Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 25 September 1787

To William Carmichael

Paris Sep. 25. 1787.

Dear Sir

The copy of your letter of July 9. and that of Aug. 22. came to hand together. The original of the former I never received. My last to you was dated June 14. I heard indirectly that Mr. Grand1 had refused to pay a bill of yours, but he never said a word to me on the subject, nor mentioned any letter of yours in consequence of it. I have stated the matter to the board of treasury. I also wrote to Mr. Adams a state of the same fact. There are at Amsterdam 100,000 florins at his disposal. Colo. Smith will endeavor to get for you an order to draw on that fund. The subject of Smith’s mission to Portugal appeared to me so causeless as given out that I imagined it was only the ostensible one, the real cause remaining a secret between him and Congress. Yet I never heard any other hinted. With respect to the reimbursement to the Count d’Expilly for the maintenance of our prisoners at Algiers, I wrote to Mr. Jay what you had formerly communicated to me, but am not authorised to give any answer. I think it important to destroy at Algiers every idea that Congress will redeem our captives there, perhaps at any price, much less at that paid by Spain. It seems to be the general opinion that the redeeming them would occasion the capture of greater numbers by increasing the incitements to cruise against us. We must never make it their interest to go out of the streights in quest of us, and we must avoid entering into the streights, at least till we are rich enough to arm in that sea. The Spanish consul therefore cannot too soon withdraw himself from all responsibility for our prisoners. As to the affair of the frigate of South Carolina, I communicated to you every thing I knew on the subject, by inclosing you all the papers which had come to my hands. I have received letters and gazettes from America to the 25. of July. The federal convention was likely to sit to the month of October. A thin Congress was sitting at the same time. They had passed an Ordinance dividing the Country North of Ohio into three states, and providing both a present and future form of government for them. The sale of their lands commences this month. An idea had got abroad in the Western country that Congress was ceding to Spain the navigation of the Missisipi for a certain time. They had taken flame at it, and were assembling Conventions on the subject, wherein the boldest and most dangerous propositions were to be made. They are said to be now 60,000 strong, and are more formidable from their spirit than numbers. This is the only bone of contention which can arise between Spain and us for ages. It is a pity it could not be settled amicably. When we consider that the Missisipi is the only issue to the ocean for five eighths of the territory of the U.S. and how fast that territory peoples, the ultimate event cannot be mistaken. It would be wise then to take arrangements according to what must happen.

There had been a hope that the affairs of Holland might be accomodated without a war. But this hope has failed. The Prussian troops have entered the territories of the republic. The Stadtholder is now at the Hague, and there seems to be no force capable of opposing him. England too has notified this court by her envoy, two days ago, that she is arming. In the mean time little provision has been made here against such an event. M. de Segur declares that six weeks ago he proposed in council to march 24,000 men into Holland. The archbishop is charged principally with having prevented this. He seems to have been duped by his strong desire for peace, and by calculating that the K. of Prussia would have acted on principles of common sense. To complicate the game still more, you know of the war which has arisen between Russia and the Turks. You know also that it was excited there, as well as at Berlin by the English. Former alliances thus broke, Prussia having thrown herself into the scale opposed to France, Turkey having abandoned her councils and followed the instigations of her enemies, what remains for this country to do? I know that Russia proposed a confederation with this court but this court without committing itself wished to know the final determination of the emperor, that he came into the proposition, has formed a line from the Prussian to the Turkish confines by 4. camps of 30,000 men in one, and 50,000 in each of the others. Yet it does not seem that France has closed the proposal in favor of which every principle of common sense enlists itself. The queen, Breteuil and Monmorin have been for some time decidedly for this triple alliance which, especially if aided by Spain, would give law to the world. The premier is still accused with hesitation. They begin to say that tho he is a patriotic minister and an able one for peace he has not energy enough for war. If this takes place the consequences to Prussia and the Stadholder may be easily foreseen. Whether it does or not the Turks must quit Europe. Neutrality should be our plan: because no nation should without urgent necessity begin a second war while the debts of the former remain unpaid. The accumulation of debts is a most fearful evil. But ever since the accession of the present king of England, that court has unerringly done what common sense would have dictated not to do. Now common sense dictates that they should avoid forcing us to take part against them, because this brings on them a heavy land war. Therefore they will not avoid it: they will stop our ships, visit and harrass them, seise them on the most frivolous pretexts and oblige us to take from them Canada and Nova Scotia, which it is not our interests to possess. Mr. Eden sets out in a few days for Madrid. You will have to oppose in him the most bitter enemy against our country which exists. His late and sudden elevations makes the remembrance of the contempt we shewed to his mission in America rankle the more in his breast. Whether his principles will restrain him to fair modes of opposition, I am not well enough acquainted with him to say. I know nothing of him but his parliamentary history, and that is not in his favor. As he wishes us every possible ill, all the lies of the London papers are true history in his creed, and will be propagated as such, to prejudice against us the mind of the court where you are. You will find it necessary to keep him well in your eye, and to trace all his foot-steps.—You know doubtless that M. de Brienne has been appointed minister of war, and the Count de la Luzerne minister of marine. He is brother of the Chevalier, and at present in St. Domingo of which he is Commandant. The Count de Moustier goes minister to America, the Chevalier de la Luzerne preferring the promise of the first vacant embassy. Lambert is Comptrolleur general. De la Borde and Cabarrus have successively refused the office of Directeur du tresor royal.—Having now got the maps for the Notes on Virginia, I will send by the Count d’Aranda two copies, one for yourself, and one for Monsr. de Campomanes. By the same conveyance I will forward the Ratification of the treaty with Marocco, and ask the favor of you to contrive it to that court. Mr. Barclay is gone to America. I am with great esteem, Dear Sir, your most obedient humble servant,

