George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 22 July 1790

From Thomas Jefferson

Thursday July 22. 1790.

Th. Jefferson has the honor to inclose to the President the extract1 he desired from his letter of May 4. 1787.2

He finds by a note, which he does not know however where he got, that the city of Mexico is about 200. miles from the sea.3

AL, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW.

Ever since Alexander Hamilton’s July conversations with Major Beckwith about the Anglo-Spanish war crisis, if not earlier, GW considered the likelihood of British attacks against Spanish and Portuguese America. Except for his previous correspondence with Jefferson and the above letter, which GW docketed “State of the Portuguese in So. America,” no evidence has been found of the president’s consultations at this time with his department heads about intervention in Mexico and Central and South America. Hamilton and Henry Knox may have passed on information obtained from Venezuelan revolutionary Sebastian Francisco de Miranda, with whom they had earlier associated. In 1784 Miranda consulted the two about a filibustering expedition against the Spanish in South America and left a cipher with Knox for secure future communications, but the secretary of war distanced himself from Miranda’s intrigues in 1790 and ended their correspondence (see Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 3:585–87n., 21:350, n.9; Robertson, Life of Miranda, description begins William Spence Robertson, The Life of Miranda. 2 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1929. description ends 1:42, 43–44, 54–55, 110, 126, 158, 179–80; Archivo del Miranda, description begins Archivo del General Miranda. 24 vols. Caracas, Venezuela, and Havana, Cuba, 1929–50. description ends 15:75–77; Miranda to Knox, 19 Feb. 1785, 30 Aug. 1789, 15 and 29 Mar. 1790, and 4 Nov. 1792, Sayre to Knox, 10 May 1790, Knox to Miranda, 5 Sept. 1790, and William Knox to Knox, 3 Nov. 1790, all in NNGL: Knox Papers).

Knox may have had an ongoing financial interest in Miranda’s schemes that prompted discreet treatment of his former acquaintance. When Miranda was in New York City in 1784, he met with, in addition to Knox, Stephen Sayre, William Duer, and other wealthy merchants. Duer and Sayre not only provided Miranda with travel money at that time but also formed a syndicate to finance future operations, in which Knox may have been involved. After Miranda delivered documents (including Knox’s 1784 cost estimates for an expeditionary force of 5,000 men) to British prime minister William Pitt, Sayre wrote to Knox from London on 10 May, noting: “Mr Duer will not deny his having made a most solemn agreement, as a man of honor, to act with me, for our equal benefit in the great Object now before us. You will stand in a seperate department, but may always assist the first companions of the Undertaking” (NNGL: Knox Papers). Sayre elaborated in a 15 June 1790 letter to Knox: “You ought to know, in time, the solemn covenant made by the party, that Duer & myself were to have the exclusive right of 816ing the 58—I mean along with the original parties. Now if any thing can be done here, so as to double the benefit, I conceive the original projectors, are all to share an equal benefit—I only request we may set out on the fair & just principles, originally settled & understood—you may settle all points with Mr Duer, as to how you wish matters to stand relative to your own interest. M. must have wrote you, that your calculations have been shown the 537—he highly approves their accuracy” (NNGL: Knox Papers; see also Alden, Sayre, description begins John Richard Alden. Stephen Sayre: American Revolutionary Adventurer. Baton Rouge, La., 1983. description ends 141–42, 159–61, 185–86, n.9, 191–95; Robertson, Life of Miranda, description begins William Spence Robertson, The Life of Miranda. 2 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1929. description ends 1:293–301).

If Knox ever held or maintained a financial interest in Miranda’s adventures, it was not reflected in his official advice to GW of 29 Aug. 1790 to pursue a policy of neutrality in the case of an Anglo-Spanish war. Even though Hamilton favored cultivating relations with Britain, no evidence exists that he suggested to GW in 1790 that the federal government provide secret or open support to Miranda’s operations. The two may or may not have discussed Miranda’s intrigues with GW in July 1790. They did, however, most likely share with the president whatever knowledge they had acquired from the Venezuelan about his native continent, just as Jefferson shared with GW information on Mexico and Brazil he had earlier received from disaffected citizens (Robertson, Life of Miranda, description begins William Spence Robertson, The Life of Miranda. 2 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1929. description ends 1:110; see also Knox to GW, 29 Aug. 1790, and Hamilton to GW, 15 Sept. 1790).

1The enclosure, more a summary than an extract, which Jefferson drafted on 22 July 1790, reads: “Brazil contains as many inhabitants as Portugal, that is to say about two millions. these are of the following descriptions.

“1. Portuguese, they are very few, & are married & identified with the Brasilians, having lost sight of their native country.

“2. Native Whites. they form the body of the nation.

“3. Black & mulatto slaves. as numerous as the Whites, & will take their side.

“4. Indians, civilized & savage. the former have no energy. the latter would not meddle.

“20,000 regular troops; originally they were Portuguese, but as these have died off they have been replaced by natives, who now form the greatest mass & may be counted on by their country.

“Rio Janeiro, the metropolis, contains 50,000 inhabitants. it is considered as the strongest port in the world after Gibraltar.

“the king’s fifth of the mines yeilds annually 6½ million of dollars. diamonds & other precious stones yeild him about half as much. the remaining produce of the mines is 26. millions.” On the back of the sheet Jefferson wrote: “Mexico. it’s inhabitants are of the following descriptions.

“1. Spaniards. possessing most of the offices. very few in number.

“2. Native Whites, forming the body of the nation, & much disposed to revolt.

“3. Slaves, mulatto & black. will side with their masters. & of important weight, being equal to them in numbers.

“4. Indians, conquered & free. the former of no consequence. the latter brave & formidable, but so distant as not to be likely to intermeddle.

“The city of Mexico contains 300,000 inhabitants” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

2The original letter was written by Jefferson in Marseilles, 4 May 1787, and hastily sent to John Jay by way of William Short and Michel Guillaume Jean Crèvecoeur. In it Jefferson had copied two paragraphs on Portugal’s South American colony from a letter from José da Maia, a Brazilian student at the University of Montpellier, who corresponded with him under the name of “Vendek.” After meeting in person with the revolutionary at Nîmes, France, in the spring of 1787, Jefferson was inspired with the belief that an American-supported Brazilian revolution would be both possible and profitable, and so reported to Jay, who apparently disregarded the matter (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 10:427, 546–47, 636–37, 11:20, 225, 339–41, 343, 344–45).

3Jefferson’s information on Mexico derived from a conversation he had in Paris in late 1786 or early 1787 with a Mexican who was intimate with the Spanish ambassador and was in Paris on a Spanish mission to settle the Pyrenees border with France. The mileage Jefferson recalled could have been obtained from him, although Jefferson does not record it in his 4 May 1787 letter to John Jay in which he recounted the Mexican’s conversation (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 9:649, 11:341–42).

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