Thomas Jefferson Papers

Notes of Cabinet Meeting on the Southern Indians and Spain, 31 October 1792

Notes of Cabinet Meeting on the Southern Indians and Spain

Oct. 31. 1792. I had sent to the President Viar and Jaudenes’s letter of the 29th. inst. whereupon he desired a consultation of Hamilton, Knox, E.R. and myself on these points 1. what notice was to be taken hereof to Spain? 2. whether it should make part of the communication to the legislature. I delivered my opinion that it ought to be communicated to both houses, because the communications intended to be made being to bring on the Question whether they would declare war against any and which of the nations or parts of the nations of Indns. to the South, it would be proper this information should be before them, that they might know how far such a declaration would lead them. There might be some who would be for war against the Indians if it were to stop there, but who would not be for it if it was to lead to a war against Spain. I thought it should be laid before both houses, because it concerned the question of Declaring war which was the function equally of both houses. I thought a simple acknolegement of the receipt of the letter should be made by me to the Spanish Chargés, expressing that it contained some things very unexpected to us, but that we should refer the whole, as they had proposed to the negociators at Madrid. This would secure to us a continuation of the suspension of Indian hostilities which the Govr. of N. Orleans said he had brought about till the result of the negociation at Madrid should be known, would not commit us as to running or not running the line, imply any admission of doubt about our territorial righ[t] and avoid a rupture with Spain which was much to be desired wh[ile] we had similar points to discuss with Gr. Br.

Hamilton declared himself the advocate for peace. War would derange our affairs, greatly, throw us back many years in the march towards prosperity, be difficult for us to pursue, our countrymen not disposed to become souldiers, a part of the Union feeling no interest in the war, would with difficulty be brought to exert itself, and we had no navy. He was for every thing which would procrastinate the event. A year even was a great gain to a nation strengthening as we were. It laid open to us too the chapter of accidents, which in the present state of Europe was a pretty pregnant one. That while however he was for delaying the event of war, he had no doubt it was to take place between us for the object in question. That jealousy and perseverance were remarkeable features in the character of the Span. government with respect to their American possessions. That so far from receding as to their claims against us, they had been strengthening themselves in them. He had no doubt the present communication was by authority from the court. Under this impression he thought we should be looking forward to the day of rupture and preparing for it. That if we were unequal to the contest ourselves, it behoved us to provide allies for our aid. That in this view but two nations could be named, France and Engld. France was too intimately connected with Spain in other points and of too great mutual value ever to separate for us. Her affairs too were such that whatever issue they had, she could not be in a situation to make a respectable mediation for us. England alone then remained. It would not be easy to effect it with her; however he was for trying it, and for sounding them on the proposition of a defensive treaty of alliance. The inducements to such a treaty on their part might be 1. the desire of breaking up our former connections, which we knew they had long wished. 2. a continuance of the statu quo in commerce for 10. years which he believed would be desireable to them. 3. an admission to some navigable part of the Missisipi by some line drawn from the lake of the woods to such navigable part. He had not he said examined the map to see how such a line might be run so as not to make too great a sacrifice. The navigation of the Missi. being a joint possession we might then take measures in concert for the joint security of it. He was therefore for immediately sounding them on this subject thro’ our Minister at London yet so as to keep ourselves unengaged as long as possible in hopes a favorable issue with Spain might be otherwise effected. But he was for sounding immediately and for not slipping an opportunity of securing our object.

E.R. concurred in general with me. He objected that such an alliance could not be effected with-out pecuniary consideration probably, which we could not give. And what was to be their aid? If men, our citizens would see their armies get foothold in the U.S. with great jealousy. It would be difficult to protect them. Even the French during the distresses of the late war excited some jealous sentiments.

Hamilton said, money was often but not always demanded, and the aid he should propose to stipulate would be in ships.—Knox non dissentient.

The President said the remedy would be worse than the disease, and stated some of the disagreeable circumstances which would attend our making such overtures.

Knox’s indirect hints in favor of this alliance brought to my recollection his conversation of yesterday, and that he wished to it.

MS (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand; some letters torn away along edges conjectured in brackets. Entry in SJPL: “[Oct.] 27. 28. 30. 31. Notes respecting Hamilton—war with Spain—alliance wth Engld.” Included in the “Anas.”

