Thomas Jefferson Papers

II. John Meyer to Thomas Jefferson, 12 August 1790

II. John Meyer to Thomas Jefferson

New York August 12th. 1790


It appears probable that it will not be convenient to the persons, who have heretofore been employed in your department as Interpreters, to proceed to Philadelphia, when the removal of the Offices shall take place, and that of Course there will be a vacancy.

If this be the case Sir, and it should correspond with your Arrangements, to make an Appointment for that purpose, I would with great deference beg leave to offer my Service as translator of the French, German and Low dutch Languages.

I have not procured an introduction Sir, but I take the Liberty of referring You to Mr. Hamilton, in whose Office I hold an employment, who, I have reason to believe, will give a Satisfactory Testimony, respecting my character, and who may also be able to give an opinion with regard to my Abilities in that Line.—I am Sir, with the greatest respect, Your most obedient hble Servt,

J. Meyer

RC (DLC: Applications for Office under Washington); endorsed by TJ as received 13 Aug. 1790 and so recorded in SJL.

It would be easy to exaggerate the significance of this document and equally so to dismiss it as just another appeal for employment. But the facts and the circumstances seem to point to far more important reasons prompting the application. Meyer was an employee in the Treasury. He was applying for a position of minor importance in another city. As his later record showed, he did enjoy the confidence of the Secretary of the Treasury and moved steadily upward in rank. He gave the name of his superior as a reference, an act of which custom required he should have first informed Hamilton. He clearly intended to remove to Philadelphia when the government did, otherwise the application and the reason given for it would be meaningless. Yet the compensation of an interpreter—half that of an ordinary clerk—was inadequate as a means of support or as a reason for transferring from one department to another, thus allowing the inference that Meyer intended to remain in the Treasury while engaged in translating for the Department of State. In view of this, the question whether this was an effort on the part of the Secretary of the Treasury to infiltrate the office of the Secretary of State cannot be avoided.

On the matter of interdepartmental relations, TJ early formed a policy of non-interference in the affairs of other departments (TJ to Washington, 9 Sep. 1792). There is no evidence that he departed from this general rule. The case of Tench Coxe in 1791 is generally cited as a move initiated by TJ to counter Hamilton’s growing influence and to place a confidant in the Treasury (White, The Federalists, p. 224–25). But the facts do not sustain this interpretation: it is more correct to say that Hamilton himself prompted Coxe’s application (see Coxe to TJ, 16 Apr. 1791; TJ to Washington, 17 Apr. 1791, notes). The Secretary of the Treasury, on the other hand, had no scruple against interfering in the conduct of affairs belonging to the Department of State. This is amply demonstrated not only in his relations with Beckwith during the war crisis of 1790 and in his confidential conversations with David Humphreys, but in a general pattern of conduct which even Hamilton’s most sympathetic biographers acknowledge (e.g., Frederick S. Oliver, Alexander Hamilton, p. 213–14, cited by White, The Federalists, p. 224, in connection with his own statement to this effect: “Hamilton recognized no limits to the extension of his official activity and influence. The War Department fell into his orbit; and foreign policy had such an essential connection with his fiscal and domestic plans that he threw himself into diplomatic negotiations with the same attention he gave to financial operations”). Such an exercise of interference was by no means confined to overt moves. It would, in fact, have been quite characteristic of Hamilton to have endeavored to place a trusted subordinate in a position that would have given him as ready access to the communications of the French minister as he already had with respect to those of the British secret agent Beckwith. That he did so in respect to Meyer’s application must remain conjectural, but the facts in the case do not in any sense contradict the possibility.

Since 1786 German translations under Jay and TJ had been made by the distinguished professor of German and geography at Columbia, John Daniel Gros. Dutch documents were translated by Remsen, Spanish and Italian by Isaac Pinto. On 11 Sep. 1790 Gros was paid £5 for four years of translations. During his similar period of service in the Office of Foreign Affairs, Pinto earned only £8 12s. 4d., though he received £20 15s. 9d. for translations in the first six months of TJ’s tenure (Cashbook, Office of Foreign Affairs and Department of State, 1785–1795, DNA: RG 59, General and Departmental Accounts, under various dates from 15 Mch. 1787 to 15 Sep. 1790). Meyer aimed not at these minor compensations but at the position of “clerk for foreign languages” for which there was a fixed salary of $250. He also must have known already that its incumbent was not planning to move with the government to Philadelphia.

