Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Tobias Lear, 5 March 1792

From Tobias Lear

Monday Evening 5t March .92

Dear Sir

Upon submitting the enclosed note from Mr. Bache to the President, he desired I would send it to you, that if you thought it right for him to be furnished with the letter wh. he requests it might be done.—Should you determine in the affirmative and not have a copy of the translation at hand, I will have a copy of the one left with the President, sent to Mr. B.

The President has been informed that upon receiving the translation of the letter today in the Ho. of Representatives, a motion was made for a committee to be appointed to draft an Answer; but was dropped at that time, upon a suggestion that it might be improper for the Ho. to take it up, as it wd. undoubtedly be answered by the President.—This motion was founded upon the letter’s being directed To the United States of N.A.—The President wishes you would look at the cover of the letter and see what the direction is there.

The Person who brought Mr. B.’s note to me is the bearer of this to you. Thus if you should judge it proper to furnish him with a copy of the letter he might take it with him.—With true respect & perfect esteem I am Dear Sir yr mos Ob. Sert,

Tobias Lear.

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 5 Mch. 1792, but not recorded in SJL or SJPL.

Benjamin Franklin Bache’s NOTE, which apparently requested permission to publish TJ’s translation of Louis XVI’s letter of notification in the General Advertiser, has not been found. Although the translation was not printed in Bache’s General Advertiser, it did appear in the 8 Mch. 1792 issue of Philip Freneau’s National Gazette.

The reaction of the executive and legislative branches of the government to Louis XVI’s official notification of his acceptance of the Constitution of 1791 reflected an incipient divergence of opinion in American politics toward the French Revolution. On 2 Mch. 1792 Jean Baptiste Ternant, the French minister to the United States, submitted Louis’ 19 Sep. 1791 letter of notification to Washington, who received it with “les marques de la plus vive satisfaction” (DNA: RG 59, Ceremonial Letters; endorsed: “19 Septr. 1791, Recd. March 2. 1792, Accepts the new Constitution”; and in another hand: “King Louis the Sixteenth”; Ternant to Lessart, 13 Mch. 1792, Turner, CFM description begins F. J. Turner, “Correspondence of French Ministers, 1791-1797,” AHA, Ann. Rept., 1903, II description ends , p. 94). Since the French king’s letter was addressed “à nos très chers grands amis et alliés les Etats unis de l’Amérique Septentrionale,” Washington had to decide whether he should merely inform Congress of its receipt or also provide it with a translation of the letter. TJ, who regarded the President alone as the intended recipient of the king’s communication, advised Washington simply to send a message to Congress announcing the reception of Louis’ letter. But Washington decided instead to send Congress a message as well as a translation of the letter and entrusted TJ with the task of preparing both. TJ thereupon drafted a brief message from the President to the Senate and the House of Representatives: “I have received a Letter from his most Christian Majesty informing me that he has accepted the Constitution presented to him in the name of his Nation, and according to which it is henceforth to be governed. It is with pleasure I communicate to you authentic information of an event so important to that Nation and to the King himself, well knowing the friendly interest you take in whatever may promote their happiness and prosperity” (PrC in DLC; in Henry Remsen’s hand but dated by TJ 5 Mch. 1792). TJ’s accompanying TRANSLATION of the King’s letter reads as follows:

“Very dear, great friends and allies. We make it our duty to inform you that we have accepted the Constitution which has been presented to us in the name of the nation, and according to which France will be henceforth governed. We do not doubt that you take an interest in an event so important to our kingdom and to us; and it is with real pleasure we take this occasion to renew to you assurances of the sincere friendship we bear you. Whereupon we pray god to have you, very dear, great friends and allies in his just and holy keeping. Written at Paris the 19th. of September 1791.—Your good friend & ally,


(MS in CtTor; at head of text: “Translation of the king of France’s letter of Sep. 19. 1791. to the President.” At foot of text: “The United States of North America.”).

