Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Mason, 4 February 1791

To George Mason

Philadelphia Feb. 4. 1791.

Dear Sir

I am to make you my acknowledgements for your favor of Jan. 10. and the information had from France which it contained. It confirmed what I had heard more loosely before, and accounts still more recent are to the same effect. I look with great anxiety for the firm establishment of the new government in France, being perfectly convinced that if it takes place there, it will spread sooner or later all over Europe. On the contrary a check there would retard the revival of liberty in other countries. I consider the establishment and success of their government as necessary to stay up our own and to prevent it from falling back to that kind of Halfway-house, the English constitution. It cannot be denied that we have among us a sect who believe that to contain whatever is perfect in human institutions; that the members of this sect have, many of them, names and offices which stand high in the estimation of our countrymen. I still rely that the great mass of our community is untainted with these heresies, as is it’s head. On this I build my hope that we have not laboured in vain, and that our experiment will still prove that men can be governed by reason. You have excited my curiosity in saying ‘there is a particular circumstance, little attended to, which is continually sapping the republicanism of the United states.’ What is it?—what is said in our country of the fiscal arrangements now going on? I really fear their effect when I consider the present temper of the Southern states. Whether these measures be right or wrong, abstractedly, more attention should be paid to the general opinion. However all will pass. The excise will pass. The bank will pass. The only corrective of what is amiss in our present government will be the augmentation of the numbers in the lower house, so as to get a more agricultural representation, which may put that interest above that of the stock-jobbers.

I had no occasion to sound Mr. Madison on your fears expressed in your letter. I knew before, as possessing his sentiments fully on that subject, that his value for you was undiminished. I have always heard him say that tho you and he appeared to differ in your systems, yet you were in truth nearer together than most persons who were classed under the same appellation. You may quiet yourself in the assurance of possessing his complete esteem.1—I have been endeavoring to obtain some little distinction for our useful customers the French. But there is a particular interest opposed to it, which I fear will prove too strong. We shall soon see. I will send you a copy of a report I have given in, as soon as it is printed. I know there is one part of it contrary to your sentiments: yet I am not sure you will not become sensible that a change should be slowly preparing. Certainly whenever I pass your road I shall do myself the pleasure of turning into it. Our last year’s experiment however is much in favor of that by Newgate. I am with great respect & esteem, Dear Sir, Your friend & servt,

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of text: “Colo. Mason.”

It is significant that TJ knew when he wrote this letter that his report on the fisheries would be made public, for it was not until the next day that the Senate directed it to be printed (JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, Gales, 1820–21, 5 vols. description ends , i, 239). In promising to send a copy as soon as it appeared, he confidently relied on assurances evidently given him by someone in the Senate or in the House. Considering the nature of the report and the apathetic attitude of the Massachusetts Senators toward the fisheries, it is highly unlikely that they would have urged publication of so vigorous a call for countervailing measures against Great Britain. It is also significant that publication was authorized by the Senate rather than by the House, since the report was submitted to the latter.

These facts suggest that TJ himself must have consulted Madison in the House and Monroe in the Senate in a deliberately calculated effort to draw into the public arena a particular interest (the Secretary of the Treasury and his supporters) that had opposed TJ’s efforts to obtain some little distinctions for France—that is, the placing of French vessels on the same footing as those of American citizens in return for the monopoly given by France to American whale oil and the opening of the French West Indies to products of the cod fishery (see TJ’s report on the French protest, under 18 Jan. 1791). Having first sought accommodation with Hamilton, TJ, after being refused, decided to declare himself unequivocally and publicly on this central question in foreign relations. The publication of the report was therefore essential to his purpose and TJ evidently set about achieving this in characteristic fashion. The result, aside from creating a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, removed the issue from the closed debates of the Senate and opened it up to public discussion (see Editorial Note to TJ’s report on the fisheries, under 1 Feb. 1791).

It seems clear from the context that that part of the report to which Mason objected was its call for countervailing measures that would seek to replace British with American vessels in the carrying trade. In the face of statistics that the report presented, Mason may have feared that American shipping was not adequate to the task of conveying the bulky native produce to market. Hence in assuring him that a change should be slowly preparing, TJ was only echoing the expedient suggested in the report that the transition “should take effect so gradually as not to endanger the loss of produce for want of transportation.” Since he knew when he compiled the report what Mason’s sentiments were, he must have had him in mind when he composed this passage.

1This sentence interlined in PrC.

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