Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Simon Bérard, 6 May 1786

From Simon Bérard

Saturday 6th: May 1786

Mr. Berard’s Respects, waits on his Excellency Thos. Jefferson Esqr. and begs the favor of a Conference on the Subject of the Tobacco trade in which his house at L’orient is deeply concerned on american account. Mr. Berard desires His Excellency will fix the day and hour most convenient to him, before wednesday next.

Mr: Berard
administrateur de le Comp. des
Indes rüe de la Michodiere1

RC (DLC); endorsed. Not recorded in SJL.

In urging a conference on the subject of the tobacco Trade, Simon Bérard was confronting TJ immediately on his return from London with a rapidly approaching crisis in the affairs of the American Committee (see TJ to Lafayette, 20 Feb. 1786; Lafayette to TJ, ca. 6 Mch. 1786). Bérard, a member of an ancient protestant family of Provence, was one of the leading merchants of France. He had long been identified with the Oriental trade, and during the war had managed all of the interests of the Dutch East India Company in France, a task which he had discharged so well as to elicit a formal resolution of commendation (Bérard to Vergennes, 10 Jan. 1786, Arch. Aff. Etr., Corr. Pol., E.-U., xxxi; Tr in DLC). He was a member of the firm of Jean Jacques Bérard & Cie. of L’Orient who were signatories to (perhaps originators of) the protest of the merchants of that place against the terms of the contract between the farmers-general and Robert Morris (Merchants to TJ, 21 Apr. 1786; TJ to Vergennes, 3 May 1786). He was principal founder of the new Compagnie des Indes which Calonne revived in 1785, the old company having been suspended in 1769. This new company lacked sovereignty over the countries whose commerce it monopolized and had no such fiscal powers as the old company under Law had possessed. The duration of its monopoly was also limited (seven years). But, like the old, it was vested with a monopoly of the commerce between France and the Orient, “soit par mer, soit par terre”—a monopoly, however, that did not extend to the Atlantic commerce, either with Africa or with America. It was capitalized at 20,000,000 livres, of which 6,000,000 were required from the twelve administrators who directed the affairs of the company; thus Bérard and his brother J. J. Bérard of L’Orient subscribed between them 1,000,000 livres. The work of the company was divided into nine departments, of which seven were located in a building in rue de Grammont supplied by the state and two were located in L’Orient. Tavernier de Boullongne, chairman of the American Committee, was appointed by Calonne as royal inspector. The departments were run by several administrators, each having responsibilities in two or more; Bérard ainé was administrator in the first (secretariat), second (caisse), and third (achats en Europe) (Almanach Royal for 1786, p. 556–7). Bérard’s revival of the new company under Calonne’s authority was followed by “une explosion de plaintes contre la décision du gouvernement et contre les procédés de la Nouvelle Compagnie.” Petitions to the king protested the company’s privileges on the ground that the public interest, as well as agriculture, industry, and navigation, required liberty of commerce, and that monopoly dried up the sources of wealth. The result of this outburst was not altogether harmful, for the company’s privileges were extended to fifteen years and its capital was raised to 40,000,000 livres. In 1786 eleven ships put out for the East from L’Orient, and the company was exceedingly prosperous for the next few years; it contributed four million livres to the expedition of La Pérouse. Thus was revived the “Compagnie des Indes, simple maison de commerce munie d’un monopole et non plus souveraine maîtresse d’un immense empire, réduite à des proportions modestes et garantie contre plusieurs des défauts de ses aînées par quelques sages prescriptions” (Henry Weber, La Compagnie Française des Indes, 1604–1875 [Paris, 1904], p. 628–32, 633, 635, 637–40, 644). But its monopoly was removed by decrees of the National Assembly in 1790, which declared that the commerce of the Orient was “libre pour tous les Français.” This did not destroy the company, but with the end of its monopoly it became an ordinary commercial house. Bérard himself, “un des négociants les plus considérables et les plus estimés de l’ancienne France,” nevertheless embraced “avec ardeur les idées de la revolution de 1789” and was made commander of a battalion in the national guard of Paris. With his battalion he passed the night of 10 Aug. 1792 at the Tuileries, and only left Louis XVI after having, on his order, conducted him to the National Assembly: “Cet acte fut le pretexte, et sa grande fortune le motif, de sa condamnation à mort par le tribunal révolutionnaire.” He was executed in May 1794 (Didot, Nouvelle Biographie Générale, under Bérard, Auguste-Simon-Louis).

