Thomas Jefferson Papers

Memorandum on Meeting with Senate Committee, 4 January 1792

Memorandum on Meeting with Senate Committee

January 4th. 1792

The Secretary of State having yesterday received a Note from Mr. Strong as Chairman of a Committee of the Senate, asking a conference with him on the subject of the late diplomatic nominations to Paris, London and the Hague, he met them in the Senate chamber in the evening of the same day, and stated to them in substance what follows.

That he should on all occasions be ready to give to the Senate, or to any other Branch of the Government, whatever information might properly be communicated, and might be necessary to enable them to proceed in the line of their respective offices: That on the present occasion particularly, as the Senate had to decide on the fitness of certain persons to act for the United States at certain Courts, they would be the better enabled to decide, if they were informed of the state of our affairs at those courts, and what we had to do there: That when the Bill for providing the means of intercourse with foreign nations was before the Legislature, he had met Committees of each House, and had given them the ideas of the Executive as to the Courts with which we should keep diplomatic characters, and the grades we should employ: That there were two principles which decided on the Courts, Vizt. 1. vicinage, and 2. commerce: That the first operated in the cases of London and Madrid, and the second in the same cases, and also in those of France and Portugal; perhaps too of Holland: That as to all other countries our commerce and connections were too unimportant to call for the exchange of diplomatic residents: That he thought we should adopt the lowest grades admissible, to wit, at Paris that of Minister plenipotentiary, because that grade was already established there; the same at London, because the pride of that court, and perhaps the sense of our country and it’s interests, would require a sort of equality of treatment to be observed towards them; and for Spain and Lisbon, that of Chargé des Affaires only; the Hague uncertain: That at the moment of this Bill there was a complete vacancy of appointment between us and France and England, by the accidental translations of the Ministers of France and the United States to other offices, and none as yet appointed to, or from England: That in this state of things the Legislature had provided for the grade of Minister plenipotentiary, as one that was to be continued, and shewed they had their eye on that grade only, and that of Chargé des affaires; and that by the sum allowed they approved of the views then communicated; That circumstances had obliged us to change the grade at Lisbon to Minister resident, and this of course would force a change at Madrid and the Hague, as had been communicated at the time to the Senate; but that no change was made in the salary, that of Resident being made the same as had been established for a Chargé des affaires.

He then added the new circumstances which had supervened on those general ones in favour of these establishments, to wit; with Paris, the proposal on their part to make a liberal Treaty, the present situation of their colonies which might lead to a freer commerce with them, and the arrival of a Minister plenipotentiary here; with London, their sending a Minister here in consequence of notorious and repeated applications from us, the powers given him to arrange the differences which had arisen about the execution of the Treaty, to wit; the Posts, Negroes &c. which was now in train, and perhaps some authority to talk on the subject of arrangements of commerce, and also the circumstances which had induced that Minister to produce his commission; with Madrid, the communication from the King that he was ready to resume the negociations on the navigation of the Missisippi, and to arrange that, and a port of deposit on the most friendly footing, if we would send a proper person to Madrid for that purpose: he explained the idea of joining one of the Ministers in Europe to Mr. Carmichael for that purpose; with Lisbon, that we had to try to obtain a right of sending flour there, and mentioned Del Pinto’s former favourable opinion on that subject: he stated also the interesting situation of Brazil, and the dispositions of the Court of Portugal with respect to our warfare with the Algerines; with Holland, the negociating loans for the transfer of the whole French debt there, an operation which must be of some years, because there is but a given sum of new money to be lent there every year, and only a given proportion of that will be lent to any one Nation: He then particularly recapitulated the circumstances which justified the President’s having continued the grade of Minister plenipotentiary; but added that whenever the biennial bill should come on, each House would have a constitutional right to review the establishment again, and whenever it should appear that either House thought any part of it might be reduced, on giving to the Executive time to avail themselves of the first convenient occasion to reduce it, the Executive could not but do it; but that it would be extremely injurious now, or at any other time, to do it so abruptly as to occasion the recall of Ministers, or unfriendly sensations in any of those countries with which our commerce is interesting.

