Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Wilkinson, 9 December 1806

New Orleans Decr. 9th. 1806


I must trust to the peculiar delicacy and difficulty of my situation for the motive and the excuse of this third intrusion on the same momentous subject.—Between the alternatives of waiting for instructions from the proper department (whose last orders to me bear date the 9th. of June) until from the feeble and defenceless condition in which I find this place, the enemy should gain the portal and put the Bayonett to my Breast or of taking all upon myself, and at my single hazard, and my own discretion preparing to support the Government and Constitution of my Country against the attempts which the frenzy of the licentious bands Rendezvoused on the Ohio may undertake, by putting this place in a posture of defence at the expence of large sums, I have reflected, paused, doubted and at length determined—my situation is indeed a hard one, on the one side, altho the intentions of the Insurgents are unquestionable, yet a thousand casualties, beyond human foresight and out of the reach of human action may frustrate their enterprize. The element, timely apprehension, conscious guilt, the fickleness of man, nature, the Aim of Government, sudden death of a leader, together with a multitude of other causes, may impede their March, and perhaps dissipate their resolution—If from some one or many of such causes the enterprize should be abandoned, the sound precautions taken here for defence and resistance might be branded as inexpedient and unnecessary and their mover, who had nothing in view but the salvation of the dearest interest of his Country, be stigmatized with the charge of an idle and extravagant waste of the public treasure—on the other hand should the intentions of the conspirators be carried into execution and for the want of the common means of military defence, this City of incalculable importance in the present crisis, fall an easy sacrafice, the Commander who had failed from the scruples of delicacy or the fear of responsibility, to call in to exertion the means of defence, might be justly charged with ignorance and apathy, or on strong grounds of probability be suspected of collusion—After carefully weighing the subject and maturely reflecting on those opposite lines of conduct and their consequences my doubts are at an end. the evils which may result from a disactionary appropriation of funds are temporary, those which spring out of a supine indifference in the front of danger may be inestimable—the sums which my plan of defence may draw from the Treasury can be replaced, but what remedy is there against triumphant rebellion?

Fallibility of judgment, involves no criminality, but the stain is indelible wch proceeds from duty neglected, in a moment of pressing public danger.—My course of Conduct has been determined by these reflections, and I have resolved to spare no expence, which, under a sound oeconomy, may be found necessary to the fortification and defence of this place, and to impede harrass and effectually oppose every unlicensed armed body, which may attempt to approach it from within or without.

I have just received information, from an associate of the unlawful combination on the Ohio, that Colo. Burr has transmitted advice to this City bearing date the 30th Octr. in which He gives assurance that He will be at Natchez the 20th Inst. with 2000 men, and that 4000. more would immediately follow Him. He observes that He could readily have raised 12,000 but did not think it necessary, and adds that He intended to remain at Natchez until He could receive Letters from this place. He still implicitly and blindly confides in my cooperation, but the deception will last but a few days longer, as I shall be under the necessity of spreading an alarm among the confederates by the arrest of their Agents, spies and associates here, against whom I shall either have positive proof or strong grounds of suspicion, and it is my intention to send them by Water to the Seat of Government, For the apprehension and securing the persons of those engaged in this destructive project, the full exertion of Military authority subject to a dread responsibility is absolutely necessary, and under the auful sense and most painful conviction, that nothing short of a suspension of the regular administration of justice, and converting the Town and precinct into a regular Garrison, subject to the Law Martial, could give efficacy to my measures and prevent the enemy without from the comfort, aid and Co-operation of the enemy within.—I addressed to Govr. Claiborne a letter of which you have a copy under cover with his answer, which unfortunately blasts my designs, for I dare not exert my authority before the danger becomes obvious & imperious; and then it may be too late; yet Sir you may rest content, that nothing shall remain undone which I can accomplish, shackled as I am by obstacles, impediments and deficient powers.

It is with inexpressible mortification and regret that I discharge the painful duty of informing you that among our own Countrymen in this City, I have discovered Characters who had hitherto been distinguished for probity and patriotism, men of high talent, and entire trust honoured by your Confidence and distinguished by the marks of your regard, who if not connected with the Flagitious plan, by active cooperation, have with-held from Government, interesting and timely intelligence of its gradual completion, or have dared openly to approve it, shall I mention their names? I forbear, until strong suspicion be confirmed into certainty, and let me not abandon the hope that their eyes may be opened to the foulness of the attempt, and that they may be still retreived to their Country—Over such I shall Keep a strict eye, and preventing their co-operation in mischief, I shall rejoice should this conduct reclaim their minds from error, and secure their utility to the cause of the Constitution.

But it is with a proud satisfaction which swells my heart, that I contrast with this partial defection of our own Countrymen the general temper of the great mass of the people, who are ardent for the defence of their City & I think in this instance will be found true to their God, to themselves, their Country, and its constitution.

I had projected a plan to apprehend Burr and Dayton at Natchez as you will percieve from the enclosed instructions; but this will be marr’d I fear by a communication which Govr. Claiborne has contrary to my judgment made to Mr. Mead of the Mississippi Territory and which by exciting some idle Gasconade from that vain young Man, may subject the feeble establishment of the Territory to be pillaged by Burrs renagadoes and perhaps to be destroyed by their Naves; for it’s natural to the desperate to mark for destruction all who may oppose them.

The Bearer Mr. Donaldson a Commissioner of the Land Office and Atty. Genl. to the Territory of Louisiana visits the seat of Government with my approbation and advice, to exhibit to the proper department certain details of the Affairs of that Territory, which I deem interesting to its future government, and particularly to the adjustment of Land claims, against which the Instructions of the Secy of the Treasury seem to bear with great severity.

The talents of this Young Gentleman are sound and brilliant and his Soul is animated by Honor and Integrity; with due patronage and a proper direction, He will become an ornament to his nature and an honor to his Country

Mr. D. has passed some weeks in this place and its vicinity, He has seen Govr. Claiborne & myself together and can give much correct information of the real state of things and the exact temper of the People.—

I transmit you duplicates of my preceding communications and with a degree of torturing solicitude I daily expect to hear of the safe arrival of Lt. Smith, and to receive orders for my future Government.

The extravagance of this place and the expences to which my Station inevitably expose me, so long as I do justice to it, will reduce me from poverty to beggary if your justice and that of the Government do not Interpose in my behalf.

With perfect respects I am &c

Signed Ja Wilkinson


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