James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, 3 July 1811

From Thomas Jefferson

Monticello July 3. 11.

Dear Sir

I have seen with very great concern the late Address of mr. Smith to the public. He has been very ill advised both personally and publicly. As far as I can judge from what I hear, the impression made is entirely unfavorable to him. Every man’s own understanding readily answers all the facts and insinuations, one only excepted, and for that they look for explanations without any doubt that they will be satisfactory. That is Erving’s case.1 I have answered the enquiries of several on this head, telling them at the same time, what was really the truth, that the failure of my memory enabled me to give them rather conjectures than recollections. For in truth I have but indistinct recollections of the case. I know that what was done was on a joint consultation between us, and I have no fear that what we did will not have been correct & cautious. What I retain of the case, on being reminded of some particulars, will re-instate the whole firmly in my remembrance, and enable me to state them to enquirers with correctness, which is the more important from the part I bore in them. I must therefore ask the favor of you to give me a short outline of the facts which may correct as well as supply my own recollections. But who is to give an explanation to the public? Not yourself certainly. The chief magistrate cannot enter the Arena of the newspapers. At least the occasion should be of a much higher order. I imagine there is some pen at Washington competent to it. Perhaps the best form would be that of some one personating the friend of Erving, some one apparently from the North.2 Nothing laboured is requisite. A short & simple statement of the case, will, I am sure, satisfy the public. We are in the midst of a so so harvest; probably one third short of the last. We had a very fine rain on Saturday last. Ever affectionately Yours

Th: Jefferson

RC (DLC: Rives Collection, Madison Papers); FC (DLC: Jefferson Papers).

1Among the matters raised by Robert Smith in his Address was the discovery he made in December 1809 that George W. Erving, while serving in London between 1801 and 1805 as consul and claims agent under article 7 of the Jay treaty, had been allowed a commission of 2½ percent on the money paid by the British government to settle American claims, a sum amounting to $22,392. Smith declared that Erving’s compensation was improper and that when he sought an explanation, JM remarked that “he had no knowledge or recollection of any of the circumstances of this affair” and “took occasion abruptly to call [Smith’s] attention to some other subject.” Smith then wrote to Erving on 19 Dec. 1809 requesting an explanation, and Erving, after his return from Cadiz in 1810, gave Smith a letter from JM, dated 3 Nov. 1804, authorizing him to retain the money in question. There was, Smith added, no trace of this transaction in the State Department records, apparently because the letter was a private one and not an official one.

Smith waxed eloquent and at great length on the impropriety of JM’s actions in allowing Erving to receive compensation far in excess of his salary of $2,000, but JM told him to give Erving’s claim “the sanction of the state department” and, moreover, “to consider and put on file, as a public letter, the private letter of Nov. 3 1804.” When Smith stated in response to a Senate request for information that “duty would constrain [him] to set forth all the circumstances of this transaction,” JM “manifested great perturbation and fretfully said, that the call of the Senate was evidently made with a view to injure him. In connexion with this unprecedented observation,” Smith concluded, “I perceived unequivocal indications of dissatisfaction with respect to myself” (National Intelligencer, 2 July 1811; see also Gallatin to JM, 8 Feb. 1811, and nn.).

2A Review of Robert Smith’s Address to the People of the United States appeared in installments in the National Intelligencer on 4, 6, 9, and 11 July 1811 and was also reprinted in pamphlet form (Philadelphia, 1811; Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols. to date; New York, 1958—). description ends 23808). The author was Joel Barlow, who had acted as Erving’s attorney while he was settling his accounts with the State Department (see treasury receipt, 13 Mar. 1811, signed by Thomas Tudor Tucker [DNA: RG 217, First Auditor’s Accounts, no. 23,872]). William Lee, however, claimed that the Review was his work, “corrected by Barlow,” adding that it gave him “a great standing with the President” (Lee to Susan Palfrey Lee, 9 Sept. 1811, quoted in Mann, A Yankee Jeffersonian, p. 140).

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