George Washington Papers

To George Washington from David Humphreys, 31 October 1790

From David Humphreys


My dear GeneralLondon Octr 31st 1790.

Since my arrival here, on the 14th inst., I have written four letters to Mr Jefferson, by different conveyances, in which I have given him a detail of such political facts & reports as I supposed might be in any degree, interesting in America.1 As these communications will be submitted to your inspection, I forebear troubling you with any circumstances contained in them. But finding so good an opportunity, as that presented by Mr Swift, directly to Mount Vernon, I take the liberty (according to the permission you was pleased to offer) of adding a few things some of a more confidential, & others of a less public nature.2

The question of war or peace remains as much undecided at this moment, as it was in May last, when the King sent his message on the Nootka-Sound business to the two Houses of Parliament. By the Messenger, who is expected to return from Spain this week, it will probably be determined.3 If Spain should not comply with the propositions made by the British Court, their Minister will be recalled, and hostilities commence on the part of this Nation. The prospect of this event has given a great advantage to our Merchants, in loading vessels that were American bottoms. Everything here carries an aspect favorable to the credit & reputation of our Country. But there are accounts & descriptions of the state of public affairs transmitted from that Country to this, which I little expected to find and which, in my opinion, may have a pernicious effect in fixing on the minds of men an erroneous idea of our real situation. I should not have been surprised to learn that the colour of the pictures of American affairs given by the Compte de Moustiers was dark & gloomy. But I was much so, on hearing that Mr Adams had, not long since, given such a view of American affairs in a letter to Dr Price.4 I have not seen Dr Price myself, but I have heard two different Gentlemen mention that the Doctor informed them he received a letter from that Gentleman, conceived in a desponding style, and representing that our government & affairs were proceeding in the most ruinous train imaginable. But I have seen a letter written by Mrs Adams since I left America, of a directly contrary tenor: a letter which exhibited our government & affairs in the most flourishing state that can be conceived.5 Which of the family will prove the better politician, time will in a short time decide: though I own myself at no loss to anticipate in favor of the latter.

The Count Andriani has written things monstrously absurd & ill-founded: such in respect to their import as follow—that the United States are divided into two factions, Mr Jefferson and the northern States in favor of France, the southern States and New York in favor of Britain—that Congress had done nothing but quarrel about the seat of Government, and that this circumstance was what probably gave you the air of anxiety which he had remarked—that there was no man in Congress but Mr Madison who argued in a gentlemanlike & solid manner—nor, in short, any man out of it in America but Colo. Hamilton, who possessed abilities: with a great deal of stuff about American parade & luxury not worth repeating.6 These idle tales, however, are propagated in such a manner as to be in danger of making unfavorable & false impressions. Colo. Miranda (an active, shrewd, studious, noisy man) is one of his Correspondents.7 This extraordinairy Character (for I believe he is really one of the most knowing men, in many respects, of the age) while he visits & is visited by the Spanish Ambassador here; is (by a description which cannot be mistaken) represented, in the News Papers, as having had an audience of Mr Pitt last week, and had before him correct, ample Maps, Descriptions & Statements of facts, respecting the whole Spanish Empire in America: with a view, in case of war, that the British Minister may avail himself of the Informations.8

The night after you left New York, Colo. Hamilton, in a very confidential conversation, expressed himself (though still he mentioned his high opinion of the talents & honor of the gentleman in question) not perfectly satisfied with the manner in which Mr G—— M—— had conducted the business entrusted to him with the Duke of Leeds;9 and desired me, upon investigation of the temper of the British Administration with regard to the points in agitation between the United States & Great Britain, to write you, or him, the result of my Information. This, in the absence of Mr M—— & in the private character it is necessary for me to preserve, I have found in a manner impossible without exposing myself to be considered as a person, at least some way or another, employed in political affairs. Under the impression of such sentiments, I have not even once mentioned the subject to the Marq. de la Luzerne. On the contrary, I have judged it expedient to use all the discretion in my power, equally avoiding all appearances of curious enquiry or mysterious reserve, in order to pass for a meer common traveller. Yet somebody has written to Paris, describing a person, once a Colonel in the American Army, as now employed here in intregues relative to the Spanish war. This must be absolutely the effect of conjecture, without any ostensible grounds; for I have never opened my lips to any Creature in existence on any matter that led to it, since my arrival. I have hitherto escaped all observation in the News Papers here. With this object in sight, I have carefully avoided seeing the Spanish Ambassador, and when I was asked by the Marquis de la Luzerne, if I had come to Europe on public business, I answered, as I might with veracity, in the negative.

