George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Claude-Boniface Collignon, 15 March 1790

From Claude-Boniface Collignon

Castel near Boquenon in Lorroain—March 15. 1790.

My Lord.

I have had the honor to write you a letter in date April 28th 1780, which accompanied a work of my composition that I presented to you, “Respecting clearing all the uncultivated lands of the United States of America,” particularly those which might belong to you as proprietor: I have learned that the uncultivated lands in the extent of the Provinces & United States have since been cleared in an immense degree.1 I hope that the homage which I had the honor to render you by that production, as well as that which I have paid to Congress will be perfectly agreeable to both it & you. Here are, my Lord, two Copies of another work of my own composition, “for rendering all the weights & measures in America uniform.”2 I pray you will please to present it on my part to the illustrious Congress of the U.S., agreeably to the desire & conformably to my annexed letter, to which I refer.

I know not, my Lord, whether it has come to your knowledge, what was the principal & veritable first cause, which produced the Independence of the U.S. of America: it is not unknown to me how much you conducted yourself at the Head of the armies of the U.S. with valeur, wisdom & experience; and how great obligations they are under to you on this account—but, considering the great superiority of forces of England, undoubtedly you could not, my Lord, have accomplished what was impossible; the diversion of France & its allies, and their successes against England, are generally considered as the principal cause of the Independence of the U.S.

If then there exists a Citizen, who, when the arms of France & its allies against England were wavering, and they began to be [defeated] (& which must infallibly have been the consequence) has instructed & enlightened the Government of France, in such sort, that, by following his counsel, it has obtained that marked preponderance which forced England to subscribe to the Independence of the United States & to make the Peace of 1783. It will, without contradiction, be that Citizen, to whom the U.S. have the principal obligation for their Independence & their actual Constitution. Now, I ought to make known to you, my Lord, that it is I, who have given to France that Counsel & that salutary advice; and that it was by me that it has been enlightened on that occasion. I will not indulge myself here in any farther detail with respect to this matter, since the circumstances & the event are developed in the Memoir hereunto annexed, addressed to you & Congress, supported by justificative peices.3 I pray you, in consequence, to be pleased to place it, jointly with my work on the uniformity of weights & measures, before the eyes of the illustrious Congress. I hope that I shall not always remain the victim of the ingratitude which I have experienced on the part of the Government of France; and that the Congress of the U.S. more grateful & more just will deign to consider it a duty & a conscientious mission to recompence a man to whom the U.S. owe so much, and who has been truly the principal Spring & Primum [Premiere] mobile of their Independence & of their present Liberty. I hope also, that you will be pleased, on your side to engage the illustrious Congress to this. I entreat you, my Lord, consequently to advise me of the receipt of this, & to give me satisfactory news; which, it seems, you may do, by sending the answer here, through the means of M. le Chargè des Affairs of the U.S. at Paris.4 I am, with the most profound respect, my Lord your most humble & most obedt Servant

Collignon Advocate.

Translation, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; ALS, in French, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. The text is taken from a translation prepared for GW by David Humphreys. The original letter, in French, may be found in CD-ROM:GW.

Claude-Boniface Collignon (d. 1819), a French attorney, minor government official, and member of numerous European academies, was a proponent of a wide range of sweeping legal and social reforms.

1Letter not found. Collignon is probably referring to his Essai de bien public, ou Mémoire raisonné pour lever, à coup sûr, tous les obstacles qui s’opposent à l’exécution des défrichements et dessèchements (Neuchatel, 1776), which called for the removal of legal impediments to the clearing and draining of land.

2Collignon, Découverte d’étalons justes, naturels, invariables, et universels pour la réduction à une parfaite uniformité de tous les poids et mesures partout, par des moyens simples, advantageux à tout le monde, et faciles á executer (Strasbourg, 1788). In this work Collignon called for the universal adoption of a system of weights and measures based on decimals. He even proposed applying the decimal system to the measurement of time, dividing a day into ten hours, an hour into one hundred minutes, and a minute into one thousand seconds.

3Collignon’s extraordinary claim to credit for American independence is elaborated in a lengthy manuscript memorial to Congress. In it Collignon claimed that in 1780, when the continuation of French support for the Revolution was in doubt, he had written six letters to the king in support of the American cause. As justification for his claim, Collignon included copies of the six letters with the memorial. No contemporary translation of this document has been found among GW’s papers, and it seems unlikely that one was made.

4The translation made by Humphreys of the second letter sent by Collignon on 15 Mar. reads: “I have the honor to inform you, that I have composed a Work, ‘for rendering all weights & measures uniform every where.’ Since this uniformity has been a Consideratum for a long time throughout the extent of the U.S. of A.; & for effecting which, I understand Congress is invested with special powers by its Constituents, I have judged that Body would be happy to see simple & enlightened means for that purpose. In consequence, I have the honor, my Lord, to address to you the two annexed copies, one destined for yourself & which I pray you will be pleased to accept on my part—the other, I entreat you will be pleased to submit, with this letter, to the Congress of the U.S. of A. I submit it to your & their profound wisdoms. I hope that the homage which I have the honor to render both, will be acceptable.

