Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, [6 February 1785]

To James Monroe

[6 Feb. 1785]

Dear Sir

You were informed by my letters of Nov. 11 and Jan. 14. that the cypher established between us would not explain a syllable of your letters. Those of Nov. 1. and Dec. 14. having rendered me extremely desirous of decyphering them, I sat to work with a resolution to effect it if possible. I soon found that they were written by your first cypher. To this therefore I applied myself and after several days spent on it I was able to set to rights the many errors of your copyist, whose inattention alone had induced those difficulties. I found the numbers in my copy and yours to correspond as follows.

from 1….153. was right.
154. in yours corresponded to 185 in mine
from 156 to 205 in yours corresponded to from 186 to 235 in mine
206 to 236 corresponded to 154 to 184
237 to 248 to 236 to 247
268 to 352   266 to 350
359 to 454   356 to 451
456 to 551   452 to 547
558 to 989   553 to 984
994,995   988,989
996, 997   01, 02
02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09   06, 07, 08, 09, 009, 008, 007, 006.
006, 002, 017, 016, 060, 050, 032, 041,042   002, 017, 013, 012, 020, 021, 036,045,046.

The remaining numbers of the cypher either did not enter into your letters at all, or not often enough to detect the errors. I have now therefore completely decyphered your letters of June 1. June 25. Nov. 1. and Dec. 14. At present my only uneasiness is about my letters which have gone to you in cypher. That of Nov. 11. must have been in the 1st. cypher. For this reason I have noted to you the differences in our copies as above, that you may translate my numbers into yours. As I received the 2d. cypher the 29th. of Nov. I think it probable that my letters of Dec. 10. and Jan. 14. were written by that. If they were, I am in hopes you will have understood them. If they were written by the 1st. you will now be able by translating the numbers to understand them also; and thus this comedy of errors will be cleared up. Since writing so far I have made out a table adjusting the numbers in my copy to those in yours, which will enable you to translate with ease.

Our business goes on very slowly.1 No answers from Spain or Britain. The backwardness of the latter is not new. Perhaps Mr. Jay or Mr. Lawrence [Laurens] who have been at that court since the present ministry have been in place may have been able to account for this on better grounds than we can. The English parliament Irish parliament and Irish convention sitting together will surely bring their disputes to a crisis. Scotland too seems to be stepping in as a third party with her difficulties. And their affairs in the East Indies are in a wretched situation. The opposition have opened their campain on the East India regulations, the proceedings with Ireland, and the late taxes. The minister having declared he will propose a plan of parliamentary reform, they have taken the contrary side of course on that question. I am anxious to see whether the parliament will take any and what steps as to our commerce. The effecting treaties with the powers holding possessions in the West Indies I consider as the important part of our business. It is not of great consequence whether the others treat or not. Perhaps trade may go on with them well enough without. But Britain, Spain, Portugal [and] France are consequent, and Holland, Denmark [and] Sweden may be of service too. We have hitherto waited for favorable circumstances to press matters with France. We are now about to do it tho I cannot say the prospect is good. The merchants of this country are very clamorous against our admission into the West Indies and ministers are afraid for their places. The pamphlet which I send you is approved by the sensible people here, and I am in hopes has been of some service. There are warm ones writ against it. Our affairs with the pyratical states are distressing. It is impossible I fear to find out what is given by other countries. Either shame or jealousy makes them wish to keep it secret. Several of their ministers to whom we have applied have promised to procure information. These pyrates are contemptibly weak. Morocco who has first dared to commit an outrage on us owns only four or five frigates, of 18 or 20 guns. There is not a port in their country which has more than 13. feet water. Tunis is not quite so strong (having 3. or 4. frigates only, small and worthless), is more mercantile than predatory, and would easily be led to treat, either by money or fear. Tripoli has one frigate only. Algiers alone possesses any power, and they are brave. As far as I have been able to discover she possesses about 16. vessels from 22 up to 52 guns. But the vessels of all these powers are wretched in the last degree, being mostly built of the discordant peices of other vessels which they take and pull asunder. Their cordage and sails are of the same kind, taken from vessels of different sizes and forms, seldom any two guns of the same bore, and all of them light. These states too are divided, and jealous of each other, and especially of Algiers the most powerful. The others would willingly see her reduced. We have two plans to pursue. The one to carry nothing for ourselves, and thereby render ourselves invulnerable to the European states; the other (which our country will be for) is to carry as much as possible. But this will require a protecting force on the sea. Otherwise the smallest powers in Europe, every one which possesses a single ship of the line may dictate to us, and enforce their demands by captures on our commerce. Some naval force then is necessary if we mean to be commercial. Can we have a better occasion of beginning one? Or find a foe more certainly within our dimensions? The motives pleading for war rather than tribute are numerous and honourable, those opposing them are mean and shortsighted: however if it be decided that their peace shall be bought it shall engage my most earnest endeavours. It is as incertain as ever whether we are to have war or peace.—The ministers of this country intimate peace and Monsr. de Maillebois who is to command the Dutch army is not set out. I should consider his departure as an indication of war.

