Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Jay, 9 February 1787

From John Jay

New York 9th. February 1787.

Dr. Sir

Since my last to you of the 14th. December I have been honored with yours of the 26th. September last, which with the Papers that it enclosed have been laid before Congress, but neither on that nor any of your late Letters have any Orders as yet been made.

The annual Election produces much Delay in Affairs. From that Time to this scarcely any Thing has been done. It was not until last Week that, seven States being represented, a President was elected—the Choice fell on Major General St. Clair. They have much back Business to dispatch—several Reports on important Subjects from the different Departments, are to be considered and decided upon. A Form of Government so constructed has Inconveniences, which I think1 will continue to operate against the public or national Interest until some Cause not easy to be predicted shall produce such a Modification of it, as that the legislative, judicial and executive Business of Government, may be consigned to three proper and distinct Departments.

The Struggles for and against the Impost remain but promise little. The States in general pay little Attention to Requisitions, and I fear that our Debts foreign and domestic will not soon be provided for in a Manner satisfactory to our Creditors. The Evils to be expected from such Delays are less difficult to be foreseen than obviated. Our Governments want Energy, and there is Reason to fear that too much has been expected from the Virtue and good Sense of the People.

You will receive herewith enclosed a Letter from Congress to his most Christian Majesty, with a Copy of it for your Information. It is in Answer to one received from him, and should have been of Earlier Date had Congress sooner convened. Be pleased to explain this Circumstance to the Minister.

The public Papers herewith sent contain all we at present know respecting the Troubles in Massachusetts. Whether they will soon be terminated, or what Events they may yet produce, is perfectly uncertain; and the more so as we are yet to ascertain, whether and how far they may be encouraged by our Neighbours.

I enclose a Copy of a Letter from Mr. Otto, formally contradicting the Report of an Exchange between France and Spain for the Floridas. That Report had excited Attention, and given Pleasure to Ante-Gallicans.

Our Apprehensions of an Indian War still continue, for we are at a Loss to determine, whether the present Continuance of Peace is to be ascribed to the Season, or their pacific Intentions.

We have not yet received the Morocco Treaty. As soon as it arrives I am persuaded that Congress will take the earliest Opportunity of making their Acknowledgments to the friendly Powers that promoted it. Mr. Lamb is still absent. He doubtless has received the Order of Congress directing his Return, either from you and Mr. Adams, or directly from me.

Congress has not yet given any Orders respecting further Negociations with the Barbary States, nor can I venture to say what their Sentiments will be on that Head. I am equally at a Loss to judge what they will direct respecting Treaties of Commerce with the Emperor and other European Powers. For my part I think and have recommended, that Commissions and Instructions should be sent you and Mr. Adams for those Purposes. In my Opinion such Treaties for short Terms might be advantageous. The Time is not yet come for us to expect the best. The Distance of that Period will however depend much on ourselves.

With very sincere Esteem and Regard, I am Dr. Sir your most obt. & hble servt,

John Jay

FC (DNA: PCC, No. 121). Dft (NK-Iselin). Recorded in SJL as received 6 Apr. 1787 at Marseilles. Enclosures: (1) Congress’ congratulatory letter to Louis XVI in response to his of 9 July 1786 announcing the birth of a princess (text printed in JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xxxii, 15). (2) Louis Guillaume Otto to Jay, 21 Dec. 1786 (printed in Burnett, Letters of Members description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress description ends , viii, No. 576, note 7).

