George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 8 August 1790

From Thomas Jefferson

[New York] Aug. 8. 1790.

Th. Jefferson has the honor to inclose to the President the following papers.

1. the secret letter & paper of Aug. 2. for mister Carmichael.1

2. the secret letter for the Chevalr de Pinto.2

3. a letter for mister Joshua Johnson.3 on supposition that, delivering them himself to Colo. Humphreys, he might wish to comment to him on their contents, and particularly as to the 1st to qualify such of the considerations as he may think need qualification, and to enlarge such as are too restrained. he will observe two or three small differences between the considerations of Aug. 2. now inclosed, & the first copy4 left with the President which are submitted to him.

The letter of Aug. 7.5 to mister Carmichael & the cyphers, are all that will remain of the dispatches necessary for Colo. Humphreys for London, Lisbon, & Madrid, as Th. J. supposes.

Will the President be pleased to consider, at his leisure, how far it might be safe and useful to communicate the letter & considerations of Aug. 2. to mister Short,6 or the M. de la Fayette?7

AL, NjP: De Coppet Collection; AL, letterpress copy, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers.

Because of the Nootka Sound controversy, the president and secretary of state believed that war would soon break out between Spain and Great Britain, giving the administration an opportunity for creative diplomatic maneuvering on a number of issues outstanding between the United States and both powers, including free navigation of the Mississippi and the retention of the western posts. Sometime in the final two weeks of July 1790 GW and Thomas Jefferson decided to send revised instructions to the American chargé d’affaires at Madrid, William Carmichael, from whom they had not heard since May 1789, and to Gouverneur Morris, the administration’s official agent in London. It was undoubtedly GW’s idea to have David Humphreys, his private secretary, secretly deliver those instructions (see n.5 below; Morris to GW, 29 May 1790, 3 July 1790 and source note; Winthrop Sargent to GW, 29 July 1790, source note; 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 17:87–88, 127–28).

GW and Jefferson hoped that concessions might be obtained from Spain as the price of American neutrality in an Anglo-Spanish war, and the administration’s aggressive new Spanish policy partly reflected renewed confidence in the federal system inspired by the legislation recently passed by Congress. Jefferson instructed Carmichael not only to insist upon recognition of America’s natural right to free navigation of the Mississippi but also to demand the right of deposit, in general at first but then to specify the port of New Orleans as negotiations progressed. Additionally, if Spain would cede all its territory east of the Mississippi to the United States, America would be willing to guarantee Spain’s American possessions west of the river. Carmichael was to back these demands with subtle threats, intimating that the United States was finding it more and more difficult to restrain its southwestern frontiersmen from undertaking projects against New Orleans and mentioning that America might even find it necessary to ally with Great Britain in order to obtain what was absolutely necessary to its national survival. As a last resort America would use force to obtain that which was rightfully its. Jefferson also sought the assistance of France in furthering the new negotiations with Spain (see 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, 117–19, 121–23).

Humphreys’s mission was planned and executed in the strictest secrecy. Besides GW, Jefferson, and Humphreys, only the secretary of the treasury and two U.S. congressmen long involved in the “Mississippi Question,” James Madison and John Brown, knew of it. Instead of sailing on the English packet, which arrived at New York on 2 Sept., as he had originally intended, Humphreys embarked on a privately owned British ship. Care was taken to provide him with a believable cover story as well as with adequate secret funds. Even so, the British became aware of his destination and could easily surmise its purpose (see n.7 below, Hamilton to GW, 28 Aug. 1790 [second letter], n.1, Humphreys to GW, 1 Sept. 1790 and note 1, and 31 Oct. 1790, Lear to GW, 3 Sept. 1790; Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:557–59; 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 17:87, 88–89, 103–5, 126).

1Jefferson’s secret letter of 2 Aug. 1790 to Carmichael appears 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 17:111–12. Its enclosure was a copy of Jefferson’s 2 Aug. 1790 “Heads of consideration on the Navigation of the Missisippi, for Mr. Carmichael.” Carmichael received Jefferson’s letter on 18 Dec. 1790 and replied to it on 24 Jan. 1791 (see ibid., 113–16, 18:597–600).

2The enclosed letter of 7 Aug. 1790 from Jefferson to Luis, chevalier de Pinto de Sousa Coutinho, the Portuguese minister with whom he had negotiated a treaty in London in the spring of 1786, discussed in a general way the grade of diplomats to be exchanged between the new American government and the court of Portugal and introduced Humphreys (ibid., 17:117–19). GW appointed Humphreys U.S. minister to Portugal in February 1791 (GW to U.S. Senate, 18 Feb. 1791, and enclosures, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, 1789–91, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages—Foreign Relations).

3The enclosed 7 Aug. 1790 letter of the secretary of state to Joshua Johnson in London notified him of his appointment as American consul at that port and discussed generally his consular functions, mentioning specifically the collection of political intelligence as well as information on the annual extent of the British fisheries and the protection of American seamen from British impressment. Johnson replied on 2 Nov. 1790 (see GW to the U.S. Senate, 2 Aug. 1790 and note 12; 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 17:119–20, 667–71).

