Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Moustier, 17 May 1788

To Moustier

Paris May 17. 1788.

Dear Sir

I have at length an opportunity of acknoleging the receipt of your favors of Feb. and Mar. 14.1 and of congratulating you on your resurrection from the dead among whom you had been confidently entombed by the news-dealers of Paris. I am sorry that your first impressions have been disturbed by matters of etiquette, where surely they should least have been expected to occur. These disputes are the most insusceptible of determination, because they have no foundation in reason. Arbitrary and senseless in their nature, they are arbitrarily decided by every nation for itself. These decisions are meant to prevent disputes, but they produce ten where they prevent one. It would have been better therefore in a new country to have excluded etiquette altogether; or, if it must be admitted in some form or other, to have made it depend on some circumstance founded in nature, such as the age or stature of the parties.—However you have got over all this, and I am in hopes have been able to make up a society suited to your own dispositions. Your situation will doubtless be improved by the adoption of the new constitution, which I hope will have taken place before you receive this. I see in this instrument a great deal of good. The consolidation of our government, a just representation, an administration of some permanence and other features of great value, will be gained by it. There are indeed some faults which revolted me a good deal in the first moment: but we must be contented to travel on towards perfection, step by step. We must be contented with the ground which this constitution will gain for us, and hope that a favourable moment will come for correcting what is amiss in it. I view in the same light the innovations making here. The new organisation of the judiciary department is undoubtedly for the better. The reformation of the criminal code is an immense step taken towards good. The composition of the Plenary court is indeed vicious in the extreme. But the basis of that court may be retained and it’s composition changed. Make of it a representative of the people, by composing it of members sent from provincial assemblies, and it becomes a valuable member of the constitution. But it is said the court will not consent to do this. The court however has consented to call the States general, who will consider the plenary court but as a canvas for them to work on. The public mind is manifestly advancing on the abusive prerogatives of their governors, and bearing them down. No force in the government can withstand this in the long run. Courtiers had rather give up power than pleasures: they will barter therefore the usurped prerogatives of the king for the money of the people. This is the agent by which modern nations will recover their rights. I sincerely wish that in this country they may be contented with a peaceable and passive opposition. At this moment we are not sure of this. Tho’ as yet it is difficult to say what form the opposition will take, it is a comfortable circumstance that their neighboring enemy is under the administration of a minister disposed to keep the peace. There are some little symptoms however lately, which look as if the war of the Eastern might gain upon the Western parts of Europe. Sweden has notified the court of Denmark it’s intention to arm 8. ships of the line and some frigates. Denmark has in consequence determined to arm an equal force. Spain has sent 7. ships of the line with some frigates to sea. Their destination not yet known to the public. And she is going on with further naval armaments. England sends a squadron to the Mediterranean to protect her commerce against the Moores, and reinforcements of men to her West and East Indies. France sends three regiments to the East Indies, officers to Tippoo Saib’s army, and receives an Embassy from this chief. Thus you see that things are insensibly taking the position of war, with professions of peace. Engage in war who will, may my country long continue your peaceful residence, and merit your good offices with that nation whose affections it is their duty and interest to cultivate. Accept these and all other the good wishes of him who has the honour to be with sincere esteem & respect Dear Sir your most obedient & most humble servant,

Th: Jefferson

P.S. The hundred bottles of Frontignan are forwarded to Mr. Bondfeild at Bordeaux, who will send them to you.

PrC (DLC).