That a circumstance recalled to the recollection of the Secretary of State this morning induced him immediately to add to the preceding verbal communication, a letter addressed to Mr. Strong in the following words.

Philadelphia January 4th. 1792


I am just now made to recollect a mistake in one of the answers I gave last night to the Committee of the Senate, and which therefore I beg leave to correct. After re-calling to their minds the footing on which Mr. Morris had left matters at the Court of London, and informing them of what had passed between the British minister here and myself, I was asked whether this was all that had taken place? Whether there had been no other or further engagement? I paused, you may remember to recollect: I knew nothing more had passed on the other side the water; because Mr. Morris’s powers there had been determined, and I endeavoured to recollect whether any thing else had passed with Mr. Hammond and myself. I answered that this was all, and added in proof, that I was sure nothing had passed between the President and Mr. Hammond personally, and so I might safely say this was all. It escaped me that there had been an informal agent here, (Col: Beckwith) and so informal that it was thought proper that I should never speak on business with him, and that on a particular occasion, the question having been asked, whether if a British minister should be sent here, we would send one in exchange? it was said through another channel, that one would doubtless be sent. Having only been present when it was concluded to give the answer, and not having been myself the person who communicated it, nor having otherwise had any conversation with Col: Beckwith on the subject, it absolutely escaped my recollection at the moment the Committee put the question, and I now correct the error I committed in my answer, with the same good faith with which I committed the error in the first moment. Permit me to ask the favour of you, Sir, to communicate this to the other members of the Committee, and to consider this as a part of the information I have had the honor of giving the Committee on the subject.—I am with the most perfect esteem, Sir Your most obt. & most h’ble servant,

Th: Jefferson

Mr. Strong}

Which letter with the preceding statement contains the substance of what the Secretary of State has communicated to the Committee, as far as his memory enables him to recollect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); in clerk’s hand except for TJ’s signature. PrC (DLC). Tr (DNA: RG 59, SDC). Entry in SJPL: “Notes of Conference with a committee of Senate on diplomatic affairs.” Included in the “Anas.”

TJ’s conference with the committee—Caleb Strong, Aaron Burr, Richard Henry Lee, Oliver Ellsworth, and James Gunn—marked a significant turning point in the struggle to secure Senate confirmation of Morris, Pinckney, and Short. The detailed statement he made to the committee on the need for American diplomatic representation in five European capitals satisfied the Senate’s wish to learn the reasons for Washington’s proposed appointments, and his assurance that Congress could periodically review the establishment allayed the fears of those who were apprehensive that confirming the President’s nominees would lead to the creation of a permanent diplomatic corps in Europe. But TJ failed to persuade the committee of the need for all of the missions recommended by the President. Strong reported to the Senate on 6 Jan. 1792 that in the opinion of his committee the facts communicated to them by TJ justified the appointment of a minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain, but left it to the members of that body to decide if the information imparted by the Secretary of State also warranted the appointment of ministers to France and The Hague. After considering all the information the committee received from TJ, the Senate decided on the same day that “a special occasion” existed for the appointment of ministers plenipotentiary to France and Great Britain, thus indicating continuing skepticism about the need for Short’s mission to the Netherlands. The President’s supporters then stepped up their efforts to secure confirmation of all three ministers by invoking the immense prestige of Washington and appealing to their colleagues’ spirit of American nationalism, citing, in the words of the first British minister to the United States, the “language, which I had held, in regard to the presentation of my credentials—the probability of being degraded in the eyes of the European nations from the rejection of a system of communication with them—the danger resulting from the manifestation of a contrariety of sentiment subsisting between the President and the other branch of the executive government upon a public question of such magnitude—and other considerations of a similar tendency.” These arguments, when combined with TJ’s statement to Strong’s committee, eventually achieved their objective. The Senate confirmed Pinckney and Morris on 12 Jan. 1792, the former without a division and the latter by a vote of 16 to 11, and four days later, despite grave reservations on the part of many members about the need for his mission, it approved Short’s nomination by a vote of 15 to 11. This brought to a close a sharp conflict between the executive and legislative branches of government which, in the opinion of the British minister, “had the issue of it been different, might have been productive of consequences highly dangerous to the stability of the present system, and to the continuance of the actually existing administration; although the secrecy which attends the deliberations of the Senate has prevented the knowledge of it from generally transpiring” (George Hammond to Grenville, 9 Jan. 1792, PRO: FO 4/14, DLC photostat; James Monroe to TJ, 11 Jan. 1792; TJ to James Madison, 12 Jan. 1792; TJ to Thomas Pinckney, 17 Jan. 1792; TJ to William Short, 28 Jan. 1792; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States … to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress, Washington, D.C., 1828 description ends , i, 93–4, 96–8).