After submitting both documents to the House and the Senate on 5 Mch. 1792, Washington, who expected Congress to take no action on them, instructed TJ to draft a reply for him to the king’s letter. TJ drafted a letter for Washington which, while scrupulously refraining from any comment on the merits of the Constitution of 1791, congratulated the king for accepting this charter and expressed good wishes for the freedom and safety of the French monarch and the French nation. The Secretary of State deliberately avoided even the slightest hint of praise for the French Constitution because of his recognition that the President was much less sanguine than he about the course of the French Revolution. Washington signed this letter on 10 Mch. 1792 and, before dispatching it to France, revealed its contents to Ternant, who took pleasure in every part of it save for its failure to laud the 1791 Constitution (TJ to Gouverneur Morris, 10 Mch. 1792; Memoranda of Consultations with the President, 11 Mch.-9 Apr. 1792; Ternant to Lessart, 13 Mch. 1792, Turner, CFM, p. 95; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826- description ends , i, 527; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, Gales, 1820-21, 5 vols. description ends , i, 404).

Before it was actually sent to France, however, the letter TJ drafted for the President had to be significantly altered owing to the actions of Congress. At first neither house of Congress made any response to Washington’s message and the accompanying translation of the French king’s letter. The Senate merely tabled these documents, and the House twice refused motions to deliberate on them, preferring instead to leave to the President the task of framing a suitable response to the king. But on 10 Mch. 1792—perhaps not coincidentally the same day Washington informed Ternant of the substance of his generally noncommittal reply to Louis—the House cast aside its previous restraint and took up the subject of the king’s letter. Led by partisans of the French Revolution, including James Madison, the House passed a resolution expressing satisfaction with the king’s notification of his acceptance of the Constitution and asking the President “in his answer to the said notification, to express the sincere participation of the House in the interests of the French Nation, on this great and important event; and their wish, that the wisdom and magnanimity displayed in the formation and acceptance of the constitution, may be rewarded by the most perfect attainment of its object, the permanent happiness of so great a people.” It then appointed a committee to present this resolution to the President (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826- description ends , i, 532–4; Rutland, Madison, xiv, 250–2). Spurred on by the House’s action, the Senate, whose enthusiasm for the French Revolution was noticeably more restrained, approved a resolution three days later which was much more tender of monarchical authority than the one passed by the House (JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, Gales, 1820-21, 5 vols. description ends , I, 408–10; Eileen D. Carzo, ed. National State Papers of the United States 1789–1817, Part ii…, Administration of George Washington, 1789–1797 …, 35 vols. [Wilmington, Del., 1985], xii, 276–7).

Washington was infuriated by the House’s action. He regarded it as a flagrant example of legislative encroachment on the executive authority to conduct foreign affairs and feared that incorporating the substance of the House’s resolution in his reply to the king would unduly involve the United States in the internal affairs of France. Consequently, his first inclination was sternly to admonish the committee appointed by the House to meet with him that he had sent the king’s letter of notification to the House strictly for its information. Washington softened his stand, however, after TJ advised him that support for the French Revolution was so widespread in America that few people would view the House’s action as an encroachment on presidential authority. Thus Washington notified the members of the House committee on 12 Mch. 1792 that on his orders TJ had retrieved the initial response to the king from the vessel on which it had been dispatched, so that “another might be written communicating the sentiments of the House agreeably to their request” (Washington to House Committee, 12 Mch. 1792, DLC: Washington Papers, Legislative Proceedings). On the following day TJ submitted to the President a revised letter to Louis XVI, which differed from the original text insofar as it contained a reference to the resolutions of the House and Senate respecting royal acceptance of the French constitution and enclosed copies of them. Washington signed this letter on 14 Mch. 1792, thus avoiding a clear presidential statement on the course of the revolution in France (Memoranda of Consultations with the President, 11 Mch.–9 Apr. 1792; TJ to Washington, 12, 13 Mch. 1792; Washington to TJ 14 Mch. 1792; Washington to Louis XVI, 14 Mch. 1792; Ternant to Lessart, 13 Mch. 1792, Turner, CFM description begins F. J. Turner, “Correspondence of French Ministers, 1791-1797,” AHA, Ann. Rept., 1903, II description ends , p. 96).

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