Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 11 May 1785

To Elbridge Gerry

Paris, May 11, 1785.

Dear Sir

Your favour of February 25th came to hand on the 26th of April. I am not a little at a loss to devise how it has happened that mine of November 11th, which I sent by colonel Le Mair, and who I know arrived at New-York the 15th of January, should have been so long kept from your hands as till the 25th February. I am much afraid that many letters sent by the same hand have experienced the same delay, and among these a public letter from the commissioners to congress, which we do not yet know that they have ever received, any more than the subsequent ones sent regularly by every packet since. We are told that this government will in the course of the ensuing months remove their packets to Havre, which will facilitate the conveyance through the posts to the packets, but most of all will enable us to forward packages too heavy for the post. That port is more convenient too for our trade while at peace with England. The marquis de Lafayette, whose zeal for America is great, expressed to me a desire of endeavouring to obtain it as a free port, and asked my opinion. I knew that it would be disagreeable to the government that free ports, round which is drawn a wall of separation from the country in which they are, from which commodities are not permitted to be sold to the interior country, and which in fact are restrained to the sole office of an entrepot, were of little value to us, because our merchants will never find it answer their account to unship their produce merely to ship it again for another market. They must always know beforehand where they can sell, and carry directly thither. I therefore recommended to the marquis not to attempt it, that by asking small favours we should weaken our pretensions to great ones, and that I wished him to reserve his efforts and influence for the great objects of our mission. I think he will do it, as nothing seems to be nearer his heart than the serving America. As yet nothing has been opened here; the times did not admit it. The arrêt on the West India commerce last winter raised a furious tempest against the minister. It has been with difficulty that he could keep the ground which that had gained. The storm is not yet over, but its force is so far spent that I think there is little danger of the merchants forcing him to retract: but whether more can be got is a desperate question; it shall be tried when circumstances are ripe for it. The marquis has showed his attention to us in another instance, as you will see by a contract for the supply of whale oil, which Mr. Adams carries over. There were circumstances in this which were not as precise as could have been wished, but as it will rest with our merchants to accept or to refuse the contract, I thought it worth concluding; on which question the marquis was so good as to consult Mr. Adams, sen. and myself. I have great reason to be grateful to my friends in congress for the partialities so often shown me in their European appointments. I will endeavour honestly to deserve them, and shall be supremely rewarded if I can give them content. Mr. Adams sets out in a few days for London: on him we shall rest the desperate task of negotiation with that court. Perhaps the just resentment lately excited in America by their conduct and the probability of our acting as a nation by retaliating measures may induce them to lend a listening ear to equal propositions. I have much feared that their measures and their temper would lead towards hostilities. As yet we ought not to think of war with a powerful nation: there are, to be sure, measures which would force it on us. Under the possibility of this event, we were anxious to obtain a right of selling prizes in war in the Prussian ports, and the cession of this point by the king may in that case have the most important consequences. Great Britain has but two resources for naval stores, America and Russia. The first of these ceases to be open to her in case of a war with us, and we can in a great measure intercept her supplies from Russia, possessing protection and a free sale in the Prussian ports. It will employ a respectable part of her naval force to protect her supplies from that quarter. Much could have been done against her in this way in the last war, had we possessed this privilege. We are glad also to close this treaty on account of the respect paid to whatever the king of Prussia does. Of all the powers not holding American territory, a connexion with him will give us the most credit.

I think it probable that the peace will be kept in Europe, at least between the emperour and Dutch. This country has just lost a great statesman in the duke de Choiseul. Though out of the administration, he was universally esteemed, and always supposed to be in the way of entering into it again. He died two days ago.

I pray you to write to me as often as you can find time. I will be punctual in returning it. Besides the public transactions of America, the objects of the different parts of congress, their workings and counterworkings, what you refuse to do as well as what you do will be most interesting to me. A dry reading of the journals does not give that intimate knowledge of their dispositions, which may enable one to act to their wishes in cases unprovided for. This will be delivered you by young Mr. Adams. His being the son of your particular friend renders unnecessary from me those commendations of him which I could with truth enter into. I congratulate your country on their prospect in this young man. I pray you to believe me with much sincerity, Your affectionate friend and servant,

Th: Jefferson

MS not found; text from James T. Austin, The Life of Elbridge Gerry, Boston, 1828, i, 486–90. Entry in SJL reads: “Elbridge Gherry. Receipt of his of Feb. 25. Packets go to Havre next month. M. Fay[ette]’s proposition to get it made free port. My objections. His zeal. Arret on W. India commerce. Ferment not subsiding. Marquis bargain for whale oil. My appointment. Mr. Ad[ams] goes in a few days to Engld. Perhaps American resentment may open their ears. Importance of article in Prussian treaty for selling our prizes in their ports. Peace. Death of Choiseul. Write me history of Congressional proceedings. Young Adams.” In margin opposite entry in SJL is the notation: “by Mr. Adams. May packet.”

