George Washington Papers

Conversation with Thomas Jefferson, 23 March 1790

Conversation with Thomas Jefferson

[New York] 23 March 1790. In his diary for this day GW notes that there was “A full, & very respectable Levee to day—previous to which I had a conversation with the Secretary of State on the following points, viz—

First, with respect to our Captives in Algiers,1 in which, after detailing their situation—the measures he had taken for their relief and the train in which the business was in by means of a Genl. [ ] who is at the head of a religious society in France whose practice it is to sollicit aids for the relief of the unfortunate Christians in captivity among the Barbarians, it was concluded betwn. us, that it had better remain in that train a while longer.2 This person had been authorised to go as far as about £150 Sterlg. each, for the ransom of our Captives; but the Algerines demanding a much larger sum it was conceived that acceding to it might establish a precedent which would always operate and be very burthensome if yielded to; and become a much stronger inducement to captivate our People than they now have, as it is more for the sake of the ransom than for the labour, that they make Slaves of the Prisoners. Mr. Short was to be written to on this Subject, and directed to make enquiry of this General [ ] what his expectations of redemption are at present.

Second—He is of opinion, that excepting the Court of France, there is no occasion to employ higher grades in the Diplomatic line than Chargé des affaires; and that these, by the respectibility of their appointments, had better be at the head of their grade, than Ministers Plenipotentiaries by low Salaries at the foot of theirs. The reason of the distinction, in favor of a Minister Plenipo at Versailles, is, that there are more Ambassdadors at that Court than any other and therefore that we ought in some measure to approximate our Representative and besides, its being a Court with which we have much to do.3

Third—With respect to the appointment of Consels he refers to a letter on the nature of this business—the places where necessary—and the characters best entitled to appointmts. which he had written on the Subject, while in France, to the Secretary of Foreign affairs.4

Fourth—That it might be advisable to direct Mr. Charmichael to Sound the Spanish Ministry with respect to the obstacles which had hitherto impeded a Commercial Treaty to see if there was any disposition in them to relax in their Territorial claims & exclusive right to the Navigation of the River Missisipi.”5

Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:51–52.

Jefferson arrived in New York on 21 Mar. 1790 to take up his duties as secretary of state. GW received him that afternoon and the next day “conversed for more than an hour with Mr. Jefferson on business relative to the duties of his office” (ibid., 49).

1For background on the American captives in Algiers, see Mathew Irwin to GW, 9 July 1789, source note.

2The Mathurins were a religious order founded in the twelfth century whose main purpose was the redemption of captives. Jefferson had suggested in early 1787 that the offices of the order might be used to effect the release of the American captives in Algiers (Jefferson to John Adams, 11 Jan. 1787, and to John Jay, 1 Feb. 1787, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 11:35–36, 101–2). By the end of 1788 Jefferson was negotiating with Père Chauvier, who held the title “Général and Grand Ministre” of the order and at the end of the year put the subsistence of the captives and negotiations for their release in Chauvier’s hands (ibid., 14:395–97, 401–2, 433). William Short, who carried on negotiations with the Mathurins after Jefferson left Paris, reported in the early summer of 1790 that Chauvier had stated that he had “little hopes of any thing being done for our captives through his chanel, although he continues assurances of his zeal in case of any opportunity presenting itself” (Short to Jefferson, 14 and 25 June 1790, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 16:505, 570). On 14 May 1790 the House of Representatives referred a petition “of sundry persons, citizens of the United States, captured by the Algerines, and now in slavery in Algiers” to Jefferson and requested his report on the captives (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 3:412). For Jefferson’s detailed account of his negotiations with the Mathurins, see his report, enclosed in his letter to GW, 28 Dec. 1790.

Information concerning the captives and their fate had continued to reach GW during the first year of his presidency. In addition to Mathew Irwin’s letter, GW was approached on the matter early in 1790 by Elbridge Gerry. As Gerry informed Acting Secretary of State John Jay, a letter from James Anderson to Thomas Russell of Boston, covering a letter from the British consul at Algiers, Charles Logie, had “been communicated to the President of the United States, and relates to some american prisoners at Algiers. The President has desired that the papers may be enclosed to the Secretary of State, and is disposed to do whatever may be requisite on his part to afford relief to the unhappy sufferers adding at the same time, that by letters from Mr Jefferson dated in August last, our Bankers at Holland had given information of their having money in their hands appropriated amongst other purposes, to the one mentioned” (Gerry to John Jay, 21 Jan. 1790, with enclosures Anderson to Russell, 4 Oct. 1789, and Logie to Anderson, 24 June 1789, DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters).

3The subject of diplomatic appointments was of considerable concern to GW at this time because a bill for “providing the means of intercourse between the United States and foreign nations,” introduced in the House of Representatives in January 1790, had engendered extensive and occasionally acrimonious debate on the appointment of American diplomats abroad and the manner in which they were to be paid. The bill involved constitutional questions as to whether the president should determine the rank and emoluments for diplomatic appointments or whether this was to be a function of Congress as had been the case during the Confederation (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 1st Cong., 2d sess., 1004–5, 1113, 1118–30; Bowling and Veit, Diary of William Maclay, description begins Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates. Baltimore, 1988. description ends 301). On 31 Mar. 1790 “the committee to whom was re-committed the bill ‘providing the means of intercourse between the United States and foreign nations,’ presented an amendatory bill to the same effect, which was received, and read the first time” (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 3:351). Debates in the House and Senate on the amended bill dragged on until the passage of “An Act providing the means of intercourse between the United States and foreign nations” (1 Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends 128 [1 July 1790]). See also GW to the U.S. Senate, 4 June 1790, n.1.

4This is probably Jefferson’s letter of 14 Nov. 1788 to John Jay, detailing Jefferson’s views on a consular establishment and suggesting individuals who might fill consular posts in France (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 14:56–66).

5William Carmichael (c.1738–1795), a native of Queen’s County, Md., had served in the Continental Congress from 1778 to 1779 and as John Jay’s secretary in Spain in 1779. After Jay left Spain in 1782, Carmichael remained as chargé d’affaires at Madrid and other residences of the Spanish court. GW appointed him chargé under the new government in September 1789, and he remained in Spain until his death, although William Short was named as his successor at the Spanish Court in May 1794 (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 2:50; Executive Journal, description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America: From the commencement of the First, to the termination of the Nineteenth Congress. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C., 1828. description ends 1:157). Jefferson’s instructions to Carmichael on the navigation of the Mississippi River are dated 2 Aug. 1790 (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 17:111–12).

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