Thomas Jefferson Papers

[William Lewis to Thomas Lee Shippen, 11 October 1787]

[William Lewis to Thomas Lee Shippen]

Philadelphia 11. Oct. 1787.

I have given <your father> two or three papers which contain the substance of what has passed here respecting the federal convention. The connecting thread is all I shall send, except a few minutes of the proceedings of the convention.

After four months session the house broke up. The represented states, eleven and a half, having unanimously agreed to the act handed to you, there were only three dissenting voices; one from New England, a man of sense, but a Grumbletonian. He was of service by objecting to every thing he did not propose. It was of course more canvassed, and some errors corrected. The other two are from Virginia: but Randolph wishes it well, and it is thought would have signed it, but he wanted to be on a footing with a popular rival. Both these men sink in the general opinion. No wonder they were opposed to a Washington and Madison. Dr. Franklin has gained much credit within doors for his conduct, and was the person who proposed the general signature. He had prepared his address in writing. The exertion of speaking being too great, they allowed another to read it. The day previous he sent for the Pennsylvania delegates; and it was reported that he did it to acquaint them of his disapprobation of certain points, and the impossibility of agreeing to them. His views were different. He wanted to allay every possible scruple, and make their votes unanimous. Some of the sentiments of the address were as follows.

‘We have been long together. Every possible objection has been combated. With so many different and contending interests it is impossible that any one can obtain every object of their wishes. We have met to make mutual sacrifices for the general good, and we have at last come fully to understand each other, and settle the terms. Delay is as unnecessary as the adoption is important. I confess it does not fully accord with my sentiments. But I have lived long enough to have often experienced that we ought not to rely too much on our own judgments. I have often found I was mistaken in my most favorite ideas. I have upon the present occasion given up, upon mature reflection, many points which at the beginning, I thought myself immoveably and decidedly in favor of. This renders me less tenacious of the remainder. There is a possibility of my being mistaken. The general principle which has presided over our deliberations now guides my sentiments. I repeat, I do materially object to certain points, and have already stated my objections. But I do declare that these objections shall never escape me without doors; as, upon the whole, I esteem the constitution to be the best possible, that could have been formed under present circumstances; and that it ought to go abroad with one united signature, and receive every support and countenance from us. I trust none will refuse to sign it. If they do, they will put me in mind of the French girl who was always quarelling and finding fault with every one around her, and told her sister that she thought it very extraordinary, but that really she had never found a person who was always in the right but herself.’

Our assembly was on the point of breaking up, and it was immediately brought on the carpet. Our back-county men, who have had much pains taken with them by those whose places will become less lucrative, opposed it being agitated: not because they objected: (for the thing was good:) but because it came not from Congress. They thought it impossible it could come in time. A vote was carried 43. to 19. They were to meet to fix a time of election. The 19. absconded, so as to prevent there being a house. The resolution of Congress was sent forward by express (by Bingham) and was here 12. hours after signature. They now still refused to attend. A Serjeant at arms and some citizens went for them, and two were obliged to attend. The prints tell the rest. 16. of the 19 addressed, and will render themselves infamous by their wicked and abominable lies. All parties (except the few interested) are for it. It meets with general approbation, and we have no doubt of it’s adoption.

Our Assembly election has passed without any opposition. Constitutionalists and Anti-Constitutionalists are lost in Federal and Anti-federal: and we expect no opposition but from those above-mentioned, and the lawless banditti on the frontiers whose depredations would be then put an end to, and they obliged to be under regular government.

The attempt is novel in history; and I can inform you of a more novel one; that I am assured by the gentlemen who served, that scarcely a personality, or offensive expression escaped during the whole session. The whole was conducted with a liberality and candor which does them the highest honor. I may pronounce that it will be adopted. General Washington lives; and as he will be appointed President, jealousy on this head vanishes. The plan once adopted, difficulties will lessen. 9. states can alter easier than 13 agree. With respect to Rhode island, my opinion is that she will join speedily. She has paid almost all her debts by a sponge, and has more to gain by the adoption than any other state. It will enable us to gain friends, and to oppose with force the machinations of our enemies. Yours &c.