The arrêt … raised a furious tempest against the minister: The protest of the Chamber of Commerce of Picardy of 25 Jan. 1785 was typical. It declared that “L’Arrêt du Conseil du 30 Aoust dernier qui ouvre différents Ports d’Entrepots dans les Isles françoises de l’Amérique avec la faculté d’y admettre les Batimens Etrangers, porte le Coup le plus funeste à la prosperité de la Nation. … En conséquence la Chambre du Commerce de Picardie ose espérer de la Sagesse comme de la Justice de Sa Majesté, qu’elle dainera retirer cette Loy aussi nuisible aux Revenus de l’Etat, qu’Onéreuse et destructive du Commerce de la Monarchie” (Arch. Aff. Etr., Paris, Corr. Pol., E.-U., xxix, 32–8; Tr in DLC; a copy of the Arrêt of 30 Aug. 1784 is among TJ’s books in DLC, Sowerby, description begins Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, compiled with annotations by E. Millicent Sowerby, Washington, 1952–53 description ends No. 2293). the contract for the supply of the whale oil, dated 7 May 1785, and signed by Tourtille de Sangrain, is in DLC: TJ Papers, 51: 8740–4. For an account of this contract, which Lafayette negotiated in order to promote the sale of whale oil for street illumination in Paris and other cities of France, see Gottschalk, Lafayette, 1783–89 description begins Louis Gottschalk, Lafayette between the American Revolution and the French Revolution (1783–1789), Chicago, 1950 description ends , p. 165–6 text and references cited there. The original of Lafayette’s letter to Adams, 8 May 1785, reporting the consummation of the agreement, is also in DLC: TJ Papers, 12: 2068, and reads in part as follows: “If you think the Bargain is good, your son might propose the proposition to our New England friends, and take charge of the Samples of oil that will be Ready to Morrow-in which Case, I would propose His Meeting Mr. Jefferson Where a man of the police will attend at Whatever Hour in the morning you please to Appoint. When you send Back the papers, I will show them to Mr. Jefferson and Know from Him if it is Convenient we should wait upon Him, your son, the police Man and myself about ten in the Morning.” Though the final terms of the contract were agreed upon at TJ’s house (Gottschalk, same, p. 166), the negotiations had been begun by Lafayette with Adams: “I am indeed no stranger to the Marquis’s exertions in the affair of the Oil, and it may not be improper to mention to you the particulars of the Rise and Progress of them. One day at dinner I believe at his House or mine, he addressed himself to me, and said, he had been treated with so much affection and respect at Boston and its Neighborhood that he wished it was in his Power to do some service to that part of America. I said it would be easy to put him in a Way to do a very valuable service. He said I had but to mention any Thing in his Power and it should be done. I replied that we wanted to know 1. with what sort of Oil the Riverberes of Paris and other Cities were illuminated. 2. what was the Price of that Oil. 3. whether it was the Growth and Manufacture of France or of Foreign countries. 4. whether it were paid for in Cash or French produce or Manufactures. 5. who had the Care of the Lamps Oil and Illumination, whether the court or the City. 6. what Duties were now payable on the Importation of Foreign Fish Oil. 7. whether those Duties would be taken off and lastly whether any plan could be contrived to introduce into the reverbers of France, the White Sperma Coeti oil of New England? He said he was very much obliged to me and I should hear further from him. He was as good as his Word and soon informed me that Monsieur Tourtille de Sangrain had a Contract for Illuminating thirty Cities for fifteen years. That he had seen him and concerted a plan, that he had obtained of Monsieur de Calonne his promise to take off the Duties for a Trial, and without any more details he obtained of Mr. de Sangrain the Proposals and samples sent to America by my son. In an affair of such Consequence, and in so critical a moment it is to be wished that some voluntary association of private Gentlemen, or even the Legislature of the state had agreed to the proposals at a Venture. Perhaps however the method taken is a better one” (Adams to Nathaniel Barrett, 2 Dec. 1785, MHi: AMT; see also Adams to TJ, 2 Dec. 1785).

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