Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Playfair, 20 March 1791

From William Playfair

Paris 20th March 1791


I hope that you will pardon the liberty which I am about to take in writing to you on a subject with which you have not any immediate concern but the Unacountableness of the situation in which I find myself and the Peace of so many individuals is involved in the affair will I hope be my Excuse.

Since I had the honour of waiting on you in France the Sale of the Sioto lands and a considerable emigrating were Set on foot. To avoid long details it was my Plan and I furnished the money necessary to begin in the Month of November 1789. In less than 4 months the affair was in Great Credit and tho’ Nobody in France had ever been upon these lands they purchased with a considerable share of Confidence. I considdered that the Great affair was to begin the colony well and with such people as would set an Example to others and there are amongst the list of Purchasers at least 30 people of distinction. The account which I have the honour to send will explain pretty nearly the Finance Part of the affair and the Memoire along with it will explain in a general manner the Best so that Particulars here are unnecessary only there are a few things which I do not wish to put in a memoire which may one day be public and which I shall here say. Mr. Barlow who charged himself with the Correspondence with Mr. Dewer [Duer] and the others concerned would never shew me his letters and it seems now that he had sent over Reports too favourable. It was immagined in America that above 1 million of acres were sold when there was not above ⅙th. of the quantity and they of consequence drew large bills on Mr. Barlow which were Returned for the sale has been totally at an End ever since the first Emigrants were disappointed on their Arrival at Alexandria. It is now 14 months since the First Emigrants sailed and there is not yet one single letter from the Sioto as 2 months might bring a letter after their Arrival and as Mr. Dewer writes to Nobody here we are more likely to be sacrificed by the mob than to sell any more lands as the People think their Parents and Friends are dead or destroyed. To Complete this matter Mr. Barlow has gone off Privately in debt without telling any one and a Mr. Walker from New York who says he had powers to act in the matter but who would not shew his powers (tho’ I summoned him to do it) is gone off likewise.

Now Sir what I think absolutely necessary in this Matter for the honour of all concerned and Even of the United States is that as Messrs. Dewer and Company have not paid Congress the values received should be paid into the hands of Congress and possession given legally to the Purchasers at the same time some arrangement made with Mr. Dewer or other persons to Enable the matter to go on for it is certain that the Desolation of France is prodigious and is still encreasing it will not be surprizing if before 10 years a Million of People pass over to America therefore it is very Essential not to let any Mistakes in this affair thro a discredit on Emigration to America in General.

Mr. Walker who began on his Coming here to connect himself with People who have been all along the declared Enemies of the hole affair has acted in the strangest Manner that Ever any man did among other things he declared in cool Blood and serious earnestness that he did not concern himself about the General success of the affair whether it fell or not was alike to him. He only wanted to do what Mr. Dewer had desired him but he would not shew his Powers as I have before said.

Tho’ I know Sir that as a Minister of State you cannot honour me with an answer neither can you do it as a Private individual not being connected in the affair let me conjure you for the sake of all the Persons who have Employed their whole fortunes in that affair to Endeavour to make them take such arrangements as will not stop the affair where it is which will Ruin everybody. I am ready to deliver up what remains in my hands My own comission paid in which case the Balance will be in my favour for the future 9/10 ths of the Price was intended to lay in depot here (at a Notaires) untill the Purchasers got Possession in America and certainly neither the treasury of the United States nor any Company that may have treated for the lands will Expect more than 9/10 ths of the Price which by the Mode of selling announced here to the Public they will be certain to have as in the act of sale the deposing of that Portion of the Price is one of the Conditions.

The Probability is that if Good news arrive and no Embarra on the Part of the Company at New York that then the Greater Part of the Lands may be sold in 5 or 6 months in which case all that is past will be considdered as a very fortunate well combined speculation whereas if there are any Embarras to stop the Matter it will be Blamed that I expect as it is the Common lot of all things.

I once more request you will excuse the liberty which I Presume to take and which I shall beg leave to repeat once more if the affaires are not likely to go as they should do and I have the honour to be Sir with Respect Your Most obedient & most humble Servant,

William Playfair

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “To the Right Honorable Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 12 July 1791 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures (actually brought by bearer of Playfair’s other letter of this date):