Bérard, working closely with Calonne for the establishment of the extensive and lucrative monopoly of which he was one of the chief beneficiaries, found himself allied with TJ, Lafayette, and Vergennes in their maneuver against the monopoly of the farmers-general. Bérard’s attack on the Morris contract early in 1786 bears interesting parallels in argument to those advanced by TJ in his letter to Vergennes of 15 Aug. 1786—that the tobacco monopoly was a restraining influence on commerce and threatened to destroy it; and that, although Americans were by habit accustomed to British wares, they would soon become interested in those of France if commerce between the two countries, in which tobacco was a key factor, could be encouraged. Bérard had also pointed out that the establishment of L’Orient as a free port had produced much satisfaction among the merchants there and had led to the hope of a great increase in commerce with the United States; that in thirteen months ending 25 Aug. 1785 forty-four American and French vessels had arrived at L’Orient bringing 12,354 hogsheads of tobacco worth 4,750,578 livres (half of these were consigned to Jean Jacques Bérard & Cie.); that the farmers-general had stopped the progress of this commerce by the system of buying tobacco in America, an experiment that had failed once before, but in spite of this they had gone ahead with the new contract with Morris—a contract contrary to true principles of commerce, inimical to the best interests of the state, and even injurious to the welfare of the farmers-general themselves, being, in brief, the most unpatriotic measure that could be adopted (Bérard to Vergennes, 10 Jan. 1786, enclosing his memorial; Arch. Aff. Etr., Corr. Pol., E.-U., xxxi; Tr in DLC). Vergennes transmitted Bérard’s memorial to Calonne, leaving it to the latter’s judgment to decide whether Bérard’s arguments had weight, but he added: “je me borne a vous deferer qu’il importe à notre industrie nationale que le tabac soit un objet d’echange entre la france et l’Amerique, et qu’en continuant de suivre la méthode actuelle la ferme Générale fera une exportation de numéraire qui tourne essentiellement au profit de la Grande Bretagne. Cette circonstance seule & me semble meriter la plus serieuse attention” (Vergennes to Calonne, 18 Jan. 1786; same). Bérard’s argument which the minister thus underscored was one that TJ had advanced the previous year: “I am misinformed if France has not been furnished from a neighboring nation with considerable quantities of tobacco, since the peace, and been obliged to pay there in coin what might have been paid here in manufactures had the French and American merchants brought the tobacco originally here” (TJ to Vergennes, 15 Aug. 1785). Bérard may very well have been one of those described as being the “best and most disinterested authorities” that TJ had consulted in August 1785 and one of those advising Lafayette (TJ to Vergennes, 15 Aug. 1785; TJ to Lafayette, 20 Feb. 1786; Lafayette to TJ, ca. 6 Mch. 1786). He was far from being disinterested, but he was certainly one of the most experienced and knowledgeable authorities in France on the tobacco trade.

Bérard’s request for a conference with TJ brings into focus an even more direct evidence of the latter’s aid to Lafayette and those supporting him in the American Committee. That group were ready to bring to a vote the recommendation that the contract made with Morris be regarded as “impolitique et nuisible au Commerce des deux Nations Française et Americaine,” in respect to which six propositions had been proposed: (1) cancellation of the contract and giving all French and American merchants liberty to supply tobacco to the farmers-general; (2) establishment of a company of French merchants that would meet the required conditions and reimburse the farmers-general for funds due to it, besides obligating itself to pay for the tobacco imports in French merchandize; (3) formation of a disinterested royal authority to purchase tobacco from French or American merchants to be turned over to the farmers-general at the price paid, together with half of the profits; (4) the use of persuasion on Morris to yield a part, if possible a half, of the tobacco he was obligated to supply in order that the farmers-general might procure it from individual merchants; (5) if this failed, the request to be made of him to agree to extend his contract over a longer period of time so that each year a little more than half of the amount needed might be purchased from other merchants; and (6) Morris be informed that, after 31 Dec. 1787, no more tobacco would be taken, and the farmers-general be obliged to purchase and lay up in warehouses an eighteen months’ supply of tobacco that could be purchased from other merchants during the remaining nineteen months of Morris’ contract. The first three of these proposals called for cancellation of Morris’ contract, the next two for its modification, and the last for its full execution.