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); partly in code; the text en clair for the coded passages is on a separate sheet in TJ’s hand. Tr (ViRVal); in H. A. Washington’s hand, with coded passages decoded interlineally, but with several omissions.

This letter represents the first use of a coded message in the correspondence between TJ and Carmichael. Ironically, the most significant passage in it—the assertion that the Mississippi Question was the only bone of contention which can arise between Spain and US for ages and that it would therefore be wise to take arrangements according to what must happen—was one that TJ must have intended Carmichael to pass on to Floridablanca but, to make doubly sure, left uncoded. These facts and this letter can only assume their proper perspective in the light of Carmichael’s insistence through more than two years that he could not safely or fully discuss international affairs or the domestic policies and court intrigues of Madrid without being possessed of a cipher. Carmichael first broached the subject in June, 1785, and it is perhaps significant that he then suggested to TJ that Congress would do well to send “a common cypher … to each of their Ministers and Chargé Des Affaires” he continued to urge the need of a code and thought that it might be “useful to give Mr. Adams a copy of the same” (Carmichael to TJ, 27 June, 28 July, 2 Sep., 29 Sep., 24 Oct., and 6 Nov. 1785; Jay appears to have originated the suggestion, however, that Carmichael should be enabled to correspond in code with him; see Jay to Carmichael, 14 Mch. 1786, Dipl. Corr., 1783–89 description begins The Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States of America, from the Signing of the Definitive Treaty of Peaceto the Adoption of the Constitution, Washington, Blair & Rives, 1837, 3 vol. description ends , iii, 306). TJ promised to send a copy of the cipher he had given Adams, and assured Carmichael that Lamb would bring one possessed in common by TJ, Lamb, Barclay, and Adams (TJ to Carmichael, 18 Aug., 18 and 25 Oct., and 4 Nov. 1785). The letter containing this assurance was handed to Carmichael by Lamb shortly after the latter arrived in Madrid on 4 Dec. 1785. But Lamb, after remaining in Madrid for almost two months, departed for Africa without fulfilling Carmichael’s expectations: during this time he neither turned over to Carmichael the cipher that he was supposed to have brought nor permitted him to take a copy of the duplicate in his own possession. It was not until after Lamb had departed from Madrid that Carmichael explained to TJ how Lamb, on examining his papers, found “that he had but one Copy of the Cypher and … that he recollects that Mr. Barclay has the one Destined for me”; accordingly, Carmichael stated, he would have to await Barclay’s arrival before sending TJ “any confidential Communications” (Carmichael to TJ, 17 Dec., ca. 26 Jan. and 4 Feb. 1786). Lamb’s explanation was certainly evasive and possibly not true. He must have known, as Carmichael did, that a cipher was intended for Carmichael and that it would be one possessed by the Commissioners, by their agents (Barclay and himself), and by Carmichael, thus enabling all of them, in TJ’s words, “to keep up such correspondencies with each other as may be requisite” (TJ to Carmichael, 4 Nov. 1785). If this was so, it is remarkable that Lamb, awaiting over a course of weeks the results of Carmichael’s effective but somewhat reluctant intercession for him at the court of Madrid, should not have allowed Carmichael to take a copy of his own duplicate. If the explanation that Lamb gave Carmichael was correct—that he did not have Carmichael’s copy of the cipher among his papers—then several explanations are possible: (1) TJ retained it in order to send it later by Barclay; (2) Lamb carried it but lost it or misplaced it among his papers; (3) Lamb disposed of it elsewhere or retained it for the purpose of doing so—a serious supposition but not beyond the bounds of possibility in view of Lamb’s proved failure to meet his responsibilities as a public agent; or (4) Lamb actually had the duplicate cipher with him and accessible, but deliberately avoided giving it up for some unknown reason—possibly out of pique, possibly because he felt some distrust of Carmichael (evidently a mutual feeling), possibly because he thought an improper use might be made of the code. It does not seem likely that TJ failed to send the cipher by Lamb; the reference to it was the first matter to be touched upon in his letter of 4 Nov. 1785, and the opening words were: “At length a confidential opportunity arrives for conveying to you a cypher; it will be handed you by the bearer Mr. Lambe.” Lamb’s refusal in 1787 to surrender to Carmichael his own copy of the cipher, even on the specific direction of TJ and after Lamb had suffered the ignominy of being recalled, would seem to support the conjecture that he carried the duplicate but declined, for some undisclosed reason, to hand it over while he was in Madrid in 1786. It is perhaps even more significant that TJ refrained from commenting upon Carmichael’s explanation for the failure of Lamb to turn over the cipher and the supposition of the latter that it was Barclay who was expected to bring a copy. It is also worth noting that, on his return from England and after receiving Carmichael’s explanation, TJ began furnishing him with particularly favorable accounts of American affairs, even quoting the calculated optimism of Franklin (TJ to Carmichael, 5 May, 20 June, and 22 Aug. 1786; Franklin to TJ, 20 Mch. 1786, note).

