George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 10 May 1789

From Thomas Jefferson

Paris May 10. 1789


I am now to acknolege the honor of your two letters of Nov. 27 and Feb. 13 both of which have come to hand since my last to you of Dec. 4 and 5. the details you are so good as to give me on the subject of the navigation of the waters of the Patowmac and Ohio are very pleasing to me, as I consider the union of those two rivers as among the strongest links of connection between the eastern & western sides of our confederacy. it will moreover add to the commerce of Virginia in particular all the upper parts of the Ohio & it’s waters. another vast object and of much less difficulty is to add also all the country on the lakes & their waters. this would enlarge our feild immensely, and would certainly be effected by an union of the upper waters of the Ohio & lake Erie. the Big beaver & Cayohoga offer the most direct line and according to information I received from Genl Hand, and which I had the honor of writing you in the year 1783,1 the streams in that neighborhood head in lagoons and the country is flat. with respect to the doubts which you say are entertained by some whether the upper waters of Patowmac can be rendered capable of navigation on account of the falls & rugged banks, they are answered by observing that it is reduced to a maxim that wherever there is water enough to float a batteau, there may be navigation for a batteau. Canals & locks may be necessary, & they are expensive; but I hardly know what expence would be too great for the object in question. probably negociation with the Indians, perhaps even settlement must precede the execution of the Cayahoga canal. the states of Maryland & Virginia should make a common object of it. the navigation again between Elizabeth river & the Sound is of vast importance. and in my opinion it is much better that these should be done at public than private expence.

Tho’ we have not heard of the actual opening of the New Congress, & consequently have not official information of your election as President of the U.S. yet as there never could be a doubt entertained of it, permit me to express here my felicitations, not to yourself, but to my country. nobody who has tried both public & private life can doubt but that you were much happier on the banks of the Patowmac than you will be at New York. but there was nobody so well qualified as yourself to put our new machine into a regular course of action. nobody the authority of whose name could have so effectually crushed opposition at home, and produced respect abroad. I am sensible of the immensity of the sacrifice on your part. your measure of fame was full to the brim: and therefore you have nothing to gain. but there are cases wherein it is a duty to risk all against nothing, and I beleive this was exactly the case. we may presume too, according to every rule of probability, that after doing a great deal of good you will be found to have lost nothing but private repose. in a letter to mr Jay of the 19 of November I asked a leave of absence to carry my children back to their own country, and to settle various matters of a private nature which were left unsettled because I had no idea of being absent so long.2 I expected that letter would have been received in time to be decided on by the government than existing. I know now that it would arrive when there was no Congress, and consequently that it must have awaited your arrival at New York. I hope you found the request not an unreasonable one. I am excessively anxious to receive the permission without delay, that I may be able to get back before the winter sets in. nothing can be so dreadful to me as to be shivering at sea for two or three months in a winter passage. besides there has never been a moment at which the presence of a minister here could be so well dispensed with. a certainty of no war this summer, and that the government will be so totally absorbed in domestic arrangements as to attend to nothing exterior. mr Jay will of course communicate to you some cyphered letters lately written, and one of this date. my public letter to him contains all the interesting public details.3 I inclose with the present some extracts of a letter from mr Payne which he desired me to communicate.4 your knolege of the writer will justify my giving you the trouble of these communications which their interesting nature and his respectability will jointly recommend to notice. I am in great pain for the M. de la Fayette. his principles you know are clearly with the people. but having been elected for the noblesse of Auvergne they have laid him under express instructions to vote for the decision by orders & not persons. this would ruin him with the tiers etat, and it is not possible he should continue long to give satisfaction to the noblesse. I have not hesitated to press on him to burn his instructions & follow his conscience as the only sure clue which will eternally guide a man clear of all doubts & inconsistencies. if he cannot effect a conciliatory plan, he will surely take his stand manfully at once with the tiers etat. he will in that case be what he pleases with them, and I am in hopes that base is now too solid to render it dangerous to be mounted on it. in hopes of being able in the course of the summer to pay my respects to you personally in New York I have the honour to be with sentiments of the most perfect respect & attachment, Sir, Your most obedient & most humble servant

Th: Jefferson

ALS, DLC:GW; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC: Jefferson Papers.

