I. Thomas Jefferson to William Barton
New York Aug. 12. 1790.
I have been duly honored with your’s of the 7th. instant, and in order to answer it must enter into a detail of facts.
In the formation of the higher departments there were some endeavors in Congress to establish a separate minister for the domestic business. This was disapproved by a considerable majority of Congress, and they therefore united that with the foreign business under the department of the Secretary of state.—When I arrived here I found Mr. Alden at the head of the home-office, and Mr. Remsen at that of the foreign office. Neither could descend to a secondary appointment, and yet they were each so well acquainted with their respective departments and the papers in them, that it was extremely desireable to keep both. On this ground of their peculiar familiarity with the papers and proceedings of their respective offices, which made them necessary to me as indexes, I asked permission to appoint two chief clerks. The legislature recieved the proposition with some jealousy, lest it might be intended to bring forward again the plan of two departments and tho the bill past, it was after considerable delay, and being quite satisfied I had no other view than to be enabled to keep the two gentlemen so peculiarly familiar with the papers under their care. One of them chusing afterwards to engage in another line, I could do nothing less, in return to the complaisance of the legislature, than declare that as the ground on which alone they were induced to allow the second office, was now removed, I considered the office as at an end, and that the arrangements should return to the order desired by the legislature: this declaration has been given to some applications already made for this office.
I should have had real pleasure, Sir, in serving you on this occasion, but the preceding detail of facts will serve to shew you that the appointment cannot be renewed. The testimony I have recieved would be quite sufficient to convince me that I could not fill the office better than by naming you, were it considered as now existing. I beg you to recieve, with the faithful expression of my regret, assurances of the regard with which I have the honor to be Sir Your most obedient & most humble servt.,
The attempt to establish a separate office for the domestic business was linked to the resignation of the faithful secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789, Charles Thomson. After the bill for establishing a Department of Foreign Affairs had passed the House but before it was approved on 27 July 1789, Vining of Delaware moved a resolution calling for the establishment of a department to be headed by “the Secretary of the United States for the Home Department,” whose duty it would be “to correspond with the several States, and to see to the execution of the laws of the Union; to keep the great seal, and affix the same to all public papers, when it is necessary; to keep the lesser seal, and to affix it to commissions, &c.; to make out commissions, and enregister the same; to keep authentic copies of all public acts, &c.; and transmit the same to the several States; to procure the acts of the several States, and report on the same when contrary to the laws of the United States; to take into his custody the archives of the late Congress; to report to the President plans for the protection and improvement of manufactures, agriculture, and commerce; to obtain a geographical account of the several States, their rivers, towns, roads, &c.; to report what post roads shall be established; to receive and record the census; to receive reports respecting the Western territory; to receive the models and specimens presented by inventors and authors; to enter all books for which patents are granted; to issue patents, &c.; and, in general, to do and attend to all such matters and things as he may be directed to do by the President” (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials by Joseph Gales, Senior, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. The edition employed here is that which contains the running heads on verso and recto pages respectively: “Gales & Seatons History” and “of Debates in Congress.” Another printing, with the same title-page but with running heads on both recto and verso pages reading “History of Congress,” has a different pagination, so that pages cited in the edition employed here should be converted by subtracting approximately fifty-two from the number given in the citation. All editions are undependable. description ends , i, 692). These sweeping administrative and executive powers were such as no department had been specifically directed to perform. But Charles Thomson, sole remaining symbol of government under the Articles of Confederation, still served as custodian of its records and seals. When the new government came into existence, he was offered the post of secretary of the Senate. This he declined, countering with the proposition that he be made “Secretary of the Senate and of the United States or Congress,” with custody of the great seal and records, and that his office be made repository of “the acts, laws, and archives of Congress” (Thomson to Robert Morris, 7 Apr. 1789, quoted in L. R. Harley, Charles Thomson, p. 128–9). Unquestionably, Thomson hoped the extensive powers contemplated in Vining’s resolution would be only an enlargement of his existing custodial function. The terms of this remarkable and unrealistic motion, reflecting as it does an intimate knowledge of all phases of the operations of government such as Thomson alone possessed, suggest that it was drafted with his assistance if not inspired by him.