The controversy over the appointment of these ministers inspired the first sustained Federalist political attack on TJ. This attack was launched in the form of three letters to Washington from an anonymous Federalist sympathizer in Philadelphia, who, to judge from internal evidence, may have been a member of the House of Representatives who was slightly acquainted with TJ. The author began by criticizing TJ for allegedly advising the President not to inform the Senate of his reasons for wan ting to dispatch three more ministers to Europe. TJ deliberately gave this advice, the author charged, in order to worsen relations between the President and the Senate and thus induce Washington to retire at the end of his first term so as to prepare the way for TJ himself to become his successor—an endeavor in which the Secretary of State was assisted by his “cunning little friend,” James Madison, and Edmund Randolph, “whose heart is as bad [as TJ’s], but his views are more circumscribed.” After the Senate had confirmed all three of the President’s nominees, TJ’s Federalist critic broadened the grounds of his assault. He warned Washington that TJ opposed his military policies with respect to the Western Indians and charged that TJ favored abolishing the Senate in favor of a unicameral legislature after the fashion of the most recent French constitution. He compared TJ with Cassius, but pointed out that in one respect the comparison was unfair, since Caesar’s assassin, unlike TJ during his governorship of Virginia, never fled from an enemy. He alleged that TJ was an atheist and suggested that he be sent as minister to France in place of Gouverneur Morris so that he could no longer trouble the American people with his “Absurd democratical opinions wch are dangerous to the very existence of all Government.” And he contended that TJ and Madison had established the National Gazette to generate public opposition to the wise financial policies of Alexander Hamilton, thereby threatening to sap “the foundations of … the United States.” In conclusion, TJ’s critic entreated Washington to resist the wiles of his Secretary of State and remain in office for more than one term. Otherwise, he warned, the nation would fall prey to “a most wicked Faction, chiefly composed of Virginians, but assisted by some other restless ambitious Men” who sought “to destroy Mr. Hamilton, by making him odious in the public Eye, to place Mr. Jefferson at the head of the Government, to make Mr. Madison prime Minister, to displace the Vice President at the next Election, to lay this Country prostrate at the feet of France, to affront and quarrel wth. England, to take advantage of the envy of the ignorant multitude in favor of Democracy, and thus to establish an absolute Tyranny over the minds of the populace by the affectation of a most tender regard to the rights of Man, and a more popular Government” (Anonymous to Washington, [3 Jan., 20 Jan. and ca. 30 Mch. 1792], DLC: Washington Papers). Despite their curious mixture of fact and fancy, these letters are historically significant because they adumbrate certain themes—such as TJ’s personal ambition, atheism, Anglophobia, Francophilia, and record as governor of Virginia—that became staples of Federalist political propaganda during the following decade.

Caleb Strong’s note to TJ has not been found. TJ’s meeting with committees of each house is described in note to his opinion on the Senate’s powers respecting diplomatic appointments, 24 Apr. 1790. David Humphreys explained the circumstances which led the Portuguese government to insist that he receive the grade of minister resident rather than that of chargé d’affaires in his 30 Nov. 1790 letter to TJ. Alexander Hamilton was the channel through which George Beckwith received an intimation of American willingness to appoint a minister to Great Britain in return for the appointment of a British minister to the United States (Conversation with Beckwith, 7–12 Aug. 1790, Syrett, Hamilton description begins The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett and others, New York, 1961-1979, 27 vols. description ends , vi, 547; see also Gouverneur Morris to Washington, 29 May 1790, Vol. 18: 291).

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