Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Aaron Burr, 20 January 1793

To Aaron Burr

Jan. 20. 1793.

Th: Jefferson presents his respectful compliments to Colo. Burr and is sorry to inform him it has been concluded to be improper to communicate the correspondence of existing ministers. He hopes this will, with Colo. Burr, be his sufficient apology.

RC (MWA); addressed: “Colo. Burr.” Not recorded in SJL.

The provenance of TJ’s first written communication to Aaron Burr (1756–1836), his future Vice President, who had been chosen in 1791 to represent New York in the Senate, is obscure. According to his earliest biographer, Burr, in an effort to improve his understanding of American diplomacy, had obtained permission from TJ to examine the records of the Department of State in the morning hours before it opened each day. Burr is said to have availed himself of this privilege during the winter session of the Senate in 1791–92, taking notes and extracts from the records, until Washington issued a peremptory order denying him further access. Subsequently during this period, according to the same account, Burr wrote a note to TJ asking permission to consult departmental records relating to “a surrender of the western posts by the British,” to which TJ returned the above reply (Matthew L. Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, with Miscellaneous Selections from his Correspondence, 2 vols. [New York, 1836–37], i, 331). But there is no other evidence that TJ granted Burr access to departmental records as Davis claimed, no other record exists of Washington’s order denying Burr such access, no text of Burr’s note to TJ on the western posts has been found, and TJ’s note to Burr was written a full year later than Davis assumed. Nevertheless, although Davis’s account is seriously flawed, TJ’s reply shows that Burr did seek access to the correspondence of existing ministers, probably on the subject of British retention of the western posts, and it may perhaps be inferred from TJ’s note that he had already obtained access to the department’s prefederal diplomatic records. Although Burr was not at this time involved in any Senate business relating to foreign affairs, he was interested in the maintenance of peaceful relations with the Western Indians, and Britain’s occupation of the posts was widely regarded in America as a significant factor in inciting hostilities between these tribes and the United States (Burr to George Washington, 13 Mch. 1792, DNA: RG 59, MLR, printed conjecturally as a letter to TJ in Mary-Jo Kline and others, eds., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, 2 vols. [Princeton, 1983], i, 101–3; same, 145–6; see also George Hammond to TJ, 30 Jan. 1792).

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