I must pray you to send your letters by the French packet. They come by that conveyance with certainty, having first undergone the ceremony of being opened and read in the post office which I am told is done in every country in Europe. Letters by the way of England are sometimes months getting from London here. Give me fully always the Congressional news, and by every letter if you please the journals of Congress.

I would make an additional observation or two as to the pyratical states. If we enter into treaty there, a consul must be kept with each to recover our vessels taken in breach of their treaty. For these violations they practise constantly against the strongest nations, and the vessels so taken are recovered with trouble and always some loss and considerable delay. The attempts heretofore made to suppress these powers have been to exterminate them at one blow. They are too numerous and powerful by land for that. A small effort, but long continued, seems to be the only method. By suppressing their marine and trade totally and continuing this till the present race of seamen should be pretty well out of the way and the younger people betaken to husbandry for which their soil and climate is well fitted, these nests of banditti might be reformed. I am not well enough acquainted with the present dispositions of the European courts to say whether a general confederacy might be formed for suppressing these pyracies. Such as should refuse would give us a just right to turn pyrates also on their West India trade, and to require an annual tribute which might reimburse what we may be obliged to pay to obtain a safe navigation in their seas. Were we possessed even of a small naval force what a bridle would it be in the mouths of the West India powers and how respectfully would they demean themselves toward us. Be assured that the present disrespect of the nations of Europe for us will inevitably bring on insults which must involve us in war. A coward is much more exposed to quarrels than a man of spirit.

Be so good as to present one of the pamphlets with my esteem to Mr. Gherry and let him know he is a letter in my debt. I am Dr. Sir Yours affectionately,

Th: Jefferson

RC (DLC: Monroe Papers); undated and without indication of addressee; partly in code. Entry in SJL reads: “[Feb. 6] Jas. Monroe. I have decyphered his letters. Send him table of corrections for 1st. cypher. Slowness of our business. English difficulties, viz. E. Ind. Ireld. Scotld. and new taxes-treaties with powers having W.I. possessions important. Perhaps the others not so. Send Du Buc’s pamphlet. Prospect here not flattering—pyratical states. Cannot find what is given by other states in Eur. Some of their ministers have promised to procure intelligence—their marine force—we must either not carry on ocean and thereby be invulnerable to Eur. or have protecting force. Smallest state may insult us and will insult us. This will inevitably involve us in war. Better therefore begin marine. No enemy so propitious as pyratical states—war and peace doubtful. Maillebois not set out—send letters by French packet. [Note: I used 2d cypher]. Deliver 1. Du Buc to Gherry.” Enclosures: (1) Table (missing) corresponding to that in text above for correcting Code No. 5; (2) copy of the pamphlet by Jean Baptiste Dubucq, Le Pour et le contre sur un objet de grande discorde et d’importance majeure: convient-il à l’administration de céder part ou de ne rien céder aux étrangers dans le commerce de la métropole avec ses colonies? (Lon don [i.e., Paris], 1784? Sabin No. 21034).

Your first cypher: Code No. 5, which was transmitted to TJ by Samuel Hardy in his letter of 21 May 1784. The 2d. cypher: Code No. 6, which was enclosed in Monroe’s letter to TJ of 20 July 1784. Monroe’s letter of JUNE 25: Probably an error for Monroe’s letter of 25 May 1784, which employed the “first cypher” and which, along with Monroe’s of 1 June, TJ found he could not decode, as he informed Monroe on 11 Nov. 1784.

1This and subsequent words in italics are written in code and have been decoded by the editors, employing Code No. 6. A marginal note opposite this point in TJ’s hand reads: “2d. cypher.”

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