Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from David Ross and Other Virginia Merchants, 18 October 1785

From David Ross and Other Virginia Merchants

Richmond, the 18th. October 1785


His Excellency Governour Henry, having been pleased to communicate to us, an extract from your Letter to him, in respect to Supplying the Farmers-General of France with a quantity of Tobacco immediately from this State, and requested our Sentiments thereon; we have informed him that we believe no Merchants of Credit here, would at present enter into a Contract, as the fluctuating prices of Tobacco since peace, would make such a Contract very Hazardous, and Might be Injurious to one, or the other of the Contracting parties, and therefore it would be More eligible for them to obtain their supplies by a purchase on Commission, untill the trade became more settled; and we have taken the Liberty of offering our Services for that purpose. As you are well acquainted with our Situation, as also with our General Knowledge of the Country, and experience in its Commerce, so you are a proper Judge of our abilities to transact this business, and we would fain hope that you will render us such Services therein as may be in your power. And here it may not be amiss to observe that Norfolk from its Central and Convenient Situation to the Great Rivers of the Chesapeak, will be the proper place for shipping the greater part of the Tobacco, and in order to give proper efficacy and despatch to this business one of us would reside there, while the others would take such stations upon the Several Rivers as would give us every possible advantage in purchasing the Tobacco, and in procuring an exit for the Manufactures of France. If this business was principally Committed to us, we would Immediately erect Warehouses at Norfolk to contain fifteen hundred hhds. of Tobacco with a Wharf, on long side of which a ship of any burthen Might load, which would give Such despatch to the business, that it would greatly lessen the freights of the Tobacco.

Tho’ we have for the above reasons declined to make any overtures towards a Contract, yet, if you should find that the Farmers prefer obtaining their supplies by Contract, we should be glad to be fully informed thereof and the prices that they would probably give, as when the Trade has acquired more Solidity it might be equally agreeable to enter into such engagements with them.

We have the Honour to be With great Respect, Your obliged, & Most ob Hble Sts.,

david ross

nelson, heron, & co.

thomas pleasants jr.

RC (ViWC); in Ross’ hand. Recorded in SJL as received 19 Jan. 1786 “by Mr. Littlepage.”

The extract from your letter that Henry communicated to Ross and his associates was from that of 16 June 1785 and its enclosure; see Henry to TJ, 10 Sep. 1785. On 18 Oct. Ross and his group wrote to Henry, thanked him for communicating the information from TJ, acknowledged that it would be more to the advantage of both countries that “the Tobacco should go immediately from the place of its growth, than that it should be procured thro’ any other, more circuitous channel,” but stated that “in the present Situation of the trade of this Country, it would be difficult, perhaps Impracticable, for any Merchants here to enter into an extensive Contract for this article, and give such Guarantee for its performance as would be required. Indeed, while the trade Continues so unsettled, such a Contract would be very hazardous, and might be very prejudicial, to one or the other of the Contracting parties, and therefore untill the trade becomes more settled, and a proper Confidence Established between the two Countries, it will perhaps be better for the Farmers General to purchase the Tobacco here upon Commission, which we would gladly undertake, and being well known to your Excellency, and no Strangers to Mr. Jefferson, you will be Competent Judges of our ability to transact the business.—Having no Correspondents in France, and it being as we Conceive improper to communicate the Subject to any Merchants of G Britain, whose interest it is to Counteract the Measure, we Could not give that assurance in Europe, which the Farmers General might perhaps require, but we could give to the Consul General of France, or to the Ambassadour from that Court, undoubted Security here for a full and faithful performance of the trusts Committed to us.—The following are among the advantages that would result from the Farmers General making their purchases here: it would open an immediate intercourse between the two Countries, and the Ships Necessarily employed in Carrying the Tobacco, will afford an opportunity of Importing the Manufactures of France at a very Moderate freight, at the same time that the bills drawn for the Tobacco, would facilitate the remittances; which are Circumstances that would greatly Contribute to encourage the Consumption of French Manufactures in this Country, and it would give to French, and American Ships the Exclusive right of Carrying this Valuable article of Commerce to market, which would greatly tend to Strengthen the Union and Friendship between the two Countries” (Ross, Nelson, Heron & Co., and Pleasants to Henry, 18 Oct. 1785; ViWC).

In this letter Ross and his group transmitted to Henry the conditions upon which they would be willing to undertake the business, requesting that, if these conditions met Henry’s approval, he “transmit them to Mr. Jefferson, with such observations thereon, as you may think proper, in order that they may be laid before the Farmers General.” The proposals, signed by Ross, Nelson, Heron & Co., and Pleasants at Richmond on the same day, read as follows: “We the subscribers, Merchants in Virginia, will undertake to purchase annually, on the lowest terms at the different Markets in this State and Maryland, any quantity and quality of Tobacco that the Farmers General of France think proper to Order; and ship it for such Ports in France as they may direct, on the most moderate Freight and charges, at a Commission of two and a half ⅌ Cent. for our trouble.—And to enable us to take advantage of the proper seasons for the purchase of Tobacco, it will be necessary that the Farmers General make an advance of Money; we wou’d therefore require a Credit upon which we might draw for the Amount of one fifth part of the Annual order; and after each shipment, that we have liberty to draw for the amount of such shipment, (Bills of Loading going before, or accompanying advice thereof) to enable us to prepare for the next ships without encurring the expence of Demurage.—And to facilitate the negociation of our Bills, it will be necessary that the above Credit be Lodged in good Banking Houses in London, Amsterdam, and Paris, and that it may be optional in us to draw on either we may find most convenient.—Seperate Invoices of the Tobacco, with the cost and charges of the Cargo shall be furnished by each ship; and on fulfilling each Order or once in every Year, a fair and regular state of the whole transactions shall be laid before the Farmers General for their Inspection.—Actuated by a desire of promoting the Intrest of both countries, and as much as in our power, encouraging a commercial intercourse between them, on terms of Mutual advantage, we wou’d farther propose that this business be confined to French and American ships; and we will to the utmost of our power, encourage and facilitate the Importation of the Produce and Manufactures of France, by return of these ships.—Shou’d the above propositions be acceptable to the Farmers General, they will please signify their acquiescence, with the time they wish this business to commence, to his Excellency Thomas Jefferson Esqr. who will do us the honor to receive and forward the same to Governor Henry for us; and we are ready to give the Consul of France, or any person the Farmers General may appoint, such Guarantee in America as they may deem necessary, for the true and faithful performance of what we undertake” (in Ross’ hand; endorsed by TJ; MS in ViWC).

This proposal was forwarded to TJ by Patrick Henry, but there is uncertainty as to the date of the covering letter. In his reply to Henry of 24 Jan. 1786, TJ acknowledged Henry’s of 14 Oct. 1785, and in SJL under date of 19 Jan. 1786 TJ also recorded a letter from Henry of 14 Oct. No such letter has been found, and none of that date is recorded in the Executive Letter Book in Vi. See also Ross to TJ, 22 Oct. and Pleasants to TJ, 24 Oct. 1785. It is probable that Henry’s letter was dated 19 or 24 and that TJ misread it; certainly, as a covering letter for proposals dated 18 Oct., it could not have been written on 14 Oct. In any case, Henry’s covering letter, whatever its date, has not been found.

See Short to TJ, 7 Aug. 1785, in which he reported that Ross’ “Credit here [London] is absolutely wrecked, his Debts selling at a considerable Discount and in the Hands of Trustees.”

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