Gouverneur Morris to George Washington
London 1. May 1790
Herewith I have the Honor to transmit a Duplicate of my last Letter of the thirteenth of April. Not having heard from the Duke of Leeds I wrote him a Note on the nineteenth, of which a Copy is enclosed marked No. 1. To this I received no Reply, wherefore on the twenty ninth I addressed him again by a Letter of which a Copy is enclosed marked No. 2. This was deliverrd at his Office Whitehall between eleven and twelve in the Morning of the twenty ninth, and at half past ten in the Evening the Letters were sent to me of which No. 3 and 4. are Copies. You will observe that his Letter No. 3 is dated the 28th. and of Course takes no Notice of that to which it is in Fact the Answer; but the Style and general Complection as well as the Circumstances attending the Delivery of it, clearly shew that it was not written until the Evening of the twenty ninth.
I might, in Reply, have made some Strictures upon the Information that I was in Holland &c. &c. I might also have contrasted the Expressions of good Faith with the Conduct of Administration, and have observed upon the Idea that the United States were bound in the most solemn Manner, while from the subsequent Parts of his Letter it would seem that Great Britain is not bound at all, or at most but loosely. There is also a Confusion of Language which resembles the Stammering of one who endeavors to excuse a Misdeed which he resolves to commit. Thus on the Supposition that a Completion of the Treaty by us is impossible he insists that we shall compleat it or make Compensation. The Expressions in the last Clause are if possible more vague than all the Rest, and the Reply might have been proportionately more pointed.
My Letter of Yesterday of which No. 5 is a Copy contains Nothing of what is just stated, altho perhaps it ought to have noticed some Part. I must rely on your Kindness Sir both to interpret favorably what I have done and to excuse my omissions. I thought it best to heap Coals of Fire on their Heads, and thereby either bring them into our Views or put them most eminently in the wrong. It was moreover my wish to draw forth specific Propositions, because these will admit of Discussion, or else if manifestly unjust, they can not only be repelled but they will serve to shew a predetermined Breach of Faith by them which will justify whatever Conduct we may afterwards find it proper to adopt. If as is not improbable he should give no Answer or one so vague as to mean Nothing I shall pursue according to Circumstances my Object of compelling them to speak plainly or refuse absolutely.
It seems pretty clear that they wish to evade a commercial treaty but not peremptorily to reject it, and therefore I have construed into Rejection his Graces abstruse Language leaving him the Option to give it a different Interpretation. I do not expect that he will, tho he may perhaps write an explanatory Comment more unintelligible than the Text.
I have some Reason to beleive that the present Administration intend to keep the Posts, and withhold Payment for the Negroes. If so they will color their Breach of Faith by the best Pretexts in their Power. I incline to think also that they consider a Treaty of Commerce with America as being absolutely unnecessary, and that they are perswaded they shall derive all Benefit from our Trade without Treaty. It is true that we might lay them under Restrictions in our Ports but they beleive that an Attempt of that Sort would be considered by one Part of America as calculated by the other for private Emolument, and not for the general Good. The Merchants here look on it as almost impossible for us to do without them; and it must be acknowleged that past Experience and the present Situation of neighbouring Countries go far to justify that Opinion. Whether the Ministers, then, shall act according to their own Ideas, or consult mercantile People they will equally (I think) repel Advances from us, and therefore it seems more prudent to lay the Foundations of future Advantage, than attempt to grasp at present Benefit. I will not pretend to suggest any Measures for the Adoption of Congress whose wisdom and whose Sense of national Honor will certainly lead them to act properly when the proper Moment shall present itself. It will naturally strike every Mind that while the Legislature of this Country continue to invest the executive Authority with great Power respecting the American Commerce the Administration here will have Advantages in Treaty which can only be ballanced by similar Confidence on the Part of Congress in the executive of America. But very much will I think depend upon the Situation of France. If appearances there should change and so much Vigor be infused into the Government as would enable it to call forth the national Efforts in Support of their Interest and Honor, a great Revolution would be produced in the Opinions here. From the Conduct of the aristocratic Hierarchy in the low Countries who are instigated and supported by Prussia I have long been thoroughly convinced that the Alternative of War or the most ignominious Terms of Peace would be proposed to the imperial Courts. Counting upon the absolute Nullity of France, and supposing that this Country can at any Moment intimidate that into abject Submission Prussia and Poland will I think join themselves to Turkey and Sweden against Russia and Austria which are both exhausted and one of them dismembred. Probably the War will be commenced before this Letter reaches your Hands, and then Britain and Holland are to be the Umpires or rather Dictators of Peace.