Meanwhile, Barclay had turned up in Madrid and remained there several weeks in the spring of 1786. But neither he nor Carmichael in their letters mentioned the cipher that the latter had been awaiting so anxiously and that Lamb had said Barclay was bringing. Lamb himself returned to Madrid soon after Barclay’s departure. He was even more distant toward Carmichael than before and the latter, still without a cipher, remained strangely silent on the subject. Perhaps fearing that TJ would think this silence required some explanation in the light of his earlier insistence on the need of a means of secret communication, he ventured the following observation possibly as an excuse: “I mention nothing of the Foreign or even interior politics of this court, because I have remarked that in your answers to my letters, you appeared not disposed to enter into any observations on such subjects” (Carmichael to TJ, 15 July 1786). The premise was sound, but its conclusion was scarcely convincing in view of the fact that Carmichael followed this with three letters in quick succession that surpassed most of his previous communications in revealing his familiarity with the policies of Floridablanca’s administration, in containing probing questions about diplomatic subjects, and in setting forth indiscreet hints and suggestions. In one of these Carmichael went so far as to remark that if TJ chose “to be acquainted with two Amiable Ladies,” he might deliver two enclosed letters himself. TJ ignored such crude hints in his replies, and silently deleted as many as four indiscreet passages in a single copy of one of Carmichael’s letters that he forwarded to Jay (Carmichael to TJ, 18 and 31 July, 17 Aug., and 4 Sep. 1786; see Vol. 10: 330, note). But Carmichael’s observation gave TJ the opportunity of reopening the question of a cipher: “You observe that I do not write to you on foreign subjects. My reason has been that our letters are often opened; and I do not know that you have yet received the cypher Mr. Barclay was to leave with you. If you have not, be so good as to ask a copy of his‥‥ Indeed I wish you could get the one from Mr. Lamb, which is a copy” (TJ to Carmichael, 22 Aug. 1786). TJ knew that letters going to Spain by post were opened not often but always, and almost invariably he sent letters to Carmichael by private hands; the reason for his failure to write on foreign subjects lay deeper. Carmichael acted promptly on receiving TJ’s renewed authorization, but, presumably because Barclay had not yet returned from Morocco, he applied to Lamb “expressing a wish … of having the original of the paper in question to be sent to me by a safe conveyance.” Lamb remained intransigent: “That Gentleman,” Carmichael informed TJ, “thinks without a peremptory order, he ought not send it” (Carmichael to TJ, 29 Sep. 1786). Lamb told TJ that “By post all my letters are broke,” but he made no mention of his correspondence with Carmichael concerning the cipher (Lamb to TJ, 10 Oct. 1786). Shortly after this Barclay and Franks arrived back in Madrid, and Carmichael arranged an interview with Floridablanca. Immediately after this interview Carmichael wrote TJ, mentioned an audience the French ambassador had had with the king on the subject of a letter written by Marie Antoinette concerning the differences between the courts of Madrid and Naples, and promised in a few days to find out the effect of the queen’s communication (Carmichael to TJ, 15 Nov. 1787). Carmichael’s letter was conveyed by Franks, who departed from Madrid the next day. The remarkable fact is that, in a letter touching on foreign affairs of a fairly secret nature, Carmichael made no use of the cipher that Franks had already given him, nor did he mention the fact that he possessed such a cipher. A month later Carmichael reported on matters of some importance—continued proofs of Floridablanca’s good will, the Portuguese ambassador’s hint that the present was a good moment to press for the conclusion of the treaty, and the same ambassador’s suggestion that “mutual arrangements” might be made for suppressing the Barbary piracies (the last is a certain indication that Carmichael had learned through the Portuguese ambassador at Madrid of the proposed confederation against the Barbary powers that TJ had given to the Portuguese ambassador in Paris only two weeks earlier; see Vol. 10: 562)—but still he felt no need to discuss such matters in code or to mention the fact that he was then in a position to do so (Carmichael to TJ, 17 Dec. 1786). Late in December, TJ forwarded to Carmichael “a note desiring Mr. Lambe to deliver you his cyphers.” The use of the plural may or may not be significant, but TJ’s direction to Lamb shows that Franks, who was then in Paris, had not told TJ a copy of Barclay’s cipher had been left with Carmichael. It is also noteworthy that TJ made no comment on the hints given Carmichael by the Portuguese minister, that he supplied him with favorable news from America, and that he sent him a present of a copying press (TJ to Carmichael, 26 Dec. 1786). Eight months passed after Carmichael received a cipher from Franks before it was mentioned again (he had written only one letter during that time), and then it was TJ who brought the subject up: on returning to Paris from his southern tour, TJ resumed “immediately the correspondence with which you have been pleased to honour me,” and then casually asked at the end of his letter: “Have you yet the cypher of which I formerly wrote to you, or any copy of it?” (TJ had seen Barclay in Bordeaux and may have learned from him that Carmichael had received a copy from Franks; italics supplied). In response to this direct and carefully phrased inquiry, Carmichael, two years after he had begun to await anxiously the arrival of a cipher, wrote simply: “I have the cypher you mention and you may make use of it when you think proper. By your manner of employing it I shall judge of what I ought to do” (Carmichael to TJ, 9 July 1787). As if to support this remarkably equivocal statement, Carmichael wrote: “I enter into no details of the Politics of this Court. In the present situation of Europe, you are at the fountain head and can better develop than myself the Catastrophe. I own I cannot plunge thro’ the chaos.” Six weeks later he wrote again: “If you wish that I should write you regularly make use of the Cypher, Nothing can give me greater pleasure and assuredly you will never have reason to complain of the confidence” (Carmichael to TJ, 22 Aug. 1787). In response to this, TJ wrote the present letter with its coded passages, and then, in the next few months, there emerged the discovery that “Colonel Franks must have made some mistake in the delivery of the Cypher”: the code that Carmichael had obtained—or at least the one that he returned to TJ for verification—was not the Adams-TJ-Barclay-Lamb copy but one that TJ did not possess. Carmichael sent this erroneous code to TJ “in order that you may have it in your power by seeing the paper to discover the reason of this extraordinary mistake”—a remark clearly intended to convey the impression that the mistake had been calculated. TJ acknowledged the letter enclosing the copy, but made no allusion to the enclosure or to the alleged mistake (he had already stated that the “cyphered words in your letter of Apr. 14 prove to me that Mr. Barclay left you a wrong cypher,” a fact that scarcely needed proof; see Carmichael to TJ, 6 Sep., 15 Oct., 5 and 15 Nov. 1787; 14 and 29 Apr., 8 and 18 May, 24 July 1788; TJ to Carmichael, 15 Dec. 1787; 1 Feb., 3 June, and 12 Aug. 1788)