My mortification is extreme in being detained at this time by contrary winds, as the vessel, in which I have engaged my passage, ought to have got down to Graves end yesterday. My stay here has afforded me an opportunity of seeing Mr Paine’s Iron Bridge.10 It is an arch of 115 feet on the upper side, & the most beautifully light appearance I ever beheld. In expecting some Iron Wedges for the Abuttments, the supporters are not yet taken from under the Bridge. But the truth of the principles & the extent of the utility of the Invention are demonstrated. Mr Rumsey, after struggling through the greatest difficulties & obstacles conceivable, is also, beyond a question, on the point of succeeding in his ingenious & profitable projects.11

I entreat, that, in pardoning the trouble I shall give by your perusal of this long letter, you will be pleased to present my most cordial respects to Mrs Washington; and consider me in every Country & Situation, ambitious of proving, with how great attachment & sincere affection, I have the honor to be My dear General, Your Most devoted & Most humble Servant12

D. Humphreys


For the background to David Humphreys’s secret mission to Spain, see Thomas Jefferson to GW, 8 Aug. 1790, source note and note 7.

1See Humphreys to Jefferson, 14, 20, 25, and 28 Oct. 1790 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 17:593–95, 603–6, 627–30, 648–53.

2Mr. Swift was probably Jonathan Swift (d. 1824), an Alexandria, Va., merchant who had earlier visited Mount Vernon (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:78, 79, 5:71).

3The British and Spanish ministers negotiated a final settlement to the Nootka Sound controversy on 24 Oct. 1790, and Alleyne Fitzherbert sent a messenger home on that day with the news that the convention would be signed on 28 Oct., which it was. This dispatch reached London on 4 Nov. 1790, followed five days later by the signed treaty, which the British court ratified on 9 Nov. 1790. The exchange of ratifications by Britain and Spain at Madrid on 22 Nov. 1790 finally ended the threat of war between those two nations (Manning, “Nootka Sound Controversy,” description begins William Ray Manning. The Nootka Sound Controversy. Washington, D.C., 1905. In Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1904, pages 279–478. description ends 453, 459).

4On 19 April 1790 John Adams wrote to Richard Price (1723–1791), nonconformist minister, moral philosopher, and supporter of the American Revolution: “Our new government is an attempt to divide a sovereignty; a fresh essay at imperium in imperio. It cannot, therefore, be expected to be very stable or very firm. It will prevent us for a time from our drawing our swords upon each other, and when it will do that no longer, we must call a new Convention to reform it. The difficulty of bringing millions to agree in any measures, to act by any rule, can never be conceived by him who has not tried it. It is incredible how small is the number, in any nation, of those who comprehend any system of constitution or administration, and those few it is wholly impossible to unite” (Adams, Works of John Adams, description begins Charles Francis Adams, ed. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author, Notes, and Illustrations. 10 vols. 1850–56. Reprint. New York, 1971. description ends 9:564).

5Humphreys may have referred to a 6 Sept. 1790 letter written by Abigail Adams to Thomas Brand-Hollis, whose estate she had visited in 1786, and delivered by William Knox, in which she wrote, “I know it will give you pleasure to learn that our union is complete, by the accession of Rhode Island; that our government acquires strength, confidence, and stability daily; that peace is in our borders, and plenty in our dwellings; and we earnestly pray, that the kindling flames of war, which appear to be bursting out in Europe, may by no means be extended to this rising nation. We enjoy freedom in as great a latitude as is consistent with our security and happiness” (Adams, Letters of Mrs. Adams, description begins Abigail Adams. Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. With an Introductory Memoir by Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Boston, 1840. description ends 2:152–58, 204–6).

