Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to William C. C. Claiborne, 23 May 1803

To William C. C. Claiborne

Washington May 23. 1803.


I have duly recieved the memorial and petition of the House of Representatives of the Missisipi territory, praying that measures may be adopted for procuring to the citizens of the US. settled on the navigable rivers running into the bay of Mexico the free navigation of those rivers to & from the ocean.   early in the last year, having recieved an application from the inhabitants themselves, instructions were given to our Minister in Spain to represent to it’s government the importance to us of a free passage through those rivers, on principles similar to those on which a like right had been established on the Missisipi. the subject was resumed in the instructions to our joint ministers lately appointed to the same government: and the House of Representatives may rest assured that I consider an innocent and free passage along those waters as so necessary to the use of our territories on them, that nothing will be wanting on my part to their ultimate attainment. praying you to make this communication to the House of Representatives at their next meeting, I tender you assurances of my high consideration & respect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (NNPM); at foot of text: “Governr. Claiborne.” PrC (DLC). Enclosed in TJ to Claiborne, 24 May.

See 12 Mch. for the memorial and petition from the Mississippi territorial legislators. On 15 Feb. 1802, the U.S. House of Representatives received a memorial from inhabitants of the territory’s Washington County asking for the establishment of ports of entry and delivery on the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers. Madison sent a copy of that memorial to the U.S. minister in spain, Charles Pinckney, on 30 Mch. 1802. Passage along rivers that originated in U.S. territory and flowed through Spanish possessions to reach the Gulf of Mexico was not guaranteed by treaty, and Madison asked Pinckney to take the matter up with the Spanish government (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., 3:86–7, 88n).

to our joint ministers: the United States “have a just claim to the use of the Rivers which pass from their Territories thro’ the Floridas,” Madison wrote in instructions to Robert R. Livingston and Monroe dated 2 Mch. 1803. “They found their claim,” he stated, “on like principles with those which supported their claim to the use of the Mississipi” (same, 4:368–9).

In an undated memorandum, Madison made notes of instances in which the question of navigation of rivers that emptied into the Gulf had come up in his correspondence with the U.S. ministers to Spain and France. As he indicated on that list, Madison on 25 Sep. 1801 “observed to Mr. Pinkney as a motive for acquiring the Floridas, that they contain the mouths of rivers of the greatest importance to the U. States”; on 28 Sep. of that year, “the same motive given to Mr. Livingston, in case the Floridas sd. belong to France.” In those communications to Pinckney and Livingston, Madison mentioned the Mobile River in particular (see same, 2:131, 145). As a final entry in the list, Madison noted his letter to Pinckney of 30 Mch. 1802: “Mr. P. instructed on the subject of the Memorial from the Inhabts. of the waters rung. into the Gulph.” There is no evidence that TJ saw the memorandum, which Madison may have drawn up for his own use (MS in ViW; undated and unsigned; entirely in Madison’s hand).

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