Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Gilles de Lavallée, 14 August 1785

From Gilles de Lavallée

Au havre le 14 août 1785

La recommendation qu’il a plu à votre Excellence de me Donner pour les etats Unis, ainsi que la promesse de Mr. Frankelin de m’obliger en tout ce qui dependra de lui, m’ont determiné à passer aux dits etats Unis. Je suis arrivé au Havre de grace avec mes machines et je peux Les passer. J’ai resté à Rouen et à Bolbec ou J’ai Vû et ai travaillé dans les fabriques de Cotton en Molton. J’ai aussi travaillé Sur les machines à filler et retordre les cottons. J’ose croire pouvoir rendre ces dites machines Sans Deffaut, je Suis en parole pour notre passage avec le Capitaine J. Pernet commandant le Navire le Vicomte de Roth que vous connoitrez par le porteur. S’il plaisoit à votre Excellence de vouloir bien faire mettre au compte du Congré le tout ou la partie qu’il vous plaira des frais de notre passage, je vous en aurai une entierre obligation. Si J’etois riche, je N’interromprois pas Votre Excellence pour si peu de chose. Je remets tout à votre Disposition Soit que vous accordiez à ma Demande, soit que Vous ne puissiez L’accorder, je n’en auray pas moins la reconnoissance et le Respect le plus parfait pour Son obligeante recommandation, ce Sont là les Sentimens de celuy qui Se dit avec Respect De Votre Excellence Monsieur Le tres humble et tres obeissant Serviteur,

Gilles De Lavallée

P.S. N’ayant pû trouver de Navire pour Richemont J’espere M’i rendre sitot mon arrivée à l’amerique. Si vous m’honnorez d’une reponse donnez-la S.V.P. au porteur.

RC (MHi); endorsed. Recorded in SJL as received 10 Sep. 1785.

TJ’s recommandation of Lavallée, a French textile manufacturer, was personal rather than official, if one may judge from his reply to the present letter (TJ to Lavallée, 11 Sep. 1785). This fact is all the more interesting in view of the general conception of TJ’s attitude toward manufactures. The recommandation itself is not known to be extant, but its subsequent history is traceable. That history, which might have earned for Lavallée the title of “father of American manufactures” that was bestowed upon Samuel Slater, who established the first complete cotton textile manufactory at Pawtucket in 1789, came to a fruitless end along with other similar ventures in the post-war years. But this result in Lavallée’s case is surprising in view of the fact that Washington and Franklin, as well as TJ, lent the great weight of their influence to his proposals. Around 1782 Lavallée had shown Franklin his plans for establishing in Philadelphia or elsewhere one or more manufactories for making textiles. Franklin seems to have encouraged him but to have advised delay until peace had been established. Late in 1784 Lavallée wrote for an interview, which was presumably given and Franklin’s promesse, whatever it was, obtained then (Lavallée to Franklin, 1 Nov. 1784; PPAP). TJ may even have met Lavallée at that time or have given him the recommendation or letter of introduction. Lavallée left France not long after receiving TJ’s reply to the present letter. Early in 1786 he arrived at Portsmouth, N.H., with his son, a young workman skilled in weaving fine cloth, and his mechanical looms (“mes métiers mécaniques”). He reported to Benjamin Franklin that, on TJ’s recommendation, Gen. Sullivan had given him a warm welcome, providing all that he needed—lodgings, food, workmen, a carpenter, a locksmith, and even such materials as silk, wool, flax, and cotton. Finding that Sullivan also had a fulling mill, power to stretch the cloth, a boiler for dyeing, a glossing press, and carding brushes, he set up two of his looms, one for ribbons capable of weaving ten pieces at a time, and the other for fine cloth three-quarters wide. The prospect seemed bright for the new textile company that Lavallée proposed, and he prophesied that in twenty years America would be able to manufacture all of her textiles (Lavallée to Franklin, 10 Jan. 1786; PPAP). But these bright hopes were soon dashed. Late in 1786 Lavallée wrote to Washington, submitting to him his plans and TJ’s recommendation. Washington was interested but personally too occupied with other matters to give Lavallée “the aids he requires, or to have him upon my hands till he can be properly established,” but he wrote to Gov. Edmund Randolph: “To promote industry and œconomy, and to encourage manufactures, is certainly consistent with that sound policy which ought to actuate every State. There are times, too, which call loudly for the exercise of these virtues; and the present, in my humble opinion, may be accounted a fit one for the adoption of them in this Commonwealth.—How far the proposition which I have the honor to enclose merits Legislative encouragement, your Excellency will determine. As it came to me, you will receive it. The writer is unknown to me; of him, or his plan, I had not the smallest intimation till the papers were handed to me from the Post Office. The document in the hand writing of Mr Jefferson (with which it is accompanied) entitles the latter to consideration.” Washington added that he thought Alexandria was not “so proper a situation as a more southern one for the Manufacture of Cotton,” and he requested that, if Randolph should not think the matter worthy of public attention or if it should “not find encouragement from the Assembly,” the letters and papers should be returned that he might “give Mr. de la Vallee an answer as soon as possible; his circumstances seeming to require one” (Washington to Randolph, 25 Dec. 1786; Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxix, 120–1). Nothing resulted from this—there is no reply from Randolph in the Washington Papers—and on 13 Mch. 1787 Lavallée washed his hands of America in the following remarks to Washington: “I did myself the honor to write to your Excellency upon the subject of Manufactures, and enclosed a Copy of a recommendation from Mr. Jefferson. You was pleased to return me an answer by which Your Excellency informed me that you had forwarded my memorial to the Legislature of Virginia to know their determination upon the matter, which you would do me the favor to send to me. I have waited until this time and have received no news respecting it; in consequence I have made an engagement with Spain, for which place I shall take my departure this day. I thank your Excellency for your attention; but no establishment of European manufacture can succeed here—America is not suitable for the business on account of the scarcity of money—the deficiency of power in the Government—the personal interest of every member—the want of the confidence of the people in their Rulers—the fluctuation of the Legislature. You have given liberty to America—she has abused it—her manners are corrupted—Craft and subtlety have taken place of good faith—labour is despised—the innocence and modesty of the females is succeeded by effrontery and impudence—the facility of obtaining a divorce has dissolved the sanctity of marriage—the early independence of children has disturbed the peace of families—your Laws have neither energy nor firmness—the disunion of the States facilitates and encourages disobedience &c. &c.—I quit America sick of its Liberty, its manners and its laws.—I respect and admire its great men, particularly your Excellency. It gives me pain to see that so much is done for a people unworthy of the benefits. My soul is pierced to see such abuse of Liberty. I am well acquainted with the Laws of the Ancients and moderns. I have travelled through Europe. I am a friend to humanity, I would sacrifice my life for it, but here, my wishes, my desires, my knowledge, my talents are superfluous, useless and even prejudicial. I depart therefore filled with respect and admiration for the great Characters and with pity for the People” (Lavallée to Washington, New York, 13 Mch. 1787; DLC: Washington Papers [English translation]). This outburst is perhaps the best evidence of the cause of failure of Lavallée’s American dream. Washington endorsed the letter methodically, but made no reply. At the moment that he received it he was busy preparing to go northward to preside over the Federal Convention, whose outcome gave a greater impetus to manufactures than anything Lavallée could have anticipated.

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