Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Charles Williamos, 7 July 1785

To Charles Williamos

Paris July 7. 1785.


The inclosed letter will inform you how much reason I have to be dissatisfied with the liberty you have taken with my name. Did the humiliating light in which you have represented me concern me as an individual only, I should be disposed to neglect it, and to spare myself the pain of the present letter. But in my present situation my conduct and character is interesting to the nation whose servant I am. I have no right therefore to neglect this transaction. The man upon whom the pecuniary injury falls has applied to me for a certificate that you were not authorized by me in what you did, of which he means to avail himself with the Police. I have desired him to apply to you, with an assurance that if he did not obtain immediate satisfaction, I would give him the certificate desired. To remove the foundation of such an abuse hereafter I must pray a discontinuance of all further intercourse between us. I find this the more necessary as an opinion has got abroad, I know not how, that you are invested with some public character from the United States. It is not proper that their reputation should be staked on the conduct of any person with whom they have not really entrusted it. I have, as was my duty, contradicted this opinion, on every proper occasion, by assuring those who had entertained it that you had not received this mark of confidence from our new republic, and that you could not as yet be a citizen of it, as you had visited it only for two or three months since the peace, and were still as I had understood an officer on half pay in the British service, a condition inconsistent with the abjuration of allegiance to any foreign power which is necessary on becoming an American citizen. I rely on your concurrence in setting the public opinion to rights on this subject; and if I have been misinformed as to the circumstance of your being still on British pay I shall be glad to be set to rights myself. I am Sir Your humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC). The “inclosed letter” has not been found, but it was probably from Lonpry, a tailor.

Williamos’ indebtedness to Lonpry, a tailor, was evidently the immediate occasion for TJ’s cold dismissal of one who had enjoyed his friendship in 1784–1785, but it is also apparent that his anger, which seldom reached such intensity, is itself a measure of the intimacy and trust that TJ believed Williamos had violated in other respects as well. Because of this and because of the mystery—not to say confusion as to identity—that has surrounded Williamos, the shadowy figure who provoked this unusual letter demands attention. “Mr. Williamos,” wrote Abigail Adams, who was charmed by him and who seldom failed to report character accurately, “… is a Swiss by birth, a very clever, sensible, obliging man, who is a very great intimate of Mr. Jefferson’s, which alone would be sufficient to recommend him” (8 Mch. 1785; C. F. Adams, ed., Letters of Mrs. Adams, Boston, 1848, p. 238). Shortly before leaving Auteuil Mrs. Adams again wrote: “I have returned from Mr. Jefferson’s. When I got there, I found a pretty large company… . Mr. Williamos, of course, as he always dines with Mr. Jefferson” (7 May 1785; same, p. 240). TJ had seen something of Williamos in Boston in 1784 (see entries for TJ to Crèvecoeur and to Williamos, 1 July 1784; House to TJ, 10 Aug. 1784). Williamos came to Paris in the autumn of that year bearing a letter from Horatio Gates, who thought that he had “a great deal of Information” and that his “Observations and Talents, entitle him to be heard with attention” (Gates to TJ, 16 Aug. 1784). During the ensuing months Williamos became an intimate of TJ’s household. Indeed, the references to him in TJ’s Account Book seem more numerous than those to Humphreys and Short. These entries confirm the observant comment of Abigail Adams and reflect the warm friendship and mutual confidence that existed between the two men. Among them the following may be noted—5 Dec. 1784: “Pd Mr. Williamos … 1327f” for “things bought for A. S. Jefferson” and for TJ’s children; 16 Dec. 1784: “Recd of Mr. Wiliamos in part for Adams’s bill sold Couteux 300f”; 20 Dec. 1784: “Repaid Mr. Williamos for sundries for Patsy 24f18”; 30 Dec. 1784: “Pd Mr. Williamos for etrennes for Patsy 78f”; 1 Mch. 1785: “borrowed of Mr. Williamos 6f”; 2 Mch. 1785: “lent Williamos 12f”; 18 Mch. 1785: “lent Mr. Williamos 48f”; 15 Apr. 1785: “Pd Mr. Williamos for 12 lb. bougies 27f.” The final entry is dated 8 Nov. 1785: “gave Mayer for support of Williamos 120f” (see Mazzei to TJ, 26 Oct. 1785). Shortly after this TJ reported to Abigail Adams that Williamos had died about ten days earlier (TJ to Abigail Adams, 20 Nov. 1785). He merely reported the fact, and though others mentioned Williamos in their letters after the break, TJ never did in a way to reveal his feelings (Crèvecoeur to TJ, 15 and 30 Aug. 1785; TJ to Banister, 16 Aug. 1785; Abigail Adams to TJ, 25 Oct. 1785). But even after his unhappy days were ended, Williamos unwittingly injured TJ; at his death a copy of Notes on Virginia, presumably given to him by TJ, “got into the hands of a bookseller, who was about publishing a very abominable translation … when the Abbé Morellet heard of it, and diverted him from it by undertaking to translate it for him” (TJ to Bancroft, 26 Feb. 1786; TJ to Madison, 8 Feb. 1786).