4Jefferson had earlier prepared an outline of policy considerations for Carmichael, which he presented to GW on 2 Aug. 1790. The minor differences between that copy and the one actually sent to Carmichael and enclosed in the letter to GW of 8 Aug. 1790 are noted 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 17:116–17.

5Jefferson’s letter to William Carmichael was actually dated 6 Aug. 1790. It announced the names of American consuls recently appointed at various ports, noted the federal government’s removal to Philadelphia, asked about Francisco Chiappe’s relationship to the new emperor of Morocco, and enclosed the public papers and a new cipher for future communications. Jefferson also correlated the dates of Carmichael’s fifteen dispatches sent in the last five years with the dates of their arrival at New York and requested that he send monthly dispatches and make arrangements with Humphreys for their conveyance (see ibid., 318–20).

6GW apparently authorized Jefferson to disclose the new Spanish policy to William Short and the marquis de Lafayette, and the secretary of state on 10 Aug. 1790 sent the American chargé at Versailles an extract of Carmichael’s instructions of 2 Aug., deleting all mention of Humphreys and his mission (see ibid., 112, n.1, 121–23).

7GW himself sent a letter to Lafayette by Humphreys, in which he reviewed Spain’s illiberal Mississippi policy. Humphreys also carried letters of introduction from the president and other private letters to help conceal the secret public purpose of his trip to Europe (see GW to d’Estaing, Gardoqui, La Luzerne, Paine, and Rochambeau, 10 Aug. 1790, to Lafayette, 11 Aug. 1790, and to Morris, 14 Aug. 1790).

Jefferson committed Humphreys’s instructions to paper on 11 Aug. 1790 and either enclosed the various official letters he was to deliver in Europe or had the president hand the more important ones to Humphreys personally in a final interview. Humphreys’s official instructions read: “The President having thought proper to confide several special matters in Europe to your care, it will be expedient that you take your passage in the first convenient vessel bound to the port of London.

“When there you will be pleased to deliver to Mr. G. Morris and to Mr. Johnson the letters and papers you will have in charge for them, to communicate to us from thence any interesting public intelligence you may be able to obtain, and then take as early a passage as possible to Lisbon.

“At Lisbon you will deliver the letter with which you are charged for the Chevalier Pinto, putting on it the address proper to his present situation. You know the contents of this letter, and will make it the subject of such conferences with him as may be necessary to obtain our point of establishing there the diplomatic grade which alone coincides with our system, and of ensuring it’s reception and treatment with the requisite respect. Communicate to us the result of your conferences, and then proceed to Madrid.

“There you will deliver the letters and papers which you have in charge for Mr. Carmichael, the contents of all which are known to you. Be so good as to multiply as much as possible your conferences with him in order to possess him fully of the special matters sketched out in those papers, and of the state of our affairs in general.

“Your stay there will be as long as it’s objects may require, only taking care to be returned to Lisbon by the time you may reasonably expect that our answers to your letters to be written from Lisbon may reach that place. This cannot be earlier than the first or second week of January. These answers will convey to you the President’s further pleasure.

“Thro’ the whole of this business it will be best that you avoid all suspicion of being on any public business. This need be known only to the Chevalier Pinto and Mr. Carmichael. The former need not know of your journey to Madrid, or if it be necessary, he may be made to understand that it is a journey of curiosity to fill up the interval between writing your letters and recieving the answers. To every other person it will be best that you appear as a private traveller.

“The President of the United States allows you from this date at the rate of two thousand two hundred and fifty dollars a year for your services and expences, and moreover what you may incur for the postage of letters; until he shall otherwise order” (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 17:125–26).

Humphreys was ready to leave on his mission by the end of August, but his actual departure was delayed by contrary winds. His ship did not sail from New York until 3 Sept. 1790, and he reached London on 14 Oct. 1790. The issue of open hostilities between Britain and Spain had still not been settled when Humphreys first reported to the president at the end of October. Humphreys left England early in November and arrived at Lisbon on 18 Nov. 1790. On 3 Dec. he set out on the 500–mile overland journey to Madrid, arriving on 17 December. After completing his business with Carmichael, he left Madrid on 24 Jan. 1791 and returned to Lisbon on 6 February. After President Jefferson recalled Humphreys in the spring of 1801, the former minister to Portugal returned to the United States in June 1802 (see Tobias Lear to GW, 3 and 12 Sept. 1790, Humphreys to GW, 1 Sept., 31 Oct., and 30 Nov. 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 17:593–95, 663–67, 18:6–7, 48–50, 342–43, 19:254–56; Humphreys, Life and Times of David Humphreys, description begins Francis Landon Humphreys. Life and Times of David Humphreys: Soldier—Statesman—Poet, “Belov’d of Washington”. 2 vols. New York and London, 1917. description ends 2:303–9).

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