Tr (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand; endorsed by him late in life: “Constitution of United States.” PrC of Tr (DLC); lacks one page. The deletion (unusually heavy and clearly intended to obscure) in the first line appears in both Tr and PrC, and was therefore made by TJ shortly after he had completed the Tr (or while copying) and before the PrC was executed.

This letter has been printed a number of times from the copy made by TJ —the original evidently has disappeared—but it is not to be found in any previous edition of his writings. At different times it has been described as being a letter to him or as one written by him. Among the various printings are: Documentary History of the Constitution, iv, 324 – 7; Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, iii, 104 – 5; Benjamin Franklin, Works, ed. Bigelow, ix, 417 – 8. In the first two it is described as a letter to TJ; in the last, as one by him; in none is the other correspondent identified. Because of its history and implications it is necessary to print it again and to discuss briefly TJ’s known or conjectured relations with it. The date-line and internal evidence make it apparent at once that it was impossible for TJ to have written it, and almost equally so for it to have been addressed to him. It is also evident that the author was a Pennsylvanian and probably a Philadelphian; that he was presumably a member of the state legislature; that he was not himself a member of the Federal Convention, but certainly enjoyed the confidence of one or more members of the delegation from his state to that body (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Mifflin, Robert Morris, George Clymer, Thomas FitzSimons, Jared Ingersoll, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris). It is evident, too, that the recipient was someone who arrived in Paris late in 1787 or early in 1788; that he may possibly have left America after the Federal Convention adjourned, otherwise a copy of its ACT could not have been handed him; that he was probably young; and that his father, who was living, may or may not have been a Pennsylvanian.

The identification of the writer and recipient cannot be certainly established in the absence of the original letter, but the most plausible conjecture would seem to indicate that William Lewis, a rising young member of the Philadelphia bar, a representative in the legislature, and an ardent supporter of the Constitution, was the writer. He was, of course, well known to the Shippens and to most if not all of the Pennsylvania delegates to the Federal Convention. He was a friend of Dr. William Shippen, Jr., the father of Thomas Lee Shippen, with whom he also corresponded and who the Editors believe was the recipient. Thomas Lee Shippen, nephew of Arthur and Richard Henry Lee, was studying law in England and in his correspondence with his father and his uncles in the summer and autumn of 1787 frequently discussed the Constitution and its reception in America and abroad. A good example of this correspondence is R. H. Lee’s letter to young Shippen of 22 July 1787 (Letters of Richard Henry Lee, ed. Ballagh, ii, 427). Dr. Shippen agreed with R. H. Lee about the need of a bill of rights and, in discussing this with his son, said: “I am thus particular because I suppose you wish to know all on political development‥‥ Prager at last fixes his departure on Saturday, and I am making a packet for my young Barrister. In it you will find the Debates of our last session of A[ssembly] taken by T. Lloyd, an American Museum for October, and all the papers Against and for the New Constitution.—Brutus said to be by R. H. Lee or Jay—Cincinnatus by A Lee—Old Whig and Centinel by a Club—Bryan, Smilie, Hutchn,&c.” As the Pennsylvania ratifying convention was completing its labors, Dr. Shippen again wrote his son: “Lloyd will publish the whole debates as soon as possible and they will be a treat to you and Mr. Jefferson‥‥ I hope it [the Constitution] will be amply commented upon by the learned and unprejudiced on your side of the water.—Your observations I think should be confind to me or your uncle R. H. L. unless you think ’tis a good and safe System; I confess I am not enough versed in matters of Government to give a wellfounded judgment” (Dr. William Shippen, Jr., to Thomas Lee Shippen, 18–22 Nov. 1787, 12 Dec. 1787; Shippen Family Papers, DLC). It is clear from these and other letters that Dr. Shippen was in the habit of making up packets of documents for his son pertaining to political affairs in America, such as the author of the present letter had given to the father of the recipient evidently for the purpose of having them forwarded. In a letter of 4 June 1787 Dr. Shippen referred to the meeting of the Federal Convention, said that he was sending a packet via the Ruby, Captain Smith, and added: “Lewis thanks you for your letter and promises to answer it.” In another letter of 19 Jan. 1788 he remarked that Lewis held young Shippen in high esteem—an opinion shared, evidently, by many others, including TJ and the young man’s well-known uncles (same).