Much as he deserved office on the score of integrity, fidelity, and competence, Thomson’s refusal of the Secretaryship of the Senate and Vining’s attempt to stake out too broad a range of powers for an office framed to fit his constituent’s peculiar talents combined to bring about an emphatic defeat of the resolution. During the debate Thomson visited Maclay, who saw clearly the injustice of the treatment accorded him, but thought it “certainly bad policy for him to refuse the offer of his friends. The political door is harder to be opened than any other if once it is thrown in a man’s face” (Maclay, Journal, ed. Maclay, p. 106). Immediately on defeat of the motion, Thomson sent his resignation to the President and Washington expressed his regret at losing the services of “so old, so faithful, and so able a public officer.” He directed him at the same time to “deliver the Books, Records and Papers of the late Congress, the Great Seal of the Federal Union, and the Seal of the Admiralty, to Mr. Roger Alden, the late Deputy Secretary of Congress” (Washington to Thomson, 24 July 1789; Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxx, 358–9). Washington’s letter touched Thomson, evoking a response that was almost effusive but still could not conceal an ambition to serve in the new administration (quoted in L. R. Harley, Charles Thomson, p. 131–2). It could not have been comforting to a man held in honor by Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others that, only a week after his resignation and on the heels of the Act creating the Department of Foreign Affairs, there was introduced a bill enlarging the function of that department so as to accommodate the functions and records which, as Washington felicitously expressed it in his letter to Thomson, bore a “Name so honorably connected with the verification of such a multitude of astonishing facts.” The functions of offices pertaining to finance, war, and foreign affairs had had uninterrupted continuity from the old to the new government. But Thomson’s effort to have his office elevated to the status of an executive department only served to call attention to an omission and to produce the exact reverse of what he desired. With the defeat of Vining’s motion the functions that he had performed so long and so faithfully in “minuting the birth-records of a nation” (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, N.Y., 1928–1936 description ends ) were annexed to the amplified and re-named Department of State. On Thomson’s resignation the last vestige of the old government disappeared.
Thus when TJ came into office his deputies stemmed from two separate bureaus, but the Act creating the Department of State had failed to amend that part of the Act of 27 July 1789 which allowed only one chief clerk. Both Washington and Jay urged upon TJ the respective claims of Roger Alden, who had been assistant to Thomson, and Henry Remsen, Jr., who since 1784 had served under the Secretary for Foreign Affairs (Washington to TJ, 13 Oct. 1789; Jay to TJ, 12 Dec. 1789; TJ to Jay, 14 Feb. 1790). There were other aspirants. Charles Storer appealed to John Adams to intercede in his behalf with TJ for “the office of his first Secretary.” Adams ended the hope quickly: “Mr. Remsen has been many years in the office of foreign affairs and has qualifications and merits which preclude all competition. Mr. Alden is another in a similar predicament, so that there is not a possibility of your success in your first thought” (Storer to Adams, 23 Feb. 1790; Adams to Storer, 26 Mch. 1790, both in MHi: AM). Another problem was Alden’s compensation. No funds had been provided for the discharge of duties assigned to him by Washington on Thomson’s resignation. On 29 Jan. 1790, therefore, Alden petitioned the House of Representatives for compensation for himself, for a clerk he had employed, and for the expenses of the office incident to the custody of “the records and papers of the late Congress, the great seal of the Federal Union, and the seal of the admiralty, which were delivered to him on the twenty-fourth of July last, by Charles Thomson … pursuant to the order of the President of the United States.” This was allowed by Congress at the rate of $1,000 per annum for Alden and $500 for his clerk, the former being authorized to receive the salary only “until the Secretary of State shall enter on the duties of his office” (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826– description ends , I, 149, 152, 153). Hence when TJ assumed office, he found two chief clerks in fact and an appropriation for only one. Moreover, one of these had been allowed a compensation for the preceding eight months greater than that provided by law for the single one he was authorized to designate as chief clerk. He accordingly made the request for authority to appoint two chief clerks soon after taking office. On 4 Apr. 1790 Roger Sherman of Connecticut introduced a resolution authorizing the Secretary of State to employ an additional clerk at a salary of $800, the amount fixed by the Act of 11 Sep. 1789 for the salary of the chief clerk. The resolution was referred to Vining, Sherman, and Lee, who reported a bill on 13 Apr. but it did not become law until 4 June 1790. Shortly thereafter TJ submitted an estimate of expenses providing salaries of $800 each for one clerk in the Home Office and another in the Foreign Office (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826– description ends , i, 188, 193, 194, 205, 227, 233, 234; Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials by Joseph Gales, Senior, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. The edition employed here is that which contains the running heads on verso and recto pages respectively: “Gales & Seatons History” and “of Debates in Congress.” Another printing, with the same title-page but with running heads on both recto and verso pages reading “History of Congress,” has a different pagination, so that pages cited in the edition employed here should be converted by subtracting approximately fifty-two from the number given in the citation. All editions are undependable. description ends , ii, 1571, 1602; Vol. 16; 512–13). In this the compensation for both was provided for from 1 Apr. 1790. Alden, of course, was obliged to accept a reduction in salary. The salaries of clerks in the public offices, as Adams had assured Storer and as TJ frequently asserted, were “a bare subsistence.” Such able clerks as Alden and Remsen were often men of family and this fact combined with the low salaries accounts in general for their leaving government service.