These notes are all that survive from four memorandums that TJ apparently made during the closing days of October. Although the immediate occasion for this day’s Cabinet meeting was the letter of the 29th. Inst. from the Spanish agents in Philadelphia, the larger issue at stake was the American response to the aggressive Indian policy of Baron de Carondelet disclosed in the accompanying extract from his 24 Sep. 1792 letter to Viar and Jaudenes. Convinced that the United States was planning an attack on Louisiana, Carondelet had assumed office as governor of Louisiana and West Florida on 30 Dec. 1791 with the aim of increasing Spanish influence among the Southern Indians and using them as a counterweight to the expanding tide of American settlement in the Southwest. In particular, he set out to nullify the Treaty of New York concluded in 1790 between the United States and the Creeks, which threatened to undermine Spain’s influence with that tribe, and to create a confederation consisting of the Creeks, the Cherokees, the Chickasaws, and the Choctaws for use as an instrument of Spanish policy against the United States (Whitaker, Frontier, description begins Arthur P. Whitaker, The Spanish-American Frontier: 1783–1795, Boston, 1927 description ends 153–70). In pursuit of these objectives, which he recognized might lead to war with the United States, Carondelet dispatched agents to the Creeks and some of the other Southern tribes. These agents, the most conspicuous of whom were Pedro Olivier and William Panton, urged the abandonment of the Treaty of New York, offered the Indians Spanish weapons and supplies, invited them to confer with Carondelet at Pensacola, and assured them of Spanish support in the event of hostilities with the United States. Reports of their activities were dispatched to Philadelphia throughout the summer and fall of 1792 by various American governors, Indian agents, traders, and travellers, raising the possibility of a war with Spain and her Southern Indian allies (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Indian Affairs, 1, 263–318; Edward Telfair to TJ, 3 Oct. 1792; TJ to William Carmichael and William Short, 14 Oct. 1792).

Against this background of mounting Spanish intrigue in the Southwest, TJ and Washington could not avoid being alarmed by the tacit admission of Viar and Jaudenes that Spanish officials were inciting the Creeks to oppose the United States—a point that emerged even more strongly in Carondelet’s letter, which declared the Treaty of New York to be null and void in the eyes of the Creeks and Spain. The Secretary of State and the President would have had even greater cause for concern had they known that Carondelet’s letter reflected his success in inducing the Creek chief Alexander McGillivray to sign a treaty with him abrogating the Treaty of New York (Caughey, McGillivray, description begins John W. Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks, Norman, Okla., 1938 description ends 329–30).

TJ did not record the final outcome of this Cabinet meeting, but subsequent events show that his views prevailed over Hamilton’s. Three days after this conference, TJ, with Washington’s concurrence, instructed Carmichael and Short to take up the subject of American complaints against Carondelet with the Spanish government (TJ to Carmichael and Short, 3 Nov. 1792; Washington to TJ, 3 Nov. 1792). On 7 Nov. the President submitted a special message to Congress transmitting texts of the Spanish agents’ letter of 29 Oct. 1792 and related documents (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Foreign Relations, i, 138–9), TJ having previously submitted three sets of these papers to the President in a brief covering note (TJ to Washington, 3 Nov. 1792, RC in DNA: RG 59, MLR, not recorded in SJL; Tr in Lb in same, SDC). On the same day, moreover, the Secretary of War laid before the House of Representatives a comprehensive report on Indian affairs that dealt, among other things, with Spanish intrigues among the Southern tribes and was evidently the proposed communication to the legislature mentioned in TJ’s notes. Knox submitted the same report to the Senate on 21 Nov. 1792 (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Indian Affairs, i, 225–318). Hamilton’s proposal for an alliance with Great Britain undoubtedly failed to win any favor with the President because of Washington’s suspicion that the British and the Spanish were conspiring together to incite the Northwestern and the Southern tribes against the United States, a suspicion he had previously communicated to TJ and Knox (Washington to TJ, 23 Aug. 1792; Washington to Knox, 22 Aug. 1792, Fitzpatrick, Writings, description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, D.C., 1931–44, 39 vols. description ends xxxii, 125–6).

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