If it is assumed that the writer of the letter was William Lewis and its recipient was Thomas Lee Shippen, then all of the major conditions—especially that the father and the writer were on friendly terms, but that the former was less au courant of political affairs than the latter, while his son shared the writer’s political interests—are met. The combination of circumstances is so strong as to be almost conclusive, particularly in connection with the deleted words of the first line (discussed below), but there is one difficulty—that is, the implications of the words the act handed to you. Young Shippen was in England during the summer and autumn of 1787 and no copy of the Constitution could have been “handed” to him there so early as 11 Oct. 1787. The difficulty posed by this phrase must be admitted, yet there are various possible explanations: (1) that TJ erred in transcribing—an unlikely explanation in any case, but particularly so in view of the fact that he interlined the preposition “to” in the phrase in question; (2) that a copy of the Constitution had been given to someone late in Sep. or early in Oct. to “hand” to young Shippen when the vessel arrived some time after the present letter was written—a plausible but improbable explanation; (3) that the words were not meant literally; or (4) that the writer of the present letter was himself transcribing from another letter. The last, while not fully convincing, is made plausible by the fact that the writer set out to present a few minutes of the proceedings of the Convention—a word possibly implying that he was copying from a letter he himself had received. The writer certainly obtained from a member of the Pennsylvania delegation all of the information in the paragraph in which the phrase occurred and in that containing the present version of Franklin’s speech. He may have obtained this information orally or he may have obtained it in writing, but there is at least a probability that Lewis was copying some minutes that had been sent to him in writing. There are others who could possibly be considered as the recipient of this letter—for example, James Jarvis, who left New York soon after it was written, who carried a copy of the Constitution with him, and to whom TJ was referred for news about the general subject of the Convention and its work, though various other factors eliminate him as a possibility—but the Editors conclude that, despite the difficulty posed by the phrase referred to, William Lewis wrote the letter and Shippen received it. The conclusive evidence for them appears in the deletion of the two words your father.

