Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Thomas McKean, 4 August 1781

To Thomas McKean

Albemarle Aug. 4. 1781.1


The letter of June the 15th. with which your Excellency was pleased to honor me came unfortunately when I was absent on a journey to the county of Bedford an hundred miles Southward of this. I there received it on the 9th. of July, and a return to this place was necessary to furnish me certain informations on which depended materially my powers to obey the wishes of Congress. This return was retarded till within these few days by an unlucky fall from a horse which rendered me unable to travel and produced so much of the delay of this answer as has occurred with me.2

I fully feel how honourable is the confidence which Congress has been pleased to repose in me by their appointment to the high and arduous duty of assisting in the negotiations for peace, and do sincerely3 lament the existence of circumstances which take from me the right of accepting so desireable an office. But when I consider the abilities which will be opposed to those who undertake this great work, the knowledge and talents requisite to weigh and discuss the great interests of the contending powers and of all their members, and to investigate and foil the various combinations which artifice and intrigue will form against them, I am conscious of nothing within myself which fits me for such an encounter. To this disqualification which is perpetual in it’s nature, is added a temporary and indispensable4 obligation of being within this state till a later season of the present year than the duties of this appointment would admit. After begging your Excellency therefore to make my most grateful acknowledgements to Congress for the honor they destined me, I must ask their leave to decline the undertaking; in doing which I should not render justice to myself were I not to declare my zealous wishes to serve our common country on the most general principles, and at the same time the particular pleasure with which I should have undertaken this appointment had it depended on circumstances within my power to controul.

I have the honor to be with infinite respect Your Excellency’s Most obedient & most humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (DLC: PCC, No. 78, xiii); endorsed in part: “Read 27 to be considered only.” Dft (DLC: TJ Papers); at foot of text: “Pr. of Congress.” TJ began his draft of this letter the day after he received Huntington’s letter of 15 June (see note 1, below). The ink is faded and portions of the text are illegible; the sheet was folded and is worn at the folds, indicating that TJ probably carried it about with him until he revised it. When the letter was revised, presumably on or about 4 Aug., TJ used a different ink, which is unfaded. Thus the later revisions may be clearly distinguished from his first composition.

The letter of June the 15th was, of course, Huntington’s to TJ; McKean succeeded Huntington as president of Congress on 10 July 1781 (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xx, 733). The present letter was transmitted to Congress through Lafayette (see TJ to Lafayette, this date); it was read in Congress on 27 Aug. and ordered to “be considered on Wednesday next,” but nothing further appears in the journals until 8 Oct. 1781 when a motion to assign a date “for electing a minister plenipotentiary to negotiate &c. in the room of Mr. Jefferson, who has declined the appointment” was lost on a roll-call vote (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, D.C., 1904–37, 34 vols. description ends , xxi, 910, 1043; the motion and vote were recorded “only in the More Secret Journal”). When TJ failed to respond promptly to Huntington’s letter of 15 June, McKean wrote again 20 Aug., to which TJ replied 7 Sep. 1781. On 23 Nov. 1781 the secretary for foreign affairs laid before Congress heads of a verbal communication from La Luzerne informing him, among other matters, that Vergennes, in a letter of 7 Sep. 1781, had assured La Luzerne that the “King of France had received with great pleasure an account of Mr. Adams, Mr. Franklin, and Mr. Jay’s appointment” and also expressed “favourable sentiments of them, and Mr. Jefferson, from his general reputation” (same, xxi, 1138).

1The first date line read: “Poplar Forest Bedford July 10. 1781”; in the revision, TJ first wrote, “Monticello,” then substituted “Albemarle.”

2The text to this point is entirely in the ink of the revision; and was substituted for two sentences, only the first of which is legible: “I had yesterday the honor of receiving your Excellency’s letter of June 15.”

3The words “do sincerely” were substituted in the later revision for “thoroughly.”

4The words “and indispensable” were inserted in the revision.

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