Charles Williamos was commissioned a lieutenant of the 80th. Regiment of Light Armed Foot in America on 29 Dec. 1757; the name is given as Willyamoz. On 22 Mch., 3 May, and 6 May 1760 Charles Williamos was paid “on account for recruiting the Regiment,” and as “Acting Paymaster to the said Regiment on account … from 24 Febr. to 24 April” (Public Record Office, London, Army lists, Index 5448; Deputy-paymasters’ Accounts, America). His facility in the French language, his military service in America, his experiences as a deputy of Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Department, enabled Williamos to develop an understanding of Indian and colonial affairs to which the Duke of Manchester attested in 1766 by recommending to Lord Dartmouth that he be retained in British service (NYHS, Colls., 1922: Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, vi, 158, 169, 209; Calendar of Sir William Johnson Manuscripts, Albany, 1909, p. 123, 166–8, 206, 213, 267, 285; Hist. MSS. Com., Fourteenth Report, Appendix, Part x, London, 1895: The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, ii, 37). In July of 1766 Williamos visited the Southern colonies, where he reported to Dartmouth on affairs in Virginia, advocated the establishment of a bank to remedy the scarcity of money there, and urged that the culture of silk, vines, and olive trees be encouraged in Carolina and Georgia. Both Williamos and TJ happened to be in Williamsburg in July, 1766, and it is possible that their friendship dated from that time, since a young British officer enjoying the notice of Dartmouth would inevitably have been drawn into the circle of which the governor was the center and of which TJ was a member (Williamos to Dartmouth, 3 July 1766, Williamsburg; same, Part x, ii, 45). From 1768 to 1772 Williamos served as collector of customs in Jamaica; in the latter year he applied for appointment as naval officer of New York on the ground that service in Jamaica had been “detrimental to health and fortune” (Williamos to Dartmouth, 28 Sep. 1772; same, Part x, ii, 97, 527). In the next few years he sought various colonial posts and drew up land and fiscal proposals which recommended the establishment of offices whose encumbents would need qualifications remarkably similar to those possessed by Williamos himself. In 1773 he submitted to Dartmouth the idea “of establishing an office of Inspector General of the sales and grants of land, of the Receiver General’s accounts and of the Surveyor General’s offices in North America,” and declared that this was an office which “he would endeavour to discharge with satisfaction” (4 June 1773; same, Part x, ii, 153). A few months later he addressed to Dartmouth a plan to establish “an office for inspecting the sale of lands in North America,” and argued in support of it that the “Spirit of emigration to North America being now so prevailing in Europe the Immense tracts of land which the Crown possesses in that Continent are of course of the greatest importance, and therefore every step ought to be taken to regulate every thing relative to them.” Williamos, of course, expressed a desire for this office, but, he added, “should such an office appear inadmissible [he] offers himself as a candidate to succeed Mr. Shuckburgh as secretary to the Indian affairs under Sir William Johnson” (18 Nov. 1773; same, Part x, ii, 181). In 1774 he applied for the office of surveyor-general of New York, and the next year, in connection with Lord North’s conciliatory resolutions, he suggested that “a Bill … be brought in immediately to appoint a temporary commission to go to America to meet their assemblies separately, and explain to them these resolutions which are liable otherwise to be grossly misrepresented and perverted.” He further suggested the measures to be taken by such a commission in order to “remove the prejudices the Americans now labour under.” Again Williamos doubtless had himself in mind as one of the commissioners (no date; same, Part x, ii, p. 431).

