James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, 8 June 1797

From Thomas Jefferson

Philadelphia June 8. 1797.

I wrote you last on the 1st. inst. You will have seen by the public papers that the amendment for putting France on an equal footing with other nations was clogged with another requiring compensation for spoliations. The objection to this was not that it ought not to be demanded, but that it ought not to be a sine qua non, and it was feared from the dispositions of the Executive that they would seize it’s mention by the representatives as a pretext for making it a sine qua non.1 The representatives have voted a continuance of the fortifications, & a completion & manning of the three frigates.2 They will probably pass the bills recieved from the Senate prohibiting the exportation of arms & ammunition & for preventing our citizens from engaging in armed vessels.3 The Senate have also prepared or are proposing bills for raising cavalry, raising a corps of artillerists, buying 9. more armed vessels, authorizing the Executive to employ them & the frigates as convoys for our commerce, and raising a great provisional army to be called into actual service only in the case of war. All these measures will pass the Senate by a majority of about 18. to 12. probably.4 That of permitting our merchant vessels to arm was rejected by the committee 3. to 2. Bingham who was of the committee stated to the Senate that he had taken pains to learn the sense of the merchants on this subject and that he had not found one in favor of the permission. Still a part of the Senate are for it, and do not consider it as laid aside. Smith & Harper brought on the same proposition yesterday (being the 5th. of Smith’s resolutions) before the representatives. It was amended by changing the word permitting to restricting. Another amendment was proposed to add ‘except to the Mediterranean & E. Indies.’5 The day was spent in debate, & no question taken. I believe certainly the general permission will not be given. But what may be the fate of the 3d. 4th. 6th. 7th & other resolutions is not very certain. We hope favorably. The late victory of Buonaparte & panic of the British government has produced a sensible effect in damping the ardor of our heroes. However they might have been willing at first, partly from inclination, partly from devotion to the Executive, to have met hostilities from France, it is now thought they will not force that nail, but, doing of the most innocent things as much as may be necessary to veil the folly or the boldness of calling Congress, be willing to leave the more offensive measures till the issue of the negociation or their own next meeting. This is the most we can hope, and but for the late successes of France & desperate condition of England, it was more than we should have hoped. For it is difficult to say whether the Republicans have a majority or not. The votes have been carried both ways by a difference of from 1. to 6. Our three renegadoes exactly make that difference. Clay proves to be as firm as a rock, having never separated but in the single instance I mentioned in my last letter, when I presume he must have been struck by some peculiar view of the question. We expect the arrival of Paine daily.6 Of Monroe we hear nothing, except that he had not left Paris on the 1st. of April.

P.M. This day has been spent in the H. of Representatives in debating whether the restriction of the merchants from arming their vessels except when bound to the Mediterranean or E. Indies, should be taken off as to the W. Indies also. It was determined by 46. against 34. that the W. India vessels should not arm.7 This is considered as auguring favorably of the other resolutions. The Senate determined to-day 18. to 11 that 9 vessels should be bought, armed &c by the president. Their cost is estimated at 60,000. D. each. This was on the 2d. reading of the bill. These bills originated in the Senate & going under their sanction to the lower house, while in so vibratory a state, have a very mischievous effect. We expect to rise on Saturday the 17th. I have written for my horses to be at Fredsbg on Sunday the 25th. and I may be with you perhaps on the 26th. or 27th.8 Adieu.

RC (DLC); FC (DLC: Jefferson Papers). Unsigned. RC franked and addressed by Jefferson to JM “near Orange Court house.” FC is a one-page outline, followed by Jefferson’s notation: “No copy retained. The above is the sum.”

1On 1 June the Committee of the Whole reported to the House of Representatives the address to the president with amendments, among which was one that encouraged the U.S. to place France “on grounds as favorable as other countries.” During the House debate on that amendment, John Wilkes Kittera proposed that France “compensate for any injury done to our neutral rights.” Although John Nicholas objected to this as presenting the French with an ultimatum, the amendment passed, 58–41. The final answer read: “we cherish the hope that a mutual spirit of conciliation, and a disposition on the part of France to compensate for any injuries which may have been committed upon our neutral rights; and, on the part of the United States, to place France on grounds similar to those of other countries in their relation and connection with us, … will produce an accommodation” (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 5th Cong., 1st sess., 199, 210–31, 237).

2These two resolves were among the ten resolutions proposed by William Loughton Smith that took up the proposals for defensive measures made by President Adams in his speech of 16 May. A bill to provide for the fortification of ports and harbors was passed 16 June (ibid., 239–47, 324).

3The bill to prevent the export of arms passed the House 8 June by 74 to 8. The next day a bill was proposed to prohibit citizens of the U.S. from engaging in privateering against fellow citizens. It passed on 10 June (ibid., 266–67, 281).

4Taking its cue from the president’s speech, the Senate referred the proposed defensive measures to committees on 29 May. These quickly reported a series of bills that met with mixed success. An act for raising and organizing an additional corps of artillerists and engineers passed (7 June) as did an act for protecting the trade of the U.S. (15 June). But the bill for raising an additional corps of light dragoons failed (14 June) as well as one to establish a provisional army (22 June) (ibid., 15–25).

5The amendment proposed to change the word “regulating” to “restricting in certain cases.” A second and third proposal produced the following amendment: “That provision be made, by law, for restricting the arming of merchant vessels of the United States bound to the East and West Indies and to the Mediterranean” (ibid., 253, 255, 257).

6By a letter of 1 Apr. 1797 Thomas Paine had informed Jefferson that he would soon be returning to the U.S. from France. He would not return, however, until October 1802 (Foner, Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2:1386; David Freeman Hawke, Paine [New York, 1974], p. 353).

7There were 35 votes for arming merchant shipping versus 46 votes against. Debate on this question was particularly confusing since some Federalist members considered that merchants already had the right to arm their ships, making some restriction necessary in order to avoid “great disorder.” Other Federalists considered the amendment as a general license to arm merchantmen. Republicans denied merchants the right to arm and therefore opposed the amendment as conferring a right that did not exist (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 5th Cong., 1st sess., 268–80).

8Congress did not adjourn until 10 July. Jefferson, however, left Philadelphia four days earlier (ibid., 37, 46, 466).

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