I have taken the Liberty to touch thus far upon the general System of European Politics, as it may tend to shew that for the present Great Britain will rather keep things in Suspense with us, being herself in a State of Suspense as to others. I will not go into Conjectures about the Events which will take Place upon the Continent. They will I beleive (as is usual) disappoint the Projectors; but be that as it may, our Affairs can derive no Advantage now, from what shall happen hereafter. I presume that a Dissolution of Parliament will take Place shortly, altho many of the best informed People think or at least say they think otherwise. But it is clear to my Mind that Administration will wish to have before them a Prospect of seven Years Stability to their System be that what it may, and they will not at the Moment of a general Election expose themselves to Criticism by any Act of doubtful Construction. This forms with them an additional Reason for being evasive in Regard to us. Perhaps there never was a Moment in which this Country felt herself greater and consequently it is the most unfavorable Moment to obtain advantageous terms from her in any Bargain. But this Appearance of Greatness is extremely fallacious. Their Revenue is not yet equal to their Expenditure. Money is indeed poured in upon them from all Quarters because of the distracted Situation of Affairs among their Neighbours, and hence their Stocks have risen greatly since the Peace so that they can borrow at an interest of four per Cent: but supposing they should not be obliged to engage in the War, still there are two Events either of which would overturn the Fabric of their Prosperity. If France establishes a solid System of Finance then Capitalists will prefer five per Cent with her to four per Cent from Britain, for all other things being equal there is no Shadow of Comparison between the real Resources of the two Countries. If France commits a Bankruptcy, the Disorders consequent thereon will doubtless be violent but the Storm once passed, she would then be able to make greater Exertion by her annual Resources than Britain could compass by every possible Anticipation of Credit. There is a middle Situation between Sinking and Swimming in which the french Finances may flounder on for some time to come; but even this State of wretchedness will produce rather Evil than Good to Great Britain; for she has already reaped all the Harvest which could be gathered from the Distress of her Neighbour, and must necessarily loose the Benefit of the famous commercial Treaty in Proportion as the Resources of her Customer are cut off.
Under all the various Contingencies which present themselves to my Contemplation and there are many which I will not trouble you with the Perusal of, it appears clearly that the favorable Moment for us to treat is not yet come. It is indeed the Moment for this Country and they seem determined to let it pass away. I must again entreat your Indulgence Sir for this lengthy and desultory Letter. Accept I pray you the Assurances of that Respect with which I have the Honor to be your most obedient & humble Servant,
RC (DLC: Washington Papers). Enclosures (all clerk’s copies, in DLC: Washington Papers): (1) Morris, “froomes Hotel Covent Garden Monday 19th April 1790,” to Duke of Leeds, reminding him “of what passed in Conversation on Monday the twenty eighth of March in Consequence of which Mr. Morris flattered himself with the Hope of hearing from his Grace at an early Period.” (2) Leeds to Morris, 28 Apr. 1790, saying that he would not have delayed so long “returning an Answer to the Letter you received from General Washington” had he not heard Morris was in Holland; that “a Multiplicity of Engagements and … Illness” had prevented acknowledgment of his note; that “The two Subjects contained in General Washington’s Letter are indisputably of the highest Importance, and I can safely assure you that it has ever been the sincere and earnest Wish of this Country to fulfil her Engagements (Contracted by the Treaty of Peace) with the United States in a Manner consistent with the most scrupulous fidelity.