James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William C. C. Claiborne and James Wilkinson, 7 February 1804

From William C. C. Claiborne and James Wilkinson

New Orleans February 7. 1804


In our Letter of the 16th ultimo,1 we informed you that we have just then received Information, of the Arrival in the River, of a Vessel with French Troops from St. Domingo. It Appeared by the first Accounts, that a great Mortality had prevailed on Board, and we were Apprehensive of her being infected by some Contagious distemper; It now Appears, that her Company consists of Officers, Surgeons, Attendants of the Sick &c, Together with many wounded Soldiers, from the Hospitals of St. Nicholas Mole, which has lately been Evacuated.

On first hearing of this Arrival, we determined, that they Ought not to be permitted to Come up to the City, & in which Opinion, we have persisted, for Two reasons, 1st. That those People having made their Escape from a place Blockaded by the British, with whom they are at War, if our Assistance should be extended, further than to relieve their Immediate Distresses and furnish them with Necessaries to Carry them to their Own Country, or Territories, it might perhaps Justly be considered, as a Violation of Our Neutrality: on this Topic we have prin[c]ipally insisted, in Our correspondence with the Commissioner, of France: But 2dly. A more weighty Reason, in Our Minds, existed, in the Consequences to be Apprehended, from admiting, such a number of French Officers, in Addition to those now here, whose Conduct, countenanced as it is, by the Colonial Prefect, is exceedingly hostile to that Spirit & to those feelings, which the Interests of the United States, Require to be cherished; In short, the State of Things here, at the present Moment, is such, that the Arrival of these French Officers and Troops in the City, would probably have been Immediately attended, with, Consequences more or less serious to its Tranquility, & more Remotely might have endangered, our Quiet Possession of the Province; The Commissioner of France, as you will percieve, has Laboured the Point with us, but finding our Decision to be unshaken, has finally taken the Resollution, to make the necessary Arrangements, for Shiping them to France, in the National Brig, Argo, now lying here subject to his Orders; For your information, we inclose you Copies of our Correspondence, with him on this Subject, (marked (A No. 1 to No 24)2 up to the Close of the last Month, since which, some other Letters have passed, but none of Importance.

A Difference, of rather a serious Nature, has sprung up Apparently from a very trivial Source, between the American and French Citizens (in which, hitherto, the Creoles or Natives of the Province, have taken no Open Part, though we Suppose them to favour decidedly the French Interest) of which this is the Origin. That Species of Country Dance, which is best Known & practised in the United States, passes here by the name of Contra Danse, Anglaise, against which (as great Importance is often Attached to mere Words) the Officers and Citizens of France, Strangers & not permanent Residents here, have manifested a decided Disapprobation, and pretended, that the Taste of the Americans, for this Danse, indicated a partiality, to the English, their Enemies: of Consequence, they undertook, not in a very open way at first, to prevent the Americans from practising this Danse, at the Public Ball Room, which Occasioned a trifling Disturbance there, not long after our taking Possession of the Town; To prevent the like in future, the Municipality decreed, that Managers should be Appointed on these Occasions, with ample Powers to preserve order &c. Notwithstanding which, at a public Ball, which took place on the 22d Ultimo, at which we were both present, a great Riot and Disturbance happened, on the Grounds above Stated. Some French Officers & troublesome young Men from Bordeaux, were the Aggressors: much Confusion ensued, Swords were drawn; and it Required the greatest Exertions, to prevent the Spilling of Blood, finally, two Frenchmen, one a Shop keeper in this Town, and the Other, as it afterwards appeared, a Surgeon in the French service, were Arrested, the latter on giving his parole d honour to appear and Answer in the Morning, was released, and the former Committed to the Guard; they were tried the next Morning before a Tribunal of the City, chiefly french, and Acquitted; notwithstanding it was fully proved, that they had been principally, Concerned in Commencing & Promoting the disturbance, and interrupting the Amusement, of the Company. In the Course of the Day, (23d) we Received a Letter from the French Commissioner, A Copy of which, (marked B No 2) is under Cover, complaining that the Citn. Lebalch a French officer, had been summoned before an American Tribunal without any previous Application to him, the Commissioner of France. We instantly replied (as per Copy B No 3.) As we judged the Interruption of the Quiet of the City, to be principally occasioned by the French officers & Citizens, before alluded to, we had determined to insist, with the French Commissioner, on the Evacuation of the Province by the Troops of France in the Course of the succeeding Day (the 24 (calculating erroneously at the Moment, that the Exchange of Ratifications had taken Place on the 24 October, instead of the 21 as was the Fact; and that the three Months, allowed for the Evacuation would expire on the said 24) This Letter a Copy of which you have under Cover (marked B No 1) had been written previously to the Receipt of the Letter (B No 2) from the French Commissioner. This drew from him an intemperate Letter, dated the 25 (Copy B No 4) to which we have not yet thought proper to return an Answer, though it shall not Escape due animadversion.3

It may be proper, by way of repelling the Idea that any Thing unfriendly was intended in our applying for an Evacuation of the Province within the Time limited by the Treaty, to observe that a French national Brig the Argo was then and is now lying here, nearly ready for Sea, on board of which these officers might, without Inconvenience have been embarked, had the French Commissioner felt well-disposed towards the Interests of the United States in Relation to the Government of this Province; or inclined to repress the disorderly Conduct of his Countrymen.

In Vindication of our own Character, and that of our Countrymen, in the Eyes of our Government, we have thought proper to obtain the inclosed Depositions, (marked B No 5 to 10) inclusively)4 given by Men of respectable characters, who were Spectators of the Scene referred to, from which you can judge, how far our Conduct has merited the indecent Imputations, alledged against us, by the Commissioner of France.5

His conduct in this affair & since, has fortified a Suspicion, which had previously been entertained, that he is labouring to impress upon the People of this Province, the Idea, that France has not yet abandoned all ulterior Views towards this Country. Whether this Conduct, be a Consequence of Instructions from his Government, or the Result of personal Disappointment, Time alone can determine.

In Support of our Opinion, we beg Leave to allude to the general Tenor of his Proclamation on taking Possession from Spain, a Copy of which was forwarded to you from, Fort Adams:6 also to the concluding Paragraph of his Letter of the 25 Jany. (Copy B No 4) and we refer you particularly to the 2d Paragraph of his Letter of the 21. Jany (Copy C No 1.)7 where it will be observed, he advances a Pretension on the Part of France, to interfere, between the Government of the United States and the Citizens of this Province, to see Justice done to the latter, in Relation to the Grants of Land; for such is the Consequence that we attach to his Expressions.

We have been put in Possession of certain Registers of Grants of Land, formerly kept in the office of the Spanish Intendant, consisting of two folio Volumes, and other single Papers to the Amount of another Volume. Some previous Conditions were attempted on the Part of the Commissioner of France to be annexed to the Surrender of these Documents, which have been repelled by us. Copies of our Correspondence on this Subject, (marked C No 1. to No 6)8 are under Cover. We beg Leave to renew to you the Assurance of our sincere Respect & high Consideration.

William C. C. Claiborne

Ja Wilkinson

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