Thomas Jefferson Papers

Notes on a Cabinet Meeting, 7 May 1803

Notes on a Cabinet Meeting

May. 7. Present 4. Secretaries & Atty Genl. on the supposition that war between England & France is commenced, or whenever it shall commence.
1. shall we issue a Proclamation of neutrality? unanimously not. it’s object as to our citizens is unnecessary, to wit, the informg. them that they are to observe the duties of neutrality, because the late instance is so recent as to be in their minds. as to foreign nations, it will be assuring them of our neutrality without price, whereas France may be willing to give N. Orleans for it. and England to engage a just & respectful conduct.
2. Sea letters to be given even on the present apparent probability of war.
3. Customhouse officers to attend to the having our seamen furnishd with certif. of citizenship in bonâ fide cases.
4. New Orleans. altho’ no specific opinion is asked, because premature till we hear from our ministers, see the complexion & probable course & duration of the war, yet the opinion seems to be that we must1 avail ourselves of this war to get it. whether2 if negocian fails, we shall take it directly, or encourage a decln of independce. & then enter into alliance &c. we have time enough to consider. we all deprecate Gr. Br’s taking possn of it. we all agree we should not commit ourselves by a convention with France, accepting merely our right of deposit, or any improvement of it short of the sovereignty of the island of N. Orleans, or a portion sufficient for a town to be located by ourselves.

MS (DLC: TJ Papers, 131:22677); entirely in TJ’s hand; on same sheet as his notes on cabinet consultations of 16 July, 4 Oct. 1803, 18 Feb., 26 May, 8 Oct. 1804, 8 July, 12, 19 Nov. 1805.

late instance: George Washington’s neutrality proclamation of 22 Apr. 1793 declared that the United States would “pursue a conduct friendly and impartial” toward Great Britain, its allies, and France. The document warned citizens against committing or aiding hostilities against any of the warring nations or carrying contraband articles to any of them. A primary aim of the proclamation was to forestall the arming of American privateers, and TJ joined the other members of Washington’s cabinet in support of the declaration of neutrality although there was a division of opinion over the status of the relationship between the United States and France (Washington, Papers description begins W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Theodore J. Crackel, Edward C. Lengel, and others, eds., The Papers of George Washington, Charlottesville, 1983- , 57 vols., Confed. Ser., 1992–97, 6 vols., Pres. Ser., 1987- , 16 vols., Ret. Ser., 1998–99, 4 vols., Rev. War Ser., 1985- , 21 vols. description ends , Pres. Ser., 12:472–4; Vol. 25:518, 541, 568–71, 597–619, 665–8).

Gallatin sent batches of printed sea letters to customs collectors on 11 June. Each form bore TJ’s and Madison’s signatures and was to be filled out by a collector to certify that a vessel was American owned. TJ had decided in December that the United States would not issue sea letters, which were also called ship passports, unless war broke out (allowing an exception, as was customary, for ships bound on voyages beyond the Cape of Good Hope). Gallatin instructed the collectors not to issue sea letters before 25 June unless they were “morally certain” that France and Britain had gone to war (Gallatin to Robert Purviance and to Thomas de Mattos Johnson, 11 June, in Gallatin, Papers description begins Carl E. Prince and Helene E. Fineman, eds., The Papers of Albert Gallatin, microfilm edition in 46 reels, Philadelphia, 1969, and Supplement, Barbara B. Oberg, ed., reels 47–51, Wilmington, Del., 1985 description ends , 8:413, 429; Vol. 25:167n, 642–3, 645–8, 680–2; Gallatin to TJ, 6 Dec.; TJ to Gallatin, 7, 25 Dec.; sea letter for ship May Flower, 8 Sep. 1803, in DNA: RG 76, French Spoliations, MR).

See Gallatin to TJ, 6 July, for the certificates of citizenship for mariners.

avail ourselves of this war: writing to Robert R. Livingston about various subjects on 25 May, Madison declared: “We are still ignorant of the result of the armed negotiations between Great Britain and France. Should it be war, or should the uncertainty of the result, be spun out, the crisis may be favorable to our rights and our just objects, and the President assures himself that the proper use will be made of it.” Three days later Madison wrote to Livingston and Monroe in cipher: “The crisis presented by this jealous and hostile attitude of those rival powers has doubtless been seen in its bearings on the arrangements contemplated in your commission and instructions and it is hoped (tho we have not yet heard) that the arrival of Mr. Monroe will have taken place in time to give full advantage to the means of turning the actual state of things to the just benefit of the United States.” The situation “authorizes us to expect better terms than your original instructions allow,” he added (Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, J. C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, Chicago and Charlottesville, 1962- , 35 vols., Sec. of State Ser., 1986- , 9 vols., Pres. Ser., 1984- , 7 vols., Ret. Ser., 2009- , 2 vols. description ends , Sec. of State Ser., 5:33, 39).

deprecate gr. br’s taking possn: by the time Madison wrote to the diplomats on the 28th, he and TJ had learned from Rufus King that the British, if they seized New Orleans, expected to turn it over to the United States. Madison confided to Monroe and Livingston that the president, impressed by the frankness with which Prime Minister Henry Addington had revealed Britain’s intentions to King, now wanted “as little concession as possible” made to France “on points disagreeable to Great Britain.” In particular, if the French kept possession of one bank of the Mississippi, they should not be allowed to claim a right to exclude British ships from the river. The secretary of state also outlined arguments to justify the transfer of captured territory from a belligerent nation to a neutral country in wartime, in case a cession of New Orleans from Britain to the United States should come to pass (same, 39–40).

portion sufficient for a town: Madison informed Livingston and Monroe that the president did not want them to enter into any convention with France “that will not secure to the United States the jurisdiction of a reasonable district on some convenient part of the banks of the Mississippi” (same, 39).

1TJ here canceled “not.”

2TJ here canceled “by.”

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