—We cannot but lament every Circumstance which can have delayed the Accomplishment of those Engagements (comprized in the Treaty) to which those States were in the most solemn Manner bound and should the Delay in fulfilling them have rendered their final Completion impracticable, we have no Scruple in declaring our Object is to retard the fulfilling such subsequent Parts of the Treaty as depend entirely upon Great Britain, until Redress is granted to our Subjects upon the specific Points of the Treaty itself, or a fair and just Compensation obtained for the non-Performance of those Engagements on the part of the United States” and that, on the subject of a commercial treaty, it was “the sincere Wish of the british Government to cultivate a real and bona fide System of friendly Intercourse with the United States, and that every measure which can tend really and reciprocally to produce that Object will be adopted with the utmost satisfaction by Great Britain.” (3) Morris to Leeds, 29 Apr. 1790, saying that at their interview Leeds “seemed to be particularly pleased” with Washington’s letter and promised to return it with his opinion after having copied it; that his subsequent silence led Morris to suppose that “this Affair might have been overlooked in the Attention to Matters of more apparent Moment” and that he had reminded Leeds of it in a note to which no reply had been received. Morris concluded: “Permit me now my Lord to request that the President’s Letter may be returned, and excuse me for expressing at the same time a Wish that you would enable me to transmit the Evidence of those friendly Dispositions towards America which you was pleased to express. It flows from the sincere Desire that more perfect Harmony may be established between the two Countries; and a Solicitude to obviate unpleasant Circumstances.” (4) J. B. Burges to Morris, 29 Apr. 1790, saying that the Duke of Leeds, being prevented “from coming to the Office by Indisposition,” had directed him to convey the enclosed answer, together with that from Washington to Morris, and to express concern that indisposition, “added to a Multiplicity of important Business,” had prevented an answer. (5) Morris to Leeds, 30 Apr. 1790, acknowledging receipt of the latter’s letter of 28 Apr. 1790 “late last Evening” and adding: “I am happy to be assured by such respectable Authority ‘that it has ever been the sincere and earnest Wish of this Country to fulfill her Engagements with the United States in a Manner consistent with the most scrupulous Fidelity.’ This indeed had never admitted of Question in my Mind, because I could not harbor a Doubt of the national faith of Great Britain: and … sentiments of this kind induced the Congress at their last session to reject, by a considerable Majority, some Regulations which might have appeared hostile, and prove injurious to your commercial Interest. I am perfectly convinced from this, and from many other Circumstances, that the united States have a constant Determination to perform in the fullest Manner every stipulation which they have made: for this is not only in itself a moral Duty, peculiarly binding upon every Sovereign Power, but it is specially secured by that constitutional Compact which the People of America have made with each other. Since both Parties therefore have the best Dispositions, and are actuated by the purest Motives, I indulge my Lord, the Hope that every Obstacle to a complete Performance will be speedily removed. And in this Hope, without going into an Enquiry as to the Causes of former Delay, which might not perhaps tend towards Conciliation, I must entreat of your Graces Goodness to be informed in what Respects, and to what Degree you consider the final Completion of those Engagements to which the United States were bound, as having been rendered impracticable; for I must own that the Idea is new to my Conception.—The Candor with which your Grace avows the Intention to retard a fulfilment of such Parts of the Treaty as depend upon Great Britain, meets as it merits my utmost Acknowledgement. I am very far from questioning the Policy, nor will I presume to doubt the Propriety of a Caution which is I trust unnecessary, and which might indeed be unpleasant to the feelings of America, if they could be affected with punctilious Sentiment in the Discussion of national Interest. But it becomes my Duty to ask of you my Lord, the Nature and Extent of the Redress expected for your Subjects upon the specific Points of the Treaty; and in the supposed Case that this should have become impracticable, the Kind and Measure of Compensation to be required from us as preliminary to the fulfilment of those Stipulations which remain to be performed by you.—I Trust that I am mistaken in that Part of your Graces Letter which relates to a commercial Treaty, because it really appears to me as expressive only of the wish to cultivate merely an amicable Intercourse founded on commercial good faith, and as implying some Disinclination to the securing of that Intercourse by the force of Treaty. I should be very unhappy to convey a false Interpretation of the Sentiments of this Government upon an Object of such Importance. This might be prejudicial to both Countries and therefore I shall indulge the Expectation that if I am wrong your Grace will have the Goodness to set me right.” It is clear from Morris’ quotation of Leeds’ letter of 28 Apr. 1790 that the two parenthetical insertions in the clerk’s copy of it were inserted by Morris himself for purposes of clarification.