As he explained in his letter to TJ of 8 July 1785, Williamos passed the years of the Revolution in England without performing military service because “it did not suit my principles.” But, as one whose loyalties seem to have been determined somewhat by his perennial and none-too-successful applications for office before the Revolution, Williamos can scarcely be regarded as having become a neutral as a matter of principle. Also, he continued through the Revolution to correspond with an American loyalist who urged the sending of troops and ships to quell the Southern colonies and to rout the “rebellious scoundrels in this Province” (John Wetherhead to Williamos, New York, 5 July 1775; same, Part x, ii, p. 327; Williamos to Wetherhead, London, 1 July 1778, PPAP: Franklin Papers). Late in 1783 Williamos wrote to Franklin from Paris, requesting passports for America and stating that he intended to set out in two days; he also listed, at about the same time, the tracts of land owned by him in America and asked Franklin’s advice about proceedings that he should begin concerning them (Williamos to Franklin, 16 Dec. 1783; PPAP: Franklin Papers, xxx, lvi). It was probably at this time that Williamos gave to Franklin a document concerning the western territory which Franklin forwarded to Congress as from a “Captain Williams, formerly in the British Service, and employed upon the Lakes” (Franklin to Mifflin, 25 Dec. 1783; Franklin, Writings, ed. Smyth, ix, 135). This paper was referred on 5 Mch. 1784 to a committee of which TJ was chairman, but there is no evidence that any report was ever submitted as a result nor has the document itself been found (DNA: PCC, No. 186, p. 151). Williamos evidently did not clear up the matter of his American lands satisfactorily, for early in 1785 Wetherhead, in London, wrote to William Franklin concerning Williamos’ debt to him and at the same time gave him instructions as to collecting it. These instructions, Wetherhead’s letter, and a draft on Williamos were enclosed by Franklin in a letter to an unidentified person suggesting that Williamos would no doubt settle the account in order to prevent Benjamin Franklin from becoming acquainted with his conduct towards Wetherhead (Wetherhead to William Franklin, 2 Feb. 1785, with instructions; PPAP: Franklin Papers; William Franklin to ——, 10 Feb. 1785; same). From this time until August of 1785 Williamos evidently intended to return to America, but pressure from Wetherhead for an overdue debt, threatened disclosure to Franklin, and, later, ill health, combined to prevent him from ever making the voyage.