Moustier’s entombment by the news-dealers of Paris was broken by his arrival in New York after a voyage of 65 days, so enfeebled that Otto, reporting to Montmorin, thought the new minister would need a rest of several weeks to regain strength—a report which reached Montmorin almost a month after TJ’s letter of 2 Mch. 1788. Otto said that Moustier was received by the citizens of New York “avec toutes les demonstrations de respect et d’attachement dues au representant d’une nation qui a rendu des services aussi essentiels aux Etats unis.” But Moustier recovered quickly, and at once found himself ensnarled with the vexed question of the rights of immunity of consuls (see editorial note in connection with the Consular Convention, under 14 Nov. 1788) and with matters of etiquette. Moustier and Jay discussed the ceremonial reception of the new minister early in February, both in correspondence and in conversation. The former thought the ceremonial established in 1783 “susceptible de quelques observations surtout relativement a l’etiquette de la première visite aux membres individuels du Congrès.” Nevertheless, he spoke confidentially to Jay and some others in order to make plain his deference to regulations that, he reported, Jay himself found offensive. On 12 Feb. Jay reported to Congress a letter from Moustier asking that “a Day be fixed for his public Audience, and intimating an Expectation that the Ceremonial will be the same as in the Cases of his Predecessors”; he advised that he had “perused and considered the Ceremonials heretofore used on such Occasions, and that they appear to him to put much less Distinction between an Ambassador and a Minister than the Laws and the actual Practice of civilized Nations have established,” but that “considering the past and present state of American Affairs,” he thought it “might not be so advisable to correct Mistakes relative to Matters of Ceremony and Etiquette at this Period, as when the proposed Plan of Government shall begin to operate” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937, 34 vols. description ends , XXXIV, 44–5). Congress set the day for 26 Feb., having first agreed to make the audience public and to follow precedent by distributing tickets to private individuals by allocating two to each member and eight to the president, but having rejected a committee suggestion that each member would be expected to distribute one of his tickets “to some Character more than ordinarily distinguished, the other at his Discretion” and also that Van Berckel and Gardoqui be given seats distinguishing them “from Persons less respectable in point of Rank” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937, 34 vols. description ends , XXXIV, 46, 51, 52, 54). On the appointed day Moustier was admitted to the chamber in which Congress met, and, before an audience composed of some sixty persons in addition to members of Congress, departmental heads, and foreign dignitaries, tendered his letter of credence signed by Louis XVI and Montmorin, delivered an address of customary felicitations, and heard one in reply by the president of Congress (texts printed in same, p. 64–5). Moustier informed Montmorin that he had tried to include in his discourse expressions of friendship and confidence, but that he thought it necessary at the same time to remind Congress gently of what the United States owed to the generosity of the king. He also drew an unflattering picture of Congress, but declared that that body could not be regarded as truly representative, since for some years the greater part of its members had been drawn from an inferior class, whether judged by wealth, position, knowledge, or talents, a fact which explained why the barren style of the president’s response had not surprised him more, since it was the product of“des gens, qui dans leur petite sphere individuelle, se bouffisent de l’idée d’une parfaite egalité avec un Roi de France.” He considered that his own address, which he expected to be printed in the multitude of gazettes that formed the sole reading of many Americans, as intended for the whole nation: Congress was only “un phantome de Souverain,” unworthy of being compared with the members of the Federal Convention as representatives of the United States, and, unless the new Constitution were adopted, would be unable not only to discharge the national debt but even to raise the slender funds for government expenses. Montmorin agreed with this appraisal, approved Moustier’s address and decision to abide by the disagreeable ceremonial (“Il faut convenir toute fois, que ce cérémonial est bien exigeant, et bien peu analogue à celui qui est reçu dans les Etats républicains en Europe”), and urged Moustier, while following his instructions to avoid intervening in American affairs, to make it very plain to Jay that this was out of respect for the independence of the United States as a sovereign nation and did not in any way reflect any indifference on the part of the king to the great issue being decided in America (Otto to Montmorin, 18 Jan. 1788; Moustier to Montmorin, 14, 27 Feb. 1788, the latter enclosing French texts of his address and the president’s response; Montmorin to Moustier, 23 June 1788; all in Arch. Aff. Etr., Paris, Corr. Pol., E.-U., Vol. XXXIII; transcripts in DLC; the correspondence between Moustier and Jay concerning the audience is in Dipl. Corr., 1783–89, I, 245–53; see also Moustier to TJ, 13 Feb., 13 Mch., and 12 Aug. 1788). Congress reciprocated Moustier’s impressions, at first with reserve and then with hostility. On the day after the audience, one delegate thought the new minister’s “manner rather more lively than dignified, altho no decided opinion can be formed from a single interview, and that a public one.” A few weeks later a member of the committee that had planned the audience reported to the governor of his state that “Mon’r le Comte de Moustier … is remarked to be not so courtly in his attention to congress as his predecessor.” It was being rumored at that time, too, that Moustier was about to present a memorial on the French debt, a subject that “in the present condition of these states can only serve to disgust” (Samuel A. Otis to James Warren, 27 Feb. 1788; James White to Gov. Samuel Johnston of N.C., 21 Apr. 1788; Burnett, Letters of Members description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, 8 vols. description ends , VIII, Nos. 797, 831). Thence-forward Moustier’s relations with Congress steadily deteriorated.

1Thus in MS, an error for 13 Feb. and 13 Mch. 1788.

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