The fact that these propositions of the committee formed the document that Bérard wished to discuss with TJ is proved by his urgency in desiring to have the conference before Wednesday next, for that was the day on which the propositions were laid before the American Committee. The extent to which the arguments advanced in behalf of the various propositions were altered by TJ or by Bérard as a result of his conference with TJ cannot, of course, be ascertained in the absence of drafts of documents involved. But some inferences that appear well-grounded may be drawn. TJ, of course, was far from satisfied with any palliative, and insistently held to the view that nothing short of abolition of the “double monopoly” would provide a lasting remedy—a view he expressed most forcibly on the Wednesday that the American Committee considered the six propositions (TJ to Monroe, 10 May 1786; see also TJ to Ross, 8 May 1786). As to these six propositions, then, the first was that which came nearest to his “principle of absolute liberty or nothing” (TJ to Monroe, 10 May 1786; when they were transmitted to Vergennes, Dupont suggested that the first and last were the only two worth considering seriously; Dupont to Vergennes, 13 May 1786; Arch. Aff. Etr., Corr. Pol., E.-U., xxxi; Tr in DLC). Thus it is in the first proposition, if anywhere, that traces of TJ’s influence may be sought, and in it, in answer to the objection that all of the parties to the contract with Morris were satisfied with it and that it should not in consequence be cancelled, appears the following rebuttal: “On ne croit pas que le Comité ni le Ministère doivent être extrêmement touchés de cet accord entre les Parties qui ont Signé le traité. Leur Satisfaction ne suffit pas. Il y a un grand nombre d’autres Parties: les Cultivateurs, les Fabricans et les Négocians Français, les Planteurs et les Commissionaires Américains, le Roi et le Congrès, dont les intérêts et les Droits ont été implicitement compromis dans ce Traité. Or, s’il est reconnu que le Traité avec M. Morris soit nuisible aux deux Nations; s’il est en même tems prouvé qu’il y avait des moyens de forme et d’équité, puisés dans le Droit naturel, dans le Droit Civil et dans le Droit des gens, qui puissent en opérer la résiliation, l’opinion contraire de la pluralité de MM. les Fermiers Généraux ne saurait faire un obstacle” (“Résumé des opinions exposées au Comité du Commerce au sujet du Traité relatif à l’achat de tabacs américains,” transmitted to Vergennes 13 May 1786 by Dupont; same). That TJ introduced these points into the discussions cannot be proven, but one could scarcely ask for a more Jeffersonian argument than that, if other resorts were inadequate, the ultimate justification for abrogration of the contract with Morris should rest on the higher ground of natural law and the law of nations. So, too, with the incorporation in the argument of the view that the American Commissioners and the rights and interests of Congress were affected by the contract. It is of considerable significance that these two arguments appeared in none of the opinions drawn up while TJ was absent in England but were introduced in the first to be set down on his return, and one, moreover, in which his consultation had been urgently solicited in the present note by Bérard. But see TJ to Monroe, 18 Dec. 1786, in which he says that he always opposed abolition of the contract.

The six propositions were laid before the American Committee at its meeting on Wednesday, 10 May, much to the consternation of the farmers-general. An adjournment to the 12th was made in order to take a final vote, but on the intervening day the farmers-general made a surprise move by bringing pressure to bear on Calonne, by which they drew from him a decision in writing to approve the contract with Morris on the understanding that the farmers-general would buy annually 15,000 hogsheads of tobacco from other merchants. This move undermined the position of the Lafayette group in the American Committee at the meeting on Friday the 12th, and the next day Dupont secretly transmitted to Vergennes a copy of the document setting forth the six propositions, adding that “C’est peut-être de la peine perdue” because of the maneuver of the farmers-general, whose promise to buy the additional tobacco (which he thought they did not need) from other merchants would be difficult for government to enforce. But the farmers-general had not won a complete victory; Dupont added: “Le Comité a arreté de demander à Monsieur le Controlleur Général d’être assemblé chez lui à Versailles, pour lui developper les motifs de son voeu en présence de la ferme générale.—Il y a lieu de croire, Monsieur le Comte, que vous serez de cette Assemblée” (Dupont to Vergennes, 13 May 1786; same). Vergennes did attend the meeting called for 24 May at Berni, the home of Calonne, and aligned himself with those opposing the farmers. The day before, when this crisis in the committee had caused TJ to make a final, personal appeal to Vergennes to ask whether it was hopeless to look for the abolition of the “double monopoly,” Vergennes had given him reason to believe that only a palliative could be expected (TJ to Jay, 27 May 1786). In this he was correct, and the meeting at Berni achieved only a compromise (see Vergennes to TJ, 30 May 1786).

1TJ struck out “rüe de la Michodiere” and substituted: “a la nouvelle compagnie des Indes rue de Grammont.”

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