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To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 30 December 1793

From Thomas Jefferson

Philadelphia, Decr 30.1 1793.


Certain proceedings of the ministers of the United States abroad, on Behalf of M. de la Fayette rendering it necessary that I should do myself the honor of addressing you on that subject in order that the proper sanction may be obtained for what is done, I shall be justified by the interest which yourself and our fellow citizens generally feel in the fortunes and sufferings of that Gentleman in suggesting something more for his future aid.

Soon after his captivity and imprisonment, and before the ministers had received our instructions to endeavor to obtain his liberation, they were apprised that his personal restraint, and the peculiar situation of his fortune disabled him from drawing resources from that, and would leave him liable to suffer for subsistence, and the common necessaries of life. After a consultation by letter, therefore, between our ministers at Paris, London, and the Hague, they concurred in opinion that they ought not in such a case to wait for instructions from hence, but that his necessities should be provided for until they could receive such instructions. Different sums have been therefore either placed at his disposal, or answered on his draughts, amounting, as far as we hitherto know to about twelve or thirteen hundred Guineas. This has been taken from a fund not applicable by law to this purpose nor able to spare it: and the question is whether, and how it is to be made good? To do this, nothing more is requisite than that the United States should not avail themselves of the Liberalities of M. de la Fayette, yielded at a moment when neither he nor we could foresee the time when they would become his only resource for subsistence. It appears by a statement from the war office, hereto annexed, that his pay and commutation as a major General in the service of the United States to the 3rd of nov. 1783 amounted to 24,100 dollrs thirteen Cents exclusive of ten years interest elapsed since that time, to the payment of which the following obstacle has occurred. at the foot of the original engagement by Mr Deane, a copy of which is hereto annexed, that a certain roll of officers there named, and of which

M. de la Fayette was one, should be taken into the american service in the grades there specified, M. de la Fayette alone has subjoined for himself a declaration that he would serve without any particular allowance or pension.2 It may be doubted whether the words in the original French do strictly include the general allowance of pay and commutation.3 and if they do, there is no evidence of any act of acceptance by Congress. Yet, under all the circumstances of the case, it is thought that the legislature alone is competent to decide it. If they decline availing the United States of the declaration of M. de la Fayette, it leaves a fund which not only covers the advances which have been made, but will enable you take measures for his future relief. It does it too, in a way which can give offence to nobody, since none have a right to complain of the payment of a debt, that being a moral duty, from which we cannot be discharged by any relation in which the creditor may be placed as to them. I therefore take the liberty of proposing that this matter may be submitted to the consideration of the Legislature, who will determine in their wisdom whether the supplies already furnished, or any others in future, shall be sanctioned by them, and made good in the way here suggested, or in any other which they shall deem more proper. I have the honor to be, with the most perfect respect & attachment, Sir, Your most obedient and Most humble servant

Th: Jefferson

LS, DNA: RG 46, Third Congress, 1793–95, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages; ADf, DLC: Jefferson Papers; LB, DNA: RG 233, Third Congress, 1793–95, House Records of the Office of the Clerk, Records for Reports of Executive Departments; LB, DNA: RG 46, Transcribed Reports and Communications Transmitted by the Executive Branch to the U.S. Senate, 1789–1819.

GW transmitted this letter and its enclosures with his second letter to the United States Senate and House of Representatives of this date, and Congress passed on 27 March 1794 “An Act allowing to Major General La Fayette his pay and emoluments while in the service of the United States,” which allowed Lafayette $24,424 to “be paid out of any moneys which may be in the treasury and not otherwise appropriated” (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 , 6:14).

1On the LS the date was changed from “31” to “30”; the draft is dated “Dec. 31.”

2This enclosure consists of a list of thirteen foreign officers engaged between 7 Nov. and 7 Dec. 1776, with their agreed ranks, signed on 7 Dec. by Silas Deane, Lafayette, and Johann Kalb, to which is appended statements of the same date by Deane and Lafayette, given first in French and then in English translation. The translation of Deane’s statement reads: “The desire which Mr the Marquis de la Fayette shews, of serving among the Troops of the United States of north America, and the interest which he takes in the justice of their cause making him wish to distinguish himself in this war and to render himself as useful as he possibly can: but not thinking that he can obtain leave of his family to pass the seas and serve in a foreign country till he can go as a General Officer; I have thought I could not better serve my Country and those who have entrusted me than by granting to him in the name of the very honorable Congress the rank of Major General which I beg the States to confirm to him, to ratify and deliver to him the Commission to hold and take rank, to count from this day, with the General Officers of the same degree. His high birth, his alliances, the great dignities which his family holds at this Court, his considerable estates in this Realm, his personal merit, his reputation, his disinterestedness, and above all his zeal for the liberty of our provinces, have only been able to engage me to promise him the rank of Major General in the name of the United States.”

The translation of Lafayette’s statement reads: “On the conditions here explained I offer myself, and promise to depart when and how Mr Deane shall judge proper, to serve the United States with all possible zeal, without any pension or particular allowance, reserving to myself the liberty of returning to Europe when my Family or my King shall recall me.” In French the significant phrase reads, “sans aucune Pension ny traittement particulier” (copy, DNA: RG 46, Third Congress, 1793–95, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages).

Deane (1737–1789), formerly a Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress, was sent to France in April 1776 to buy supplies. Later that year he was designated one of three American commissioners at Paris, a post he continued to hold until recalled in 1778.

3In his draft, Jefferson began the next sentence with the following clause, which he then struck: “however it may be well conceived that the officers of the government would not undertake in a case of doubtful construction.”

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