Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Aaron Burr, 18 November 1801

To Aaron Burr

Washington Nov. 18. 1801.

Dear Sir

Your favor of the 10th. has been recieved, as have been those also of Sep. 4. & 23. in due time. these letters all relating to office, fall within the general rule which even the very first week of my being engaged in the administration obliged me to establish, to wit, that of not answering letters on office1 specifically, but leaving the answer to be found in what is done or not done on them. you will readily concieve into what scrapes one would get by saying no, either with or without reasons, by using a softer language which might excite false hopes or by saying yes prematurely. and to take away all offence from this silent answer, it is necessary to adhere to it in every case rigidly, as well with bosom friends as strangers.—Capt Sterritt is arrived here from the Mediterranean. Congress will have a question as to all the Barbary powers of some difficulty. we have had under consideration mr Pusy’s plans of fortification. they are scientifically done, and expounded. he seems to prove that no works at either the Narrows or Governor’s island can stop a vessel. but to stop them at the Hook by a fort of 8000. men & protecting army of 29,000. is beyond our present ideas of the scale of defence which we can adopt for all our seaport towns. his estimate of 4,000,000. D. which experience teaches us to double always, in a case where the law allows but (I believe) half a million, ties our hands at once. we refer the case back to Govr. Clinton to select half a dozen persons of judgment, of American ideas, and to present such a plan, within our limits, as these shall agree on. in the mean time the general subject will be laid before Congress. Accept assurances of my high respect & consideration.

Th: Jefferson

RC (PHi); addressed: “Aaron Burr esquire V.P. of the US. New York”; franked and postmarked; endorsed by Burr. PrC (DLC).

See Madison to TJ, 16 Nov., for Burr’s favor of the 10th.

During John Adams’s term, Alexander Hamilton had monitored plans for the fortification of New York harbor. Following TJ’s inauguration, Burr agreed to take on that role “of superintending a thorough examination of the port and harbour of New York for the purpose of enabling the President of the United States to decide on the most judicious modes of extending the fortifications at that place.” In July, Burr sent a plan of the harbor, said that he would compile soundings of the water’s depth, and suggested that Dearborn write Jean Xavier Bureaux de Pusy “to urge dispatch” (Kline, Burr description begins Mary-Jo Kline, ed., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Princeton, 1983, 2 vols. description ends , 1:527–8).

Half a Million: the expenditure for fortifications at New York City could not exceed $1,852,035, the amount of the state’s debt to the United States (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Military Affairs, 1:193).

Refer the case back to Govr. Clinton: see George Clinton to TJ, 14 Oct.

Burr also wrote to TJ on this day. In a brief note written at New York he stated: “Mr Burr’s respectful Compliments—He has the honor herewith to enclose to the President of the U.S. the original Memoire of Monr. De Pusy on the Subject of the Defense of the Harbour of NYork” (RC in DLC; unsigned; endorsed by TJ as received 22 Nov. and so recorded in SJL).

1Preceding three words interlined in place of “them.”

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