Alden’s resignation of 25 July 1790 prompted the letter from Barton of the 7th. instant, but this was not the first time he had sought TJ’s patronage. On 20 Apr. 1790 David Rittenhouse wrote TJ from Philadelphia: “Having been informed that the office of Deputy Secretary to the Treasury is Vacant, and that application has been made to the Secretary in favour of my Nephew William Barton, and thinking it may probably fall in your way to befriend him, I cannot forbear giving my testimony to his Character. He has had a liberal Education and has studied the Law. His abilities are certainly more than equal to the Office, as he has given some Specimens sufficient to convince us that he might be a very agreeable writer. His principles and morals are unexceptionable and his Conduct in every respect such as must endear him to his friends and acquaintances. Your goodness will excuse the liberty I take” (RC in DLC; endorsed as received 24 Apr. 1790 and so recorded in SJL). Barton called on TJ with this letter and TJ applied to the Secretary of the Treasury, who responded: “Mr. Hamilton presents his respectful compliments to Mr. Jefferson and returns him the letter from Mr. Writtenhouse on the subject of Mr. Barton. As Mr. Bartons merit is well ascertained, if Mr. H——can be of service to him in any other way he will take pleasure in being so” (RC in DLC, 29 May , not recorded in SJL). Tench Coxe received the assignment and TJ surmised that “the successor had been decided on” even before the vacancy became known (TJ to Rittenhouse, 15 June 1790).
On learning of Alden’s resignation, Barton wrote TJ on 7 Aug. 1790: “Situated as I am, with a pretty numerous family, and having a small as well as precarious income, I concluded to offer myself a Candidate for that Vacancy‥‥ If, Sir, you should be disposed to favor my Views, on the present occasion, I beg leave to announce the Names of Mr. Secretary Hamilton and Mr. Tench Coxe, Mr. Speaker and most of the delegates from Pennsylvania, Mr. Page, Mr. Madison and Mr. Boudinot, besides Mr. Rittenhouse … all of whom, I trust, would bear satisfactory testimony to the respectability of my Education, Connections and general Deportment. Were it proper, I might refer to the President, to whom I have been amply recommended” (RC in DLC: Washington Papers; endorsed by TJ as received 10 Aug. 1790 and so recorded in SJL). Barton eventually became principal clerk in Coxe’s office as commissioner of revenue (Account number 4564, 30 Sep. 1793, DNA: RG 217, MTA; see Barton to Hamilton, 9 Aug. 1790, Syrett, Hamilton description begins The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett and others, New York, 1961—, 7 vols. description ends , vi, 553).
When the consular establishment was before the Senate, Maclay, without noting that salaries were not involved, declared: “we are led on, little by little, to increase the civil list” (Maclay, Journal, ed. Maclay description begins Edgar S. Maclay, ed., Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789–1791, New York, 1890 description ends , p. 297). There was indeed a steady augmentation of the civil list in the departments of War and Treasury. This was necessarily so with respect to the latter, with the large numbers of clerks required in the offices of the secretary, the comptroller, the auditor, and the register, to say nothing of what TJ described in 1792 as “the hundred clerks of his [Hamilton’s] department, the thousand excisemen, customhouse officers, loan officers &c. &c. &c. appointed by him, or at his nod, and spread over the Union” (TJ to Washington, 9 Sep. 1792). But in declaring one office as at an end, TJ provided the single example of a voluntary retrenchment undertaken out of respect for what he considered to be the original intent of Congress. In keeping his departmental force for three more years at a level below that set at the beginning of his incumbency, TJ seemed to be endeavoring to provide in this fact also a contrast with the principles of administration that gave tone to Hamilton’s department.