Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Pinckney, 15 March 1793

To Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Pinckney

Philadelphia March 15th. 1793.

Dear Sir

The President has seen with satisfaction that the Ministers of the United States in Europe, while they have avoided an useless commitment of their Nation on the subject of M. de la Fayette, have nevertheless shewn themselves attentive to his situation. The interest which the President himself, and our Citizens in general take in the welfare of this gentleman, is great and sincere, and will entirely justify all prudent efforts to serve him. I am therefore to desire that you will avail yourself of every opportunity of sounding the way towards his liberation, of finding out whether those in whose power he is, are very tenacious of him, of insinuating through such channels as you shall think suitable the attentions of the Government and people of the United States to this object, and the interest they take in it, and of1 procuring his liberation by informal solicitations, if possible. But if formal ones be necessary, and the moment should arrive when you shall find that they will be effectual, you are authorized to signify, through such channel as you shall find suitable, that our Government and Nation, faithful in their attachments to this gentleman for the services he has rendered them, feel a lively interest in his welfare, and will view his liberation as a mark of consideration and friendship for the United States, and as a new motive for esteem and a reciprocation of kind offices towards the power to whom they shall be indebted for this Act.

A like letter being written to Mr. Pinckney,2 you will of course take care that, however you may act through different channels, there be still a sufficient degree of concert in your proceedings. I am, with great and sincere esteem, Dear Sir, Your most obedient and most humble Servant

Th: Jefferson

RC (NNC: Gouverneur Morris Papers); in the hand of George Taylor, Jr., signed by TJ; at foot of text: “Mr. Morris”; endorsed by Morris. PrC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); signed by TJ in ink. RC (NNP); in Taylor’s hand, signed by TJ; at foot of text: “Mr. Pinckney.” PrC of Dft (DLC); with emendation noted below; lacks part of complimentary close; at foot of text: “Mr. Morris.” Tr (NjP: Andre deCoppet Collection); in Taylor’s hand, signed by TJ; at foot of text: “Messieurs Morris Pinckney”; marginal note in TJ’s hand: “communicated to Colo. Humphries merely for his information. Th:J.” PrC (DLC); unsigned; at foot of text in TJ’s hand in ink: “communicated to Colo. Humphr. Carmichl. & Short.” FC (Lb in DNA: RG 59, DCI); at head of text: “To Gouverneur Morris Esqr.”; note in margin: “The same to Mr Pinckney. Communicated to Col. Humphreys Mr Carmichael & Mr Short.” Enclosed in TJ to George Washington, and Washington to TJ, both 15 Mch. 1793, and TJ to Washington, 5 May 1793.

TJ’s instructions enunciating American policy on efforts to procure Lafayette’s release from captivity reflect the tensions between the humanitarian impulse to aid the man who perhaps best personified the multiple ties of friendship between France and the United States and the diplomatic imperative to preserve American neutrality in the midst of the rapidly widening war in Europe. A strong supporter of constitutional monarchy, Lafayette had fled from France on 19 Aug. 1792, when the new revolutionary regime relieved him of his command and ordered his arrest shortly after his unsuccessful attempt to rally his army on behalf of the recently overthrown Louis XVI. While enroute to the then neutral Netherlands with a party of over fifty fellow officers, orderlies, and servants, the marquis, who had hoped to make his way to England and from thence to the United States, was arrested by a party of Austrian soldiers at Rochefort in the Austrian Netherlands. At the end of that month a special commission of agents of the Austrian and Prussian monarchs, including a French émigré representative, pronounced him guilty of lèse-majesté against Louis and sentenced him to be held as a prisoner of state until a restored French monarch could decide his fate, a judgment that led to five years of imprisonment, first in Prussian and then in Austrian custody (Madame de Lafayette to George Washington, 8 Oct. 1792, DLC: Washington Papers; Samuel F. Bemis, “The United States and Lafayette,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, lviii [1924], 341–5; Peter Buckman, Lafayette: A Biography [New York, 1977], 214–19; Olivier Bernier, Lafayette: Hero of Two Worlds [New York, 1983], 240–7).

In addition to natural sympathy for one who had rendered such signal service to the American Revolution, the Washington administration took an interest in Lafayette’s case because of his pleas for American diplomatic intervention on his behalf as an unjustly imprisoned United States citizen. Lafayette enjoyed American citizenship because Maryland and Virginia had granted him state citizenship in 1784 and 1785, respectively, and state citizens automatically became citizens of the United States after the adoption of the federal Constitution. In letters of August 1792 describing himself as “an American Citizen, an American officer—No More in the french Service,” Lafayette urged William Short, then serving as minister to the Netherlands, first alone and then in conjunction with the American ministers to France and England as well as the British government, to intercede with his captors in order to secure his release (Lafayette to Short, 26, 29, 30 Aug. 1792, DLC: Short Papers). Short notified Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Pinckney of Lafayette’s appeal and asked whether the three ministers could do anything practicable to comply with it. Although Pinckney initially favored the issuance of a joint declaration expressing the hope that Lafayette would be accorded all the rights due him as an American citizen, Morris, noting that the marquis was not in the service of the United States, opposed any form of official intervention as a violation of American neutrality, an opinion in which Short and Pinckney immediately concurred. All three ministers then referred the matter to TJ. While Morris opposed an official démarche, he privately helped the Marquise de Lafayette draft a petition to the king of Prussia asking for her husband’s release and made personal and public funds available on his own initiative to relieve the imprisoned marquis (Morris to TJ, 27 Sep. 1792, and enclosures; Short to TJ, 28 Sep. 1792; Pinckney to TJ, 9 Nov. 1792; Bemis, “United States and Lafayette,” 345–50, 407).

TJ drafted this letter at the express wish of the President, who had a paternal regard for Lafayette and had been deeply affected by a touching appeal for help from the marquis’s wife. In doing so TJ departed in two ways from Washington’s original request. Whereas the President had only asked him to write to the American minister in Paris, TJ included the American minister in London; and whereas the President had only authorized informal expressions of American concern about Lafayette’s plight, TJ empowered the two ministers to make formal solicitations on his behalf. Washington signified his assent to the strengthening of his original proposal when he evidently approved drafts of the letters to Morris and Pinckney this day (Washington to TJ, 13 Mch. 1793; Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 91). For a discussion of American diplomatic efforts to secure Lafayette’s freedom after TJ left office, including appeals by the President to the rulers of Austria and Prussia, none of which were official and all of which failed, see Bemis, “United States and Lafayette,” 408–14, 481–7. Lafayette finally emerged from Austrian captivity in September 1797 after Napoleon Bonaparte’s stunningly successful Italian campaign and the French government’s resultant insistence that the defeated Austrians agree to the marquis’s release as a condition of peace (same, 487–9; Buckman, Lafayette, 232–4).

1The passage “of insinuating … and of” interlined in PrC of Dft.

2“Morris” in the RC to Pinckney; “Morris Pinckney”—with the first name written in TJ’s hand—in the Tr sent to David Humphreys.

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