6Count Paolo Andreani (Andriani; c.1763–1824) of Milan arrived in the United States from England in the spring of 1790 with letters of introduction from John Paradise, Richard Price, and John Rutledge, Jr. (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 16:266–67, 294). On 8 July he wrote from New York to his friend Francisco de Miranda at London that “Hamilton est trés opprimé par tout le monde, et parmi ses plus grands ennemies ont compte Jefferson et Madison. . . . Le prémier de ces deux travaille contre lui dans le gouvernement, et le second employe ouvertement son eloquence dans le congrés au même bout, et malheuresement ils ont tout les deux une grande oppinion dans le publique, et une grande preponderance. . . . Madison dépouillé de sa tracasserie politique est un homme de mérite; Il est bon orateur et il à un grand nombre des vues philosophiques en tout genre: il est peút-étre l’homme le plus instruit que j’ai rencontré icy.” Andreani also described “la pompe d’une Cour, qui quoique miserable, j’ose dire ridicule, n’est pas moin que un Cour: . . . Washington s’y est oposé autant qu’il à peut; mais il à fallu ceder au sentiment publique, et avoir des lévées en forme; et étre eternellement entouré par quattre bons aids de camp, et je ne sai pas combien de Secretaires. Le lévée est un fois par sémaines a 3 heures l’apres-midi, pour la convenance de membres du Congrés; et allor le President des Etats Unis voit le monde comme le Rois á St. James, dit un mot a touts l’ennuye un heur, et il plante la ceux qui ne le plante pas les premieers. . . . Il y a quelque jours que j’ai dejeuné chez lui [John Adams] avec Mr. Washington. Ce jour-là je fut etonné de voir le President des Etats-Unis arriver á un déjeuné privé avec autant de formalité. Lui etois seul avec madame dans une voiture a panniers des glaces à six chevaux, avancé par deux postillions à cheval et suivi par deux Aids de Champs à cheval aussi, et deux dans un voiture de réserve” (Archivo del Miranda, description begins Archivo del General Miranda. 24 vols. Caracas, Venezuela, and Havana, Cuba, 1929–50. description ends 6:57, 60, 61).

7For Miranda and his previous meetings with the British administration, see Hamilton to GW, c.15–22 July 1790, n.8; for his relations with the Spanish ambassador to Britain, see Hamilton to GW, 21 Sept. 1790, n.1.

8An unknown correspondent wrote to Miranda on 18 Oct. 1790: “J’ai vue avec chagrin dans une Papier nomé le ‘Times’ la semaine passé on indiquoit asse quoique sans vous nomer que vous aviez des entrevues avec Mr. Pitt. Il y a 4 á 5 jours qu’un homme a dit á Mr. Dutens que nous connoissez que vous voyez Mr. Pitt, il a entendu la meme chose du Libraire Emsley” (Archivo del Miranda, description begins Archivo del General Miranda. 24 vols. Caracas, Venezuela, and Havana, Cuba, 1929–50. description ends 6:78–79). The 9 Oct. 1790 London Times reported: “There is a Spanish Count now in London, a Mexican by birth, who has frequent interviews with the Minister. He has been ill-treated by his own Court, and has taken refuge in this country as an asylum against further persecution. He is a man of letters and talents, and is well able to give the best information concerning the present State of the Spanish American colonies.”

9For the background to Gouverneur Morris’s meetings with the British administration and his correspondence regarding his mission, see GW to Morris, 13 Oct. 1789 and source note, Morris to GW, 24 Jan. 1790, 7 April 1790 and note 4, 13 April 1790, 1 May 1790 and notes, 29 May 1790, 16 Aug. 1790 (second letter), 18 Sept. 1790 and notes, and 21 Sept. 1790. For Hamilton’s expressions of the British administration’s alleged dissatisfaction with Morris, as supposedly transmitted through Maj. George Beckwith, see Hamilton to GW, 30 Sept., and 17 Oct. 1790.

10For Thomas Paine and his iron bridge, see Paine to GW, 16 Oct. 1789 and source note.

11James Rumsey (1743–1792) had been sent to Britain by members of the American Philosophical Society, associated as the Rumseian Society, to patent various improvements of his steamboat and to interest English capitalists in them.

12For GW’s reply to Humphreys’s letter, see GW to Humphreys, 16 Mar. 1791, LB, DLC:GW.

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