Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 11 April 1791

To William Carmichael

Philadelphia Apr. 11. 1791


I wrote you on the 12th. of March, and again on the 17th. of the same month, since which I have received your favor of January 24th. wherein you refer to copies of two letters, also to a paper No. 1. supposed to be enclosed in that letter: but there was nothing enclosed. You speak particularly of several other letters formerly forwarded, but not a single one was ever received of later date than May 6th. 1789. and this of January 24th. is all we possess from you since that date. I enclose you a list of letters addressed to you on various subjects and to which answers were, and are, naturally expected; and I send you again copies of the papers in the case of the Dover Cutter which has been the subject of so many of those letters, and is the subject of the constant solicitation of the parties here. A final decision on that application therefore is earnestly desired. When you consider the repeated references of matters to you from hence, and the total suppression of whatever you have written in answer, you will not be surprised if it had excited a great degree of uneasiness. We had enquired whether private conveyances did not occur from time to time from Madrid to Cadiz, where we have vessels almost constantly, and we were assured that such conveyances were frequent. On the whole, Sir, you will be sensible that, under the jealous Government with which you reside, the conveyance of intelligence requires as much management as the obtaining it: and I am in hopes that in future you will be on your guard against those infidelities in that line, under which you and we have so much suffered.

The President is absent on a journey through the Southern States from which he will not return till the end of June, consequently I could not sooner notify him of your desire to return: but even then I will take the liberty of saying nothing to him on the subject till I hear further from you. The suppression of your correspondence has in a considerable degree withdrawn you from the public sight. I sincerely wish that before your return you could do something to attract their attention and favor and render your return pleasing to yourself and profitable to them, by introducing you to new proofs of their confidence. My two last letters to you furnish occasions. That of a co-operation against the British navigation act, and the arrangement of our affairs on the Missisipi. The former, if it can be effected, will form a remarkable and memorable epoch in the history and freedom of the ocean:1 Mr. Short will press it at Paris and Colo. Humphreys at Lisbon: the latter will shew most at first: and as to the latter be so good as to observe always that the right of navigating the Missisipi is considered as so palpable, that the recovery of it will produce no other sensation than that of a gross injustice removed. The extent and freedom of the port for facilitating the use of it, is what will excite the attention and gratification of the public. Colo. Humphreys writes me that all Mr. Gardoqui’s communications while here, tended to impress the court of Madrid with the idea that the navigation of the Missisipi was only demanded on our part to quiet our Western settlers, and that it was not sincerely desired by the Maritime states. This is a most fatal error and must be completely eradicated, and speedily, or Mr. Gardoqui will prove to have been a bad peacemaker. It is true there were2 characters, whose stations entitled them to credit, and who, from geographical prejudices, did not themselves wish the navigation of the Missisipi to be restored to us, and who believed perhaps, as is common with mankind, that their opinion was the general opinion. But the sentiments of the great mass of the Union were decidedly otherwise then, and the very persons to whom Mr. Gardoqui alluded, are now come over to the opinion heartily that the navigation of the Missisipi, in full and unrestrained freedom, is indispensibly necessary, and must be obtained by any means it may call for. It will be most unfortunate indeed if we cannot convince Spain that we make this demand in earnest but by acts which will render that conviction too late to prevent evil.3

Not knowing how better to convey to you the laws and Gazettes than by committing them to the patronage of Colo. Humphreys, I now send through that channel the laws of the 2d. and 3d. sessions of Congress, and the newspapers.—I have the honor to be with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. & most humble servt.

PrC (DLC); in a clerk’s hand, unsigned; partly in code, accompanied by MS of text en clair in another clerk’s hand. Dft (Lloyd W. Smith, Madison, N.J., 1946); entirely in TJ’s hand; undated, unaddressed, and unsigned; endorsed by Remsen: “To Mr. Carmichael April 11th 1791”; in margin, opposite the bracketed passages to be encoded, TJ wrote on each of the two pages: “to be in cypher.” FC (DNA: RG 59, DCI). Enclosures: (1) List of the 14 public letters to Carmichael, with summaries of their subjects, written by Jay as Secretary for Foreign Affairs from 19 Mch. 1785 to 7 Dec. 1789; in a separate column showing Carmichael’s answers (three in number between 14 Aug. 1786 and 6 May 1789), there is the following note opposite the entry for Jay’s letter of 14 Mch. 1786 “instructing him to terminate business respecting South Carolina Frigate and Dover Cutter and to send a cypher”: “Receipt of this Letter acknowledged in one of 14 Aug. 1786”; also, opposite the entry for Jay’s letter of 1 Dec. 1786 concerning “business and papers relative to So. Carolina Frigate” there is the following: “Receipt acknowledged 19 Augt. 1787 Conversation with the Minister on the subject 6 May 1789” (i.e., as reported in Carmichael’s letter of that date). Following a note indicating the point at which Jay’s letters ceased and TJ’s began, there is a list of four of TJ’s public letters between 11 Apr. and 29 Aug. 1790, to which no responses had been received (FC in DNA: RG 59, DCI; PrC, in another clerk’s hand, in DLC: TJ Papers, 63: 10830–2).