The foregoing summary of Carmichael’s effort to obtain a code raises a number of questions for which there appear to be no satisfactory answers. It is profitless to speculate on some of these questions, but it is worth noting that, in mid-summer of 1787, when Carmichael finally acknowledged that he had the cipher, he was reluctant to begin its use. Did he know then that it was an erroneous cipher? Had a mistake been made, real or calculated? Or had Carmichael received the correct cipher and did not at that moment have it in his possession? The answer to the last may appear in Carmichael’s friendship and correspondence at this precise moment with another lover of intrigue who occupied a place at the center of Europe’s current trouble spot—the ever-scribbling Dumas at The Hague. Dumas, who was a pensioner of France, shared with Carmichael a close friendship with the Chevalier de Bourgoing, secretary of the French legation at Madrid. Bourgoing was probably even more adept than Carmichael and Dumas at court intrigue; he was, by Carmichael’s account, better informed about affairs at Madrid than any other foreigner and “the most intimate friend I have had in this Country” (Carmichael to TJ, 18 July 1786). TJ had been favorably impressed by Bourgoing when Carmichael introduced them in 1786, and the chevalier had excited TJ with news of a secret survey made by Spain of the Isthmus of Panama for a possible canal—a survey that Campomanes said was only an idea in prospect, but TJ, evidently placing greater reliance on Bourgoing’s report, pressed Carmichael to procure a copy, stating that it was a “vast desideratum for reasons political and philosophical” (TJ to Carmichael, 3 June 1788; Carmichael to TJ, 14 Apr. 1788; see also Vol. 10; 287). Bourgoing had also been able to give TJ “an ample detail” of the suppressed Cruz Cano map of South America (Carmichael to TJ, 29 Sep. 1786; see Vol. 10: 213–7). During the summer of 1787 Bourgoing saw Dumas and read to him a letter he had received from Carmichael—as perhaps the latter had intended him to do. Dumas thanked Carmichael for the passages “trés obligeants à mon égard”; complained about the failure of Congress to insure payment of his salary (“N’est-on donc devenu libre que pour etre indolent et laisser périr de fideles serviteurs?”); pressed Carmichael to let him know the moment a final arrangement was to be made concerning the finances of the United States, especially the foreign debt; and then put this revealing question to Carmichael: “Expliques-moi, je vous prie, clairement ces dernières lignes de votre Lettre à Mr. le Chev. de Bourgoing: We shall soon have an order and a cypher, which will oblige us par force to write to each other” (Dumas to Carmichael, 31 Aug. 1787; Rijksarchief, The Hague, Dumas Letter Books; photostats in DLC). Dumas may not have transcribed the sentence correctly (“oblige” would seem to be Dumas’ interpretation of Carmichael’ s “enable”), but the implication is clear: Carmichael expected to procure a cipher from some other source, not to produce one common to themselves alone (which would have been possible at any time). The cipher referred to in this revealing letter may have been the one that Carmichael had been expecting to receive from John Jay (Jay did send it by a trusted sea captain a few weeks after Carmichael wrote to Bourgoing (Jay to Carmichael, 17 Aug. 1787; DNA: PCC, No. 121; see also Dipl. Corr., 1783–89, iii, 369). Or it may have been the one that Carmichael received from Franks in Nov. 1786. If it was the latter, the Carmichael-Bourgoing-Dumas correspondence may indicate that this cipher was temporarily out of Carmichael’s possession and this, in turn, would indicate why Carmichael was reluctant to be the first to use code in his correspondence with TJ. Carmichael’s letter to Bourgoing was written about the same time that he urged TJ to take the initiative in using coded messages.