The letter from Mr. Otto that Jay forwarded to TJ was read in Congress only on 2 Feb. 1787 after seven states had assembled and made it possible for that body to function, but two weeks earlier Jay had released it to the press, thereby causing Otto acute embarrassment in much the same way that Jay had distressed TJ by publishing the latter’s dispatch of 27 May 1786. This action also provoked resentment in a Congress already embittered over his conduct of negotiations with Gardoqui. Otto had sent to Vergennes on 23 Apr. 1786 news of the report that Louisiana was to be exchanged for a French possession in the West Indies, and on 25 Aug. 1786 Vergennes replied that such an exchange had never been in question and that, if the report should arise again, Otto would “be pleased to deny it formally” (Dipl. Corr., 1783–89 description begins The Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States of America, from the Signing of the Definitive Treaty of Peace … to the Adoption of the Constitution, Washington, Blair & Rives, 1837, 3 vol. description ends , i, 241; Dft of Vergennes’ instructions is in Arch. Aff. Etr., Corr. Pol., E.-U., xxxii; transcripts in DLC, where the passage quoted reads: “et si l’on vous en parle encore, vous démentirez formellement”). Otto’s letter to Jay appeared in the New York Journal, 18 Jan. and the New York Packet, 19 Jan. 1787. Otto, greatly disturbed, wrote at once to Vergennes explaining the background of the episode. He said that the false news of the exchange of Louisiana for a French possession in the Antilles (published in Pa. Journ., 6 Jan. 1787 on “the most indisputable authorities from France and Spain”; Burnett, Letters of Members description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress description ends , viii, No. 576, note 7) had scarcely appeared when two gazettes printed the same day a pretended treaty by which France was put in possession of the two Floridas on condition of closing the Mississippi to the Americans and of keeping there a considerable body of troops to prevent any invasion of Spanish territory (the New York Packet of 16 Jan. 1787 described the article concerning the Mississippi as being secret). Otto thought that it was easy to guess the authors and object of this fabrication, but reported that even the best informed Americans and those most attached to France were deceived by the apparently authentic form of the treaty; that he had vainly tried to assure members of Congress and principal citizens of New York that this “treaty” was entirely forged in England, but they replied that the news had been repeated so often and accompanied with so many plausible circumstances they could not doubt its authenticity. He had followed Vergennes’ instructions of the previous August, but even this had not quieted the fears. At that point, he stated, Jay had requested a written extract of these instructions relative to an exchange of Louisiana; he had complied and Jay “n’a eu rien de plus presse que de le faire imprimer,” whereupon the clamors “ont cesse sur le champ,” the “treaty” was regarded as false on every hand, and praise for the wisdom and good policy of France took the place of the intemperate criticism and suspicion that had prevailed such a short time before. (Otto gave no indication to Vergennes that his letter had been written almost a month before Jay “rushed” it into print; that the first publication of the false treaty had taken place only two days before Otto’s letter appeared; and that, at the time of his reporting to Vergennes, scarcely twenty-four hours had elapsed between Jay’s hasty action and the effective quieting of clamors!) Otto further stated that, while Jay’s publication of the extract had produced the most prompt and salutary effect, he himself was so troubled with the liberty Jay had taken that he had frankly expressed his displeasure and had told Jay that, because of this episode, he would be obliged in future to maintain “une reserve extrème a son égard.” Jay justified himself by arguing that the popular ferment was so great as to require the weight of Vergennes’ name to discredit the “fausses nouvelles que des Emissaires Anglois ne cessoient de repandre en Amerique”; that there would always be found in America a very considerable party favorably disposed toward England and engaged in trying to detach the United States from France; and that in order to make France’s cession of Louisiana still more odious, this party had spread the rumor that Louis XVI, disappointed in his hope of full reimbursement for American loans, had decided to retake Louisiana, gain a foothold on the continent, and at his leisure take possession of Georgia and Carolina as compensation for his losses. Otto reported further that Congress very strongly disapproved of the precipitation of Jay, thinking that he had no right to publish any information addressed to him. “Mais,” concluded Otto, “je n’en aurai pas moins desormais le plus grand soin de ne faire à ce Ministre que des communications verbales toutes les fois que Vous ne m’aures pas ordonné expressement de traiter avec lui par ecrit.” Even so, Otto thought that Jay’s grave apprehensions about the menace of English emissaries appeared well founded. He reported that he had noticed insinuations against France or prejudicial to the Franco-American alliance appearing with frequency in the gazettes after the arrival of the English consul, Sir John Temple; that at first he disregarded these publications, but as they became more and more insidious he decided to answer them moderately and without trusting anyone to translate his paragraphs; that Temple had seized the moment of publication of the Anglo-French treaty of commerce in order to play upon American fears of any rapprochement between those two nations, deploring the fate of the United States as the ultimate victim of this coalition; that these adroit lamentations came from Boston, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia, but that he could always recognize “la plume ou du moins la politique de M. Temple”; that Temple affected in public and in the presence of members of Congress to be most amicable toward Otto, while speaking of the important consequences of the treaty and inferring from it that the “systeme de l’Europe etoit tout-à-fait changé et que les forces reunies des deux nations les plus puissantes feroient desormais la loi à l’Univers entier” (Otto to Vergennes, 19 Jan. 1787; Arch. Aff. Etr., Corr. Pol., E.-U., Vol. xxxii; transcripts in DLC). When this troubled account with its unconvincing chronology arrived in Paris on 23 Mch. 1787, the astute minister to whom it was addressed was already dead.

By a strange coincidence Jay had allowed about a month to elapse before publishing either TJ’s letter of 27 May 1786 or Otto’s of 21 Dec. 1786 (see Vol. 9:588, note), and in both instances the delay and the fact of publication are alike unexplained. It may not be without significance that one instance brought acute embarrassment to the American minister in France and the other an equally acute embarrassment to the French chargé in America, a fact that perhaps places in proper perspective Jay’s solicitous concern about the dangers to be expected from the “Emissaires Anglois.”

1In Dft Jay first wrote, then deleted, “despair.”

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