“As I do not doubt at all but that Congress, according to custom, will appoint Commissioners to examine & report concerning this Work, I hope by the account which will be rendered that Body will perceive easily the advantages which may result from the execution of my plan throughout the extent of the territory of the U.S. of A. These will consist among others, first, in having their weights & measures made perfectly uniform, & the inconveniencies of their diversity ceasing⟨,⟩ which will produce the re-establishment of order, & which may avoid in future a great many complicated calculations, errors, & unprofitable loss of time as it regards commerce, navigation, agriculture, the administration of the country, all sciences, arts, trades & professions. secondly, by suppressing all measures of grain, or what is called dry-measure, and by substituting weights & ballances in their stead (as I have proposed in the 120th ⟨&⟩ following pages) an infinite number of prevailing abuses, cheats & disorders of every kind will be cut up by the roots. thirdly. The new weights & measures, which are founded upon mathematical principles & upon nature, to which we must sooner or later recur, will be infinitely more simple than those in use, since by means of three new standards, the functions of perhaps more than 2000 now in use throughout the extent of the territory of the U.S. can be better performed. fourthly. The result will be, that, notwithstanding the more exact construction of the new weights & measures, they will not be dearer than heretofore—though much more perfect. fifthly, in fine, this object can produce a new annual revenue of at least 2 or 3,000,000 of Livres for the United States. I will not make mention of an infinite number of other advantages.

“As the method to be pursued for the execution of this project has appeared to me an object of the greatest importance, I have thought, my Lord, I ought to have the honor of mentioning it.

“In conformity to the preface of my book, it seems to me in the first place, that it would be very necessary for the Chiefs & most enlightened People of the U.S. to become acquainted & instructed by a considerate perusal of the book, in order that the law to be passed on this subject should be preceded by the public confidence & opinion: and I do not advise Congress, seconded by all their powers, to act otherwise, but after they shall have dissipated popular prejudice, & left a conviction derived from the good & solid reasons to be found in my book. Upon these principles, here is what I believe the manner of managing the subject.

“Congress should buy about 3 or 400 copies of my book, which I sell for two livres each. Having received them, a distribution should be made, not only to each one of its members or deputies, but to the principal Heads or officers of every Corporation, District or County in the extent of the Provinces of the U.S.; as well as to enlightened men & professors of arts, for the purpose of asking their advice, or, in every event, for the purpose of learning their manner of thinking on this subject, & of giving to their Representatives of Provinces the necessary instructions.

“After the investigation which shall have been made by every one of my book, either the sentiments of these persons will be conformable to what I have proposed, or they will not—in the first case there will be no more obstacle or inconveniency respecting the execution of my plan—in the second case, it will only require to have the principal objections inserted in a News Paper circulated through the 13 Provinces, & to send it to me free of expence—then I engage to answer them, through the same channel, at all points. In this last case, Congress, the Ministry, the Heads & Representatives of Provinces & Towns, Men of information, & the Public, seeing what can be said on both sides of my plan, & being in condition to appreciate its value by the concession of opinions, it is to be presumed they will perceive its goodness & that a law for the execution of my plan throughout the extent of the territory of the U.S. will not fail to be regarded by all the Citizens as a real benefit, & to be received with the greatest gratitude.

“Perhaps the expence which this object will cost may be objected to me; but I will answer, that it is so moderate, that it is, as one may say, imperceptible for a great State, when compared with the advantages to be derived from it. If the illustrious Congress, judges proper to accept the proposal I have the honor to make it here of purchasing the Copies in question, you can, my Lord, give me the necessary orders, in pointing out the channel of conveyance for them: but in case that, contrary to all expectation, the purchase should not be made, I hope Congress will be pleased to transmit to me, with your answer, an honorable Present to indemnify me as well for these copies as for my trouble & expences—which indemnification, nevertheless, I do not demand, if I receive its orders for the purchase of the copies before alluded to” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, translation by David Humphreys; a transcription of the ALS, in French, of this letter is in CD-ROM:GW).

As Collignon requested, GW kept one copy of Découverte d’étalons justes; this copy, signed by GW, was among the Washington books acquired by the Boston Athenaeum in 1848 and cataloged in Griffin, Boston Athenæum Collection, description begins Appleton P. C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 50–51. GW had Lear send the memorial, along with Collignon’s two letters of 15 Mar. 1790 and one copy of Découverte d’étalons justes, to Jefferson, who was then at work on his “Report on Weights and Measures” (Lear to Jefferson, 23 June 1790, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Jefferson apparently ignored the suggestions in Collignon’s letters and seems to have made no use of the book in writing his report, which was completed by 4 July 1790 (see “Report on Weights and Measures” 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 16:602–75). Apparently Jefferson did not keep the book, since it was not among the works he sold to Congress in 1815 (Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson). description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp. Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson. 5 vols. 1952–59. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1983. description ends A second copy, bearing GW’s signature and that of F. M. Etting, is in the library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This is probably the copy sent to Jefferson. Jefferson seems to have dismissed Collignon’s claims to compensation for having supported American liberty. The memorial was apparently not presented to Congress.

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