(2) John Mangnall to Congress, Teneriffe, 15 July 1780, referring to his earlier appeal of 27 Apr. 1780 and stating other particulars not mentioned therein: that the cutter Dover, chased into the port of Santa Cruz by an English vessel of superior force, had been condemned as a lawful Spanish prize and converted into a cruiser about the islands by decree of the “auditor or judge [Degurra]—a very old man, naturally ill-natured and cruel, entirely ignorant of the merits of this cause, and would if it was in his power do us [the officers and men of Dover who had been “enticed” on shore by deceit and not even permitted to recover their clothes, books, or papers] every injury”; that Dover, manned by Spaniards, had fallen in with an English vessel, Resolution, and “fired to bring her too and they not immediately lowering their sails, a few guns were fired at them which immediately sunk her,” 21 men being killed and 22 taken prisoner; and that he had that morning petitioned for permission to embark for Virginia on the brig Jenny of Edenton and proceed to Philadelphia, but has received no answer.

(3) John Mangnall to Congress, Teneriffe, 16 July 1780, stating that the evening before he had received the General’s answer: “he must have time to consider of it”; that he thought none who had acted as officers on Dover would be permitted to leave until orders were received from Madrid; and that they therefore hoped Congress would “demand us, and the Cutter, as soon as possible.”

(4) John Mangnall’s account of Dover, Philadelphia, 22 Sep. 1780, stating that she was originally French, built at Le Havre, and, after being taken as an English prize, was bought by some “Gentlemen in London,” lengthened 18 feet at Dover, and copper-sheathed at London; that she sailed from Foy, Cornwall, 13 Jan. 1780, and “on the 13th April she was cut out of Madeira Road by part of the people on board, and carried into St. a Cruse Teneriffe on the 17th of the same month, with an Intent to disembark thirty Prisoners, and then to have proceeded” to Philadelphia; that the captain, second lieutenant, surgeon, purser, and about 12 men were on shore when Dover was taken (i.e., by those who carried her to Santa Cruz); and that she was a fine cutter, mounting 20 guns, and had “small Arms, Cutlasses, Pole Axes, and boarding Spikes for seventy Men.”

(5) Extract of letter from James Lovell to John Jay, Philadelphia, 4 June 1781, enclosing resolution of Congress of 27 Sep. 1780 and a copy of his letter to “a Gentleman in Teneriffe [McCarrick of Santa Cruz] to serve as a Memorandum in Case you have not already procured Justice for Mr. Mangnall and his associates who took the Dover Cutter. … Mangnall has been unfortunate from the time he left this Place, last October. He is now here. I do not know whether this is the Matter referred to in the Letter of Mr. Carmichael Decr. 24th: when he says ‘The Minister also engaged to do Justice to certain Americans who carried a British Privateer to the Canaries’ “; the enclosed letter to McCarrick, Philadelphia, 4 Oct. 1780, acknowledged his of 22 July 1780 to James Smith (a former member of Congress) introducing Mangnall and asked him to forward to John Jay in Madrid a packet on Mangnall’s business communicated to him by order of Congress.

(6) Resolution of Congress, 14 Oct. 1777: “Whereas the British nation have received into their Ports, and condemned in their Courts of Admiralty as Lawful Prize several Vessels and their Cargoes belonging to these States which the masters and mariners, in breach of the Trust and Confidence reposed in them, have betrayed and delivered to the Officers of the British Crown, Resolved, therefore, that any vessel or cargo, the Property of any British Subject, not an Inhabitant of Bermuda or any of the Bahama Islands, brought into any of the Ports or Harbors of any of these United States by the master or mariners, shall be adjudged lawful Prize and divided among their Captors, in the same Proportion as if taken by any continental Vessel of War.”

(7) Resolution of Congress, 27 Sep. 1780, that Mangnall’s letters be referred to John Jay and that he be instructed to try to obtain for the captors of Dover the benefits intended by their resolution of 14 Oct. 1777, their intent being that “the whole Profit of the Capture be divided among the Captors.”