1Jefferson is mistaken about the date of his letter. He wrote to GW on 15 Mar. and 6 April 1784 dealing with the subject of Potomac navigation, and on 4 Jan. 1786 he wrote concerning the practicability of cutting a canal to unite Cayahoga and Beaver creeks. “The best information I could get as to this was from General [Edward] Hand, who described the country as champain, and these waters as heading in lagoons which would be easily united. Maryland and Pennsylvania are both interested to concur with us in this work.”

2For Jefferson’s arrangements to leave France, see Gouverneur Morris to GW, 23 Feb. 1789, n.4.

3For the “cyphered letters,” see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 15:120–21. These notes concerned the appointment of Jean-Baptiste de Ternant as French representative in the United States. There is no letter of 10 May from Jefferson to Jay, but the “public letter,” dated 9 May, is in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 15:110–13.

4The enclosed extract consisted of notes made by Jefferson from a letter to him from Thomas Paine in London. Paine’s letter was begun on 16 Feb. 1789 but contains entries added as late as 13 April (ibid., 14:561–69). The extract, in Jefferson’s writing and endorsed by GW from “The Honble Thos Jefferson Esq. 10th May 1789,” reads: “London March 12. 1789. I do not think it is worth while for Congress to appoint any minister to this court. the greater distance Congress observes on this point, the better. it will be all money thrown away to go to any expence about it, at least during the present reign. I know the nation well and the line of acquaintance I am in enables me to judge better on this matter than any other American can judge especially at a distance. I believe I am not so much in the good graces of the Marquis of Lansdowne as I used to be. I do not answer his purpose. he was always talking of a sort of reconnection of England and America, & my coldness & reserve on this subject checked communication. I beleive he would be a good minister for England with respect to a better agreement with France. (same letter continued) April 10. the acts for regulating the trade with America are to be continued as last year. a paper from the privy council repecting the American fly is before parliament. I had some conversation with Sr Joseph Banks upon this subject as he was the person whom the privy council referred to. I told him that the Hessian fly attacked only the green plant, & did not exist in the dry grain. he said that with respect to the Hessian fly they had no apprehension, but it was the weavil they alluded to. I told him the weavil had always more or less been in the wheat countries of America, & that if the prohibition was on that account it was as necessary 50 or 60 years ago as now. that I believed it was only a political manoevre of the ministry to please the landed interest as a balance for prohibiting the exportation of wool to please the manufacturing interest. he did not reply, and as we are on very sociable terms I went farther by saying the English ought not to complain of the nonpaiment of debts from America while they prohibit the means of paiment. I suggest to you a thought on this subject. the debts due before the war ought to be distinguished from the debts contracted since, & all & every mode of paiment & remittance under which they might have been discharged at the time they were contracted ought to accompany those debts so long as any of them shall continue unpaid, because the circumstances of paiment became united with the debt, & cannot be separated by subsequent acts of one side only. if this was taken up in America & insisted on as a right coeval with & inseparable from those debts, it would force some of the restrictions here to give way. While writing this I am informed that the minister has had a conference with some of the American creditors & proposed to them to assume the debts & give them 10/ in the pound. the conjecture is that he means, when the new Congress is established, to demand the paiment. if you are writing to General Washington, it may not be amiss to mention this, & if I hear further on this matter I will inform you. but as, being a money matter, it cannot come forward but thro’ parliament, there will be notice given of the business. this would be a proper time to shew that the British acts since the peace militate against the paiment by narrowing the means by which those debts might have been paid when they were contracted, & which ought to be considered as constituent parts of the contract” (DLC:GW).

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