But it was the newly-appointed chargé d’affaires, Louis Guillaume Otto, who furnished what may be the best explanation for TJ’s uncharacteristically harsh dismissal of Williamos. While waiting to take passage for America, Otto occupied his time at L’Orient by inquiring among the merchants concerning the state of American trade. He found that the merchants there and at Nantes and Bordeaux had been so discouraged by repeated losses and by “peut être trop peu de bonne foi de la part des Americains” that they had resolved not to sell to them except for cash account, a condition that would be almost impossible for them to meet on account of the scarcity of specie in America. Most of the Americans who had established houses at L’Orient, he added, had failed “et le nom Americain est devenu partout un signal de crainte et de mefiance.” There was also anxiety among the merchants lest the packet boats should be changed from L’Orient to Le Havre, and Otto reported that “M. Thevenard Commandant de cette place m’a dit que quoique les paquebots lui donnent beaucoup d’embarras, il desire infiniment pour le bien public que leur destination ne soit changée, qu’il etoit dans l’ordre des choses que ces batimens abordent dans l’endroit où les Americains ont le plus de liaisons et que les retards de la navigation de la manche seroient un grand obstacle à la promptitude des nouvelles d’Amerique.” He went on to say that an American merchant of probity who was attached to France and whom he had known for four years had just confided to him “qu’il soupçonnoit M. Williamos d’être un des principaux partisans du deplacement des paquebots et qu’il se mefioit en general des intentions secrettes de ce particulier qui paroit avoir toute la confiance de M. Jefferson. ‘M. Williamos, m’a-t-il dit, est un de ces hommes qui ont le talent d’adopter les moeurs et les principes de tous les pays où ils se trouvent. Genevois de naissance, il est Anglois à Londres, Americain à Newyorck et françois à Paris. Cependant on doit le croire plutôt Anglois parcequ’il a non seulement servi dans les troupes Britanniques, mais qu’il a été longtems Directeur des Douanes de la Jamaïque, et que ce n’est qu’a la paix qu’il est venu en Amerique afficher l’enthousiasme de la liberté et se concilier par ses declarations contre l’Angleterre l’amitié des personnes les plus considerables des differens Etats. Il n’a pas eu moins de succès à Paris à captiver les ministres Americains et à devenir le Depositaire de leurs secrets. Je ne sais s’il est reellement dans les interêts de l’Angleterre, mais il a assés d’esprit et de connoissance du coeur humain pour mener avec succès les intrigues les plus compliquées et je desire infiniment qu’on se mette en garde contre ses conseils.’—Je ne puis dire, Monseigneur, jusqu’à quel point ces soupçons sont fondés et s’ils ne sont point le resultat d’une haine personnelle. Je connois M. Williamos comme un homme de beaucoup d’instruction et de talens sans avoir jamais eu lieu de le croire opposé à nos interêts; mais il est de mon devoir de Vous informer de tout ce qui me revient sur le caractere des personnes qui ont quelqu’influence dans les affaires de l’Amerique et il me semble que M. Williamos en a beaucoup auprès de M. Jefferson. Je sais qu’il aime à se meler de nos affaires; il m’en a donné encore avant mon depart de Paris une preuve très forte en me montrant un memoire qu’il se proposoit de faire remettre à M. le Mal. de Castries pour lui demontrer la necessité d’etablir un Vice Consul dans le Connecticut et pour solliciter cette place en faveur d’un françois de sa connoissance. Il est grand partisan du Commerce libre des Antilles et de la navigation du Mississipi et à l’entendre la france et l’Espagne sont essentiellement interessés a se laisser depouiller par les Americains” (Otto to Vergennes, 30 June 1785; Arch. Aff. Etr., Corr. Pol., E.-U., xxx; Tr in DLC).

Everything that the unidentified American merchant reported to Otto and all that he himself asserted on the basis of personal knowledge has the ring of truth when compared with Williamos’ known history as a place-hunter. Since TJ’s abrupt ending of his relationship with Williamos came only one week after Otto’s letter to Vergennes, the conclusion is almost inescapable that, indirectly or directly, the astute French minister made its contents known to TJ or hinted to him that there were strong grounds for believing he had admitted a British spy to his confidence. TJ was habituated to debt himself, and throughout life he suffered patiently the importunations of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers without exploding in white anger. But to admit a British agent into his utmost confidence, or even to be thought by the highest of French officials to lie under suspicion of having done so, was something else. The supposition that this was the case is the best explanation for the total severance of relations with Williamos. But, as always, TJ did not allow an imposition or even a supposed betrayal of confidence to triumph over humane feelings. The perennial office-seeker was at last at the end of his resources, and when Williamos’ need became evident a few weeks later, TJ sent money to him indirectly and in a manner to keep its recipient from squandering it or from knowing whence it came (Mazzei to TJ, 26 Oct. 1785). The circumstance of your being still on British pay: Williamos had continued to draw half-pay. The last recorded payment was for six months ending 24 Dec. 1784; the Paymaster General’s Accounts for 1785 and 1786 are missing (Public Record Office, London, PMG, 4/35). His name continued on the army list until 1799, probably because no official notice of death was received.

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