The incumbent of this clerkship was John Pintard (1759–1844), book collector, friend of Jeremy Belknap and Ebenezer Hazard, founder of the New-York Historical Society, proposer in 1789 of “an American Antiquarian Society,” promoter in 1790 of a museum of natural and historical materials, and, in his own words, possessor of an increasing “passion for American history.” Few men of the day displayed a keener interest in young men of intellectual promise than did the Secretary of State, as his correspondence with Short, Shippen, Rutledge, and many others demonstrates. But Pintard evoked no such response. TJ accorded him none of the sympathetic interest in matters of history that he gave so generously to Hazard, Wirt, Girardin, and others. So far as the record reveals, no such congenial or friendly relations existed between TJ and Pintard as prevailed between him and Remsen (see note, Document vi). So far as known, TJ wrote only a single letter to Pintard during his lifetime—a brief acknowledgement of his election to membership in the New-York Historical Society (TJ to Pintard, 9 Jan. 1814). Pintard had informed TJ of that election, but the only other letter he is known to have written the man under whom he had served for five months and of whom he was about to take leave is the following: “In behalf of the Trustees of the American Museum, belonging to the St. Tammanys Society in this city, I take the liberty to request, in case there should appear any supernumerary papers, Gazettes, &c. in your Department, not worth the trouble and expence of removal to Philadelphia, that you would be pleased to deposit them in the Museum where they will be carefully preserved and tend to form a collection which will always be open to the curious.—The object of this institution is to collect and preserve whatever relates to our Country in art or nature, as well as every material which may serve to perpetuate the Memorial of national events and history. A small fund is appropriated to support this design which is yet in its infancy, but we rely chiefly on what may be obtained by donations. The plan is a patriotic one and if prosecuted may prove a public benefit by affording a safe deposit for many fugitive tracts which serving the purpose of a day, are generally afterwards consigned to oblivion tho’ ever so important in themselves, useful to illustrate the manners of the times.—I am induced to intrude this letter, the more as I am well aware that you are much disposed to promote any measure that may be advantageous to our common country. Without further apology I have the honor to be therefore Your obed. hum. Servt.” (Pintard to TJ, New York, 26 Aug. 1790, RC in DNA: RG 59, MLR; endorsed by Remsen as received the same day and so recorded in SJL. FC in DNA: RG 59, PCC No. 120. PrC in DLC).

Pintard chose one of the busiest days of the Secretary of State in 1790 to address his only known leave-taking in the form of a request for government property. There was no answer. As if to emphasize the fact, TJ caused the letter to be transcribed for the official files, an unusual procedure, and retained a copy of this for his own records.

A merchant belonging to an old mercantile family in a city in which that interest adhered generally to the Hamiltonian position, Pintard was a leading Sachem in the Society of St. Tammany and he declared that the principles of the society were his: “it is a political institution founded on a strong republican basis, whose democratical principles will serve in some measure to correct the aristocracy of our city” (MHS, Colls., 6th ser., iv, 469–70). This was a prophetic utterance, but it would be a misreading of the evidence to assume that Pintard and the Secretary of State regarded either “supernumerary papers” or republican views in the same manner. The clerk for foreign languages, for all of his zeal in promoting civic institutions, seemed closer to his neighbor the Secretary of the Treasury than to his superior in the Department of State. In 1791 he became involved in and ruined by the “pyramid of magic paper” of Hamilton’s former assistant secretary, William Duer. He is said to have been so ardent in republican principles that he changed the names of such streets as King, Queen, Duke, Princess, and Crown to “good republican names” (Joseph A. Scoville, Old Merchants of New York, ii [New York, 1864], 217, 223, 224, 242, 256). But his republicanism seems an instrument of promotion rather than a conviction. Nothing is clearer on the basis of the record than that TJ was on far greater terms of cordiality and esteem with Henry Remsen, son of a Loyalist merchant, than he was with this zealous advocate of “democratical principles.”

There is no evidence that TJ replied to Meyer’s application and the position of clerk for foreign languages was allowed to remain vacant until it was given to Philip Freneau. According to TJ’s later statement, he had been “applied to on behalf of Freneau” when the government was still in New York and had given the answer that there was no vacancy (TJ to Washington, 9 Sep. 1792; Brant, Madison, iii, 334–5). Meyer in 1790 was a clerk in Hamilton’s own office in the Treasury and evidently was paid at the rate he was receiving early in 1791—$400 per year. On 1 Apr. 1791 his compensation was raised to $500. Two months later he was paid at the rate of $600, being one of two clerks in the office to receive that sum. By 1792 he was listed as one of Hamilton’s two principal clerks and was receiving $800 per year, thus having had his salary doubled in less than two years (DNA: RG 217, M235/1, 2, 3, and 7: accounts number 1196, 1135, 1371, 1613, 1859, and 3010). He was a man of family and was one of those who came under the Act of 1791 allowing reasonable and necessary expenses incurred by clerks on the removal of the offices to Philadelphia. On 31 Mch. 1791 he received $95.70 for the expense of removing himself and family (DNA: RG 217, M235/1, account number 1115; Meyer was the first of nineteen clerks on the list and one receiving the highest compensation; George Taylor, Jr. in the Department of State received $47; Remsen’s account was settled separately—account No. 3953, same, M235/ 10). In view of this record there can be little doubt that Meyer was fully justified in feeling that the Secretary of the Treasury would give a satisfactory testimony in support of his application. The question is whether Hamilton or his subordinate was the more disappointed at TJ’s failure to fill the vacancy.

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