Perhaps the best evidence that Carmichael wanted the code for some such purpose as that indicated in his letter to Bourgoing is to be found in his own letters. In 1785–1787 he wrote fully and sometimes informatively about important political matters; he undoubtedly had access to persons of consequence in the Spanish government; and Floridablanca (or someone close to him) seems occasionally to have deliberately furnished him with information. Yet, upon acknowledging after so long and strange a silence that he had a code, Carmichael not only showed a sudden disinclination to use it (his first use of it in the letter of 8 May 1788 was trivial and generally unnecessary), but he began writing letters of a different character: he no longer seemed to have such access to state secrets as he formerly enjoyed. Possibly the death on 14 June 1787 of José de Gálvez, Marqués de Sonora, the shepherd boy who had risen to power in the reign of Charles III as colonial secretary, may have had something to do with this. It is worth noting that Gálvez was more familiar with America than any other minister and that he had risen to high office and to noble rank largely through the influence of various mid-century French ambassadors at Madrid who had possibly taken an interest in him because his second wife was French (H. I. Priestley, José de Gálvez, Berkeley, Cal., 1916, p. 2–11). Gálvez’ death certainly brought about important ministerial changes, and one of the inconsequential results of his passing may have been the fact that Carmichael no longer had as much to say at the very time that he had finally achieved the means of saying it safely and secretly. But it is very doubtful whether this had been Carmichael’s whole object, after all.

1This and subsequent words in italics are written in code and have been supplied by the Editors from the text en clair in TJ’s hand.

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