(8) Extract of letter from Silvester Gray to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, 13 Dec. 1785, stating that he and Shuker had been induced to capture Dover because of their “barbarous usage” while prisoners on board an English man-of-war, for which they “swore to retaliate the first opportunity”; that he and Shuker had been commissioned officers in the service of the United States since the beginning of the war, while he had “sailed out of … Philadelphia these 25 years mate and master of a ship”; that “There was an English Privateer laying in the Road of twenty Guns, the same time and thirty of our men and officers on shore … and dare not come out after us. There was not one officer on deck till we were out of Gun shot of the Garrison but myself. Mr. Shuker employed securing the Arms and officers and Sailors that might oppose us, to prevent murder”; that he anchored at Santa Cruz on 15 Apr. 1780, and the next day “the General and his attendants came on board, and much admired the vessel and her weight of metal, as she had burned several of their fishing craft a few days before”; that, as Jay had been informed several times while in Madrid, the General of Teneriffe had no right “to take the vessel in the manner he did”; that he has heard nothing about the matter since he and Shuker left Cadiz in 1782; and that he hopes Jay will use his influence with the Court of Madrid since they had “run such a risk in this attempt” and he would always regard Dover as his property until she was paid for, concluding: “The value is £8000 pounds sterling to the owners in London, and I think she has been worth sixteen thousand pounds sterling to the King of Spain since she has been in his service these four years past.”

(9) Extract of letter from Jay to Gray, 29 Dec. 1785, acknowledging the foregoing and saying that he had heard nothing about the Dover matter since he left Madrid, when it was being considered by the minister, who said that he had ordered the necessary inquiries to be made; and that he would forward a copy of Gray’s letter to Carmichael and press him to attend to the business, adding: “His answer will doubtless enable me to give you particular and I hope satisfactory information on the subject.”

(10) Extract of a letter from Samuel Cook to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, 27 Feb. 1786, reading: “I am the mournful aged parent of Rutherford Cook, who after a lingering illness died in the month of October last, who often made mention of your goodness and kindness to him, for which I return you my thankful acknowledgment.—Captain Throop, a kinsman of mine and bearer of this, waits on you to know what information you may give him relative to the prize money in which my son was concerned, due from the Court of Spain on account of the british Cutter by him and others captured.”

(11) Extract of a letter from Silvester Gray to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, “dated 29th. (suppose) September 1786,” acknowledging Jay’s of 29 Dec. 1785 and desiring to know what response the American minister in Spain had made to his inquiry.

(12) Secretary for Foreign Affairs to Gray, 3 Oct. 1786, saying that he had that moment received the foregoing; that, after receiving no account from the chargé d’affaires in Madrid, he had written him on the Dover matter on 14 Mch. 1786 but had “not yet received his answer, nor any further intelligence respecting it.” PrC, in clerk’s hand, of all of the foregoing enclosures in DLC: TJ Papers, 63: 10883–99; FC in another clerk’s hand in DNA: RG 59, DCI, where enclosures numbers 5 through 12 are given by title only because full texts of all were of course available in the files of the Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

The story of the cutter Dover is sufficiently outlined in the enclosures to the above letter, but two points require comment. First, the resolution of Congress of 14 Oct. 1777, like the prize decrees of British admiralty courts against which it retaliated, was an overt invitation to masters and mariners on British vessels to “breach … the Trust and Confidence reposed in them”—that is, in a word, to commit the serious crime of barratry or worse under promise of both immunity and material gain. American seamen, whose language and habits made it so easy for them to find berths on British vessels, were not slow to take advantage of this war-time measure which in effect legalized acts of piracy. Within a few weeks after adoption of the resolution, the mate and crew of a vessel bound from Grenada to British occupied New York with a cargo of rum and sugar seized command of her, carried her into Charleston, and had her condemned as their prize. This, wrote the president of Congress, “is the first retort upon that species of British policy calculated for encouraging infidelity and treachery among seamen in the service of these States. I have no doubt but that in a few Months they will experience an hundred fold retaliation of their infamous example, which nothing but dire necessity would have induced virtuous Americans to Copy” (Henry Laurens to James Duane, 24 Dec. 1777, Burnett, Letters of Members, ii, 597). The results scarcely fulfilled the prophecy and necessity cloaked other motives, but Dover, taken over by Silvester Gray, John Mangnall, and other members of her crew while her officers were ashore, was one of a number of vessels lost to their British owners by virtue of Congress’ retaliatory measure. In her case, however, as the enclosures indicate, the promised benefits were reaped by the Spanish government rather than by the captors—and under claim of legality even more dubious than that under which they had acted in making the seizure. After more than a decade of fruitless effort on the part of Mangnall and others, he petitioned Congress, and an embarrassed Secretary of State was obliged to report that, though the matter had been pressed in the strongest terms by Jay and himself, no information had been received about what had been or was likely to be done (TJ’s report on Mangnall’s petition, 14 Nov. 1791; TJ to Carmichael, 6 Nov. 1791).