(1) Account of sales, expenditures, and receipts of moneys for Scioto lands, entitled “Situation entre Joel Barlow Ecuyer, et Wm. Playfair, pour 148,376 acres de terres vendues 22 Juillet 1790,” showing (in livres tournois) “Valeurs qui existente 696,541. Valeurs payées pour la Compagnie 66,036. Valeurs qui paroissent être reçues, mais qui ne le sont pas 93,606,” totalling 856,183 (MS, undated, in DLC: TJ Papers, 56: 9634). (2) Statement by Playfair about Scioto affairs, 20 Mch. 1791, in which he undertook to place the blame for the situation upon the American company and its failure to give instructions or detailed information, either general or particular. Playfair stated that, since 15 Feb. 1790, he had written long letters to Duer begging him to send instructions, but “Le manque total de réponse a ruiné cette affaire, quant à présent du moins, et il impossible de décider si jamais Elle reprendra vigueur.—Je Soutiens et Soutiendrai toujours, que tout ce qui a été fait en Europe jusqu’à ce que l’affaire s’est arrêtée a été fait avec profit et avantage, et qui si nous avions été secondés de l’Amerique, les dépenses qu’on a été obligé de faire, et les embarras qui sont survenus, et la suspension de l’affaire n’auraient pas eu lieu, de maniere qu’on ne peut pas m’imputer tout ce qui arrive. Quiconque est doué de l’ombre du bon sens avouëra qu’une affaire de cette importance ne pouvait jamais réussir sans une correspondance exacte et bien suivie.” Playfair did not deny that some mistakes had been made in France. Nevertheless, “un Américain” in France had said that the second payments would not be required in one year but in seven or eight, when the proprietors had cleared their lands. “Si le fait est vrai, à qui faut-il imputer l’erreur dans laquelle on est tombé à cet egard, si non à l’agent Américain, qui a entretenû les Européens de ces fausses espérances?” Nor, he added, should it be overlooked that an American, claiming to represent the company, had declared that it could not pay Congress because it had not received enough funds to pay the first instalment: “Quoi donc, cette compagnie a mis en vente des terres qu’elle n’était pas en Etat de payer! Quelle était donc son intention lorsqu’elle a envoyé M. Barlow en Europe pour vendre ou pour emprunter de l’argent sur la totalité ou sur une partie des terres qu’il savait qu’elle ne pourroit payer? Cette conduite peut-elle s’expliquer … une conduite aussi extraordinaire, et si difficile à accorder avec les principes de l’honneur et de prudence.” Playfair claimed that he was the only one in France who placed himself between those interested in the affair and the public in order to prevent the company’s being completely discredited, an action proving the purity of his intentions and his concern for the general interest of the enterprise (MS in DLC; in clerk’s hand except for signature; undated, but written on 20 Mch. 1791 as proved by internal evidence).

A few days after writing the above, Playfair addressed a letter to Alexander Hamilton on the same subject, enclosing a copy of the first of the documents sent to TJ (Playfair to Hamilton, 30 Mch. 1791, Syrett, Hamilton description begins The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett and others, New York, 1961-, 17 vols. description ends , viii, 227–33). The striking difference between the letters to TJ and Hamilton sufficiently testifies to the author’s awareness of their general attitudes on such speculative ventures. Playfair had known TJ in Paris and the letter to him recognized the impropriety of asking an official of government to intercede in a private affair, while at the same time he took pains to point out that the interest as well as the honor of the United States was involved. In the letter to Hamilton, he was less harsh in his animadversions upon Duer, seemed indeed somewhat solicitous lest he suffer loss in the affair, and placed the burden of responsibility upon the two agents, Joel Barlow and Benjamin Walker, rather than upon the principals. He was also somewhat exigent in calling upon Hamilton to exercise his influence, a fact suggesting that someone—perhaps Barlow—had made known to him Hamilton’s close relationship with Duer if not his status as a shareholder in the Ohio Company. In neither letter, however, did Playfair see fit to reveal that litigation had already produced judgments against Barlow and himself, though in the appeal to Hamilton he argued that, if forced to defend himself in the courts, the ensuing notoriety would adversely affect the Scioto prospects (Gouverneur Morris, Diary, ed. Davenport, ii, 111). In a subsequent letter to Hamilton, Playfair, on hearing what he took to be good news from the French settlement at Gallipolis, allowed himself to be carried away once more by visions of wealth in the Scioto plains, declared that the distressed situation of France would bring about a mass migration of nobles, clergy, and artisans to America, and eagerly advanced new proposals for the consideration of Duer and Hamilton (Playfair to Hamilton, 1791, Syrett, Hamilton description begins The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett and others, New York, 1961-, 17 vols. description ends , ix, 253–5).

But it was too late. The speculation had collapsed in America and in France long before the above letter was drafted. It had in fact been doomed from the very outset, given the lack of confidence, communication, and effective management existing among all of the leaders in the speculation on both sides of the Atlantic. See Editorial Note to group of documents on the Northwest Territory, under 14 Dec. 1790.

There is no evidence that TJ responded to Playfair’s appeal.

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