The significance of this deletion lies primarily in the fact that, as indicated above, it was done during or immediately after TJ had transcribed the letter, otherwise he could not have obtained so clear a press-copy containing the deletion. From this fact two conclusions follow: (1) the deletion was made in order to conceal the identity of the recipient, a conclusion also supported by the fact that TJ (contrary to habit) omitted the signature of the writer and gave the letter no endorsement until many years later, as the handwriting of the endorsement shows; (2) the transcription was made with some purpose in mind that involved showing it to another person, a conclusion confirmed by the fact that he made both a Tr and a PrC. The question at once arises: What was that purpose and who was the person that it concerned? Certainly TJ did not intend this letter for publication, since, despite the note struck in the concluding paragraph, most of its minutes of… proceedings tended to reveal the extent of divisiveness in American councils. It would have been wholly out of keeping with TJ’s career as a minister to reveal to the public anything of this nature. If not intended for publication, then, the copy must have been made for some individual—not, obviously, for Lafayette, for he received information of the Constitution from Washington and others; and also, though TJ fully shared American news with him, the Marquis usually obtained this in consultation or by reading letters and documents shown to him: he was such a close ally of the American minister that TJ would not have had to delete your father or to omit the signature or endorsement if the letter were intended for him. But the unknown person for whom the transcript was made must have been one who would have been able, by means of the deleted words, to identify the recipient. This again points to young Shippen as the recipient, for early in 1788 TJ extended many civilities to the young man, invited him to dine twice a week at Hôtel de Langeac, introduced him to the De Cornys and others, and even presented him at court. Hence, with young Shippen known to intellectual, political, and social circles in Paris to a degree probably not equalled by any other young American who visited TJ early in 1788, it may have seemed to TJ merely a good precaution to delete from the letter anything that might reveal the identity of its recipient. The person for whom the transcript was made was also someone who must have had a special interest in the contents of the letter or in a part thereof. Now if the revealing comments of the writer about divisive opinions in the Federal Convention and about the machinations of the Federalist majority of the Pennsylvania legislature—matters which TJ clearly would not have wanted to spread about—are eliminated, the remaining matter of paramount interest is Franklin’s speech. Indeed, that speech, because it was Franklin’s and because it had great influence in the Convention and during the course of the ratification of the Constitution, is the principal element in the letter even if nothing is eliminated. This letter evidently contains the earliest version of the speech, which may have been paraphrased from memory merely in order to present some of the sentiments of the address or it may actually have been transcribed from a text or from notes taken by one of the members of the Pennsylvania delegation. The speech began to be the subject of conversation in America from the time Franklin invited the Pennsylvania delegates to meet with him on Sunday, 16 Sep. 1787, for a preliminary reading. On 30 Oct. 1787 Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts asked Franklin for a copy to be employed “to correct that possitive attachment which men are too apt to have for their own ideas” and also “for the purpose of publishing it, provided you do not think it improper.” Franklin complied and Gorham caused the version of the speech that he had received to be published in a Boston paper “excepting a few lines” (Gorham to Franklin, 30 Oct. and 3 Dec. 1787; quoted in Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, iv, 78 – 80). Franklin freely gave copies of the speech to Daniel Carroll of Maryland and to others, and it was reprinted in the American Museum for December, possibly with his consent (Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, p. 756). The New York Journal for 10 Dec. also printed the text (doubtless that sent to Gorham with its exceptions) from a Boston paper of 3 Dec. 1787.

Now if, as seems plausible, the transcript was made by TJ because of the Franklin speech and because he thought someone in Paris wished to see it, the evidence points inevitably to Franklin’s friend Le Veillard, with whom TJ had already been exchanging information about Franklin (see note to TJ to Le Veillard, 9 May 1786). This is wholly conjectural, but inherent plausibilities support the possibility. Moreover, the presence of both Tr and PrC in TJ Papers would seem to indicate that TJ failed to make use of the copy for the purpose for which it was intended. If this were the case, it could have been because he thought it would have been indiscreet to reveal so much of American politics—or it could have been because the object which the copy was intended to achieve had already been met. If TJ made the copy in order to give Le Veillard a text of the Franklin speech, the need to do so disappeared when Le Veillard received Franklin’s letter of 17 Feb. 1788 which included the following remarks: “I attended the business of the convention faithfully for four months. Enclosed you have the last speech I made in it” (Works, ed. Bigelow, ix, 459).

But the presence of both Tr and PrC in TJ Papers does not necessarily prove that TJ failed to carry out his purpose. It will be observed from the descriptive note above that the PrC lacks one page. The page missing is one that contains no part of the text of the letter save the speech by Franklin, with the exception of the single catch-word our which is separated from the text and is at the extreme lower right-hand corner and therefore easily torn away, obliterated, or (as was possible the case) simply not copied when the PrC was being made. The speech by Franklin is so centered in the page as to make it appear that TJ purposely transcribed the letter in order to have its text easily separable. If so, then TJ transcribed the whole of this interesting letter primarily for his own files and, in doing so, performed the typically Jeffersonian feat of making a part of it adaptable to some secondary use. If this other use was that of giving the text to Le Veillard, then the transcript must have been made before Le Veillard received Franklin’s letter with its longer version of the speech—that is, it must have been made around Feb. or Mch. 1788, or, in other words, while young Shippen was in Paris and seeing much of the one whom he considered “the wisest and most amiable man I have seen in Europe.”

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