Second, as prior and subsequent developments proved beyond doubt, a good share of the responsibility for this outcome rested upon the negligent American chargé d’affaires in Madrid, William Carmichael. Five years before the above letter was written, John Jay as Secretary for Foreign Affairs had urged Carmichael to press the matter and had followed this up with subsequent inquiries. After taking office as Secretary of State, TJ had addressed no less than eight communications to Carmichael before sending the above, concerning such important issues as slaves escaping into Florida, navigation of the Mississippi, and TJ’s hope for a concert of European powers against Great Britain’s navigation act. To these Carmichael had made only one response, which was largely self-pitying, exculpatory, and even boastful about his own performance but which referred TJ to Humphreys for information about Spanish affairs and alarmed him by alleging forgery or misuse of Washington’s letter to Gouverneur Morris (Carmichael to TJ, 24 Jan. 1791; TJ to Washington, 2 Apr. 1791). Humphreys’ report of conversations with Carmichael, his claim to have seen the “originals” of his many dispatches that had miscarried, and his portrayal of the chargé as desirous of performing some essential service before returning home undoubtedly influenced the tone and substance of the above letter, wherein some of Humphreys’ own phrases are used or paraphrased (Humphreys to TJ, 15 Jan. and 6 Feb. 1791).

But, while TJ expressed himself with restraint and gave Carmichael the benefit of the doubt by alluding to the “total suppression” of whatever he might have written, it seems clear that his own opinion as to the real cause had already been formed. Less than a month earlier, he had pointedly indicated to Carmichael that Humphreys’ letter from Madrid, written within twenty four hours after his arrival there, had been received promptly. He had also demanded “a full explanation of this suspension of all information from you” and had warned that final judgment would be suspended only “for—a reasonable time” (TJ to Carmichael, 17 Mch. 1791; see also TJ to Short, 24 Jan. 1791). TJ’s well-grounded suspicion that the cause of the silence lay more with the chargé than with the Spanish government was soon confirmed. During the remainder of the year he wrote Carmichael five letters, the last two of which pressed him to report on the Dover case, but received no answer (TJ to Carmichael, 16 May, 23 June, 24 Aug., and 6 and 29 Nov. 1791). Exactly a year after writing the above TJ informed Carmichael: “I am still without letters from you: only one having been received since I came into office, as has often before been mentioned in my letters to you” (TJ to Carmichael, 9 Apr. 1792). Thus, while the above letter was influenced by Humphreys’ mistaken appraisals, its appeal to Carmichael to distinguish himself by some essential service to his country was also evidence of TJ’s hope that a concert of European powers against British mercantilist policies might be realized (see Editorial Note to group of documents at 15 Mch. 1791). This was as illusory as the expectation that Carmichael would take advantage of the opportunity to redeem himself. A year later the suspended judgment became final when, on TJ’s recommendation, William Short was appointed to negotiate a treaty with Spain on crucial issues so long neglected. The measure of his reliance on Carmichael is shown in the fact that his detailed instructions were sent only to Short, that no duplicate was made, and that he was given explicit directions about gaining diplomatic immunity for the protection of his papers (TJ’s Report to Washington; TJ to Short [private]; and TJ to Carmichael and Short, all dated 18 Mch. 1792). Short had no need of the admonition given above that “the conveyance of intelligence requires as much management as the obtaining it”: he took the obvious precaution of sending important dispatches to Humphreys by courier under the protection of the Portuguese ambassador to Spain (see, for example, Carmichael and Short to TJ, 18 Apr. and 5 May 1793). Thereafter, the dispatches from the commissioners were frequent, were replete with information and cogent observations, and were models of disciplined diplomatic communication. They were of course written by Short.

1In Dft TJ first wrote “in naval history and freedom” and then altered the passage to read as above.

2In Dft TJ first wrote and then deleted “certain.”

3The passage in italics is in code and is taken from Dft, the text being verified by the Editors employing Code No. 11.

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