the Virginia capes during the winter of 1782–1783 were the ships of the line “Lion” (64 guns) and “Diomede” (54); the frigates “Centurion” (50), “Amphion” (32), “Cerberus” (28), “Cyclops” (28), “Hussar” (28), “Tartar” (28), “Pandora” (24), and “Harrier” (18); and the privateers “Active,” “Admiral Digby,” “Kidnapper,” and “Prince William Henry” (W[illia]m Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History From the Earliest Times to the Present [7 vols.; Boston, 1897–1903], IV, 93; W[illia]m M. James, The British Navy in Adversity: A Study of the War of American Independence [London, 1926], pp. 434, 436, 441; Cal. of Va. State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , III, 435, 436, 452, 458, 469; Va. Gazette description begins Virginia Gazette, or, the American Advertiser (Richmond, James Hayes, 1781–86). description ends , 8, 15 Feb.; 1, 15 Mar. 1783).

4“French transports loaded with Virginia products,” noted an enemy observer, “are vainly riding at anchor along the Chesapeake shore” (Bernhard A. Uhlendorf, trans. and ed., Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals 1776–1784 of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces [New Brunswick, N.J., 1957], p. 547).

5La Villebrune, having been instructed by the “Minister,” La Luzerne, to make this offer, extended it to Jefferson on 6 February 1783 (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , VI, 227–28).

6That is, “water-soaked.” See n. 2.

7Jefferson’s letter of 7 February 1783 to La Luzerne, declining his invitation, is cited in n. 5.

8It was April 1783 before the British ships cruising off the Virginia capes were ordered to return to New York Harbor (Cal. of Va. State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , III, 469).

9Both Yorktown, eight miles above the headlands of the York River, and especially Hampton, fronting on Hampton Roads, are near the Virginia capes.

10Robert Morris was agent of marine.

11Hugo Grotius cited “many precedents” from Greek and Roman history of the “right of safe-conduct” accorded to the truce or peace envoys of a belligerent power by the government of their enemy (Hugo Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis [2 vols.; London, 1913–25], II [Francis W. Kelsey et al., trans.], 438, 449, 832, 839–41).

12Jefferson refers to Alleyne Fitzherbert and Richard Oswald. See Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , IV, 179, n. 5; Index of Vol. V under their respective names; JM to James Madison, Sr., 1 Jan.; Harrison to Delegates, 4 Jan. 1783, and n. 3. During the negotiations beginning in the summer of 1782, official agents or peace commissioners, including Oswald, often traveled back and forth between Paris and London, protected by passports which usually obliged them to go by way of Ostend (Wharton, Revol. Dipl. Corr description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends ., V, 563, 566, 603). The passport issued in 1782 to Henry Laurens, assuring him of immunity from capture by the British during his trip from London to the Netherlands, afforded no precedent, for Laurens, free on parole and Richard Oswald’s bond, regarded himself as being only “a prisoner upon parade” (Richard B. Morris, The Peacemakers, pp. 265–68; Wharton, Revol. Dipl. Corr description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends ., VI, 121; Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , V, 143–45).

13Although Great Britain and the United States maintained on the whole a de facto truce during 1782 in land warfare, and the signing of preliminary terms of peace concluded by their commissioners in Paris on 30 November of that year was known in America by early in February 1783, hostilities off the Atlantic coast continued until April, when the naval commanders were informed that on 3 and 9 February Great Britain, France, and Spain also had agreed upon the preliminary terms of peace concluded by their commissioners on 20 January. The proclamation of King George III, “declaring the cessation of arms, as well by sea as land,” was issued on 14 February (JM Notes, 13 Feb., and 31 Mar. 1783; Wharton, Revol. Dipl. Corr description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends ., VI, 223–25, 251–52).

15La Villebrune.

17On 11 February Congress referred Jefferson’s letter of 7 February to Livingston (n. 1, above) to a committee, with Joseph Jones as chairman. For the committee’s report, see JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 132; JM Notes, 14 Feb.; JM to Jefferson, 11 Feb., n. 6; 12 Feb.; 15 Feb. 1783.

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