George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 9 December 1790

From Thomas Jefferson

Department of State. Dec. 9. 1790.

Sir

I have now the honour to return you the letter from the President of the Assembly of representatives for the community of Paris to the President and members of Congress, which you had recieved from the President of the Senate with the opinion of that house that it should be opened by you, and their request that you would communicate to Congress such parts of it as in your opinion might be proper to be laid before the legislature.

The subject of it is the death of the late Dr Franklin. it conveys expressions from that respectable city to the legislature of the United States, of the part they take in that loss, and information that they had ordered a solemn and public Oration for the transmission of his virtues and talents to posterity; copies of which for the members of Congress accompany their letter: & it is on the whole an evidence of their marked respect & friendship towards these United States.

I am of opinion their letter should be communicated to Congress, who will take such notice of this friendly advance as their wisdom shall conceive to be proper.1 I have the honour to be with the most profound respect, Sir, your most obedient & most humble servant

Th: Jefferson

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; ALS, letterpress copy, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers; LB, DLC:GW.

For the background to this letter, see Jacques-Michel-Guillaume Bénière to GW, 29 July 1790. GW received Bénière’s letter and packet shortly after returning to Philadelphia. The letter was addressed to the “President & Members of the American Congress.” Erroneously believing the letter and packet to have come from the president of the National Assembly of France, GW declined to open them, ostensibly on the grounds that they were intended for Congress. In a decision interpreted ever since as arising from deference to the prerogatives of Congress, GW directed Tobias Lear to deliver the letter and packet, informally, with the seal unbroken, to the president of the Senate, John Adams. Lear delivered them to Adams on 7 Dec. 1791. On 8 Dec. Adams returned the letter and packet, still unopened, with the message that in the opinion of the Senate, they might be opened with more propriety by the president, who might then communicate such parts as he thought appropriate to Congress. Upon receiving this reply GW instructed Lear to deliver the letter and packet to the secretary of state. Lear transmitted them, along with the proceedings of the government of the Northwest Territory and the letter of the National Assembly of France to GW of 20 June 1790, to Jefferson on 8 Dec. with a cover letter. It reads: “In obedience to the Commands of the President of the United States I have the honor to transmit here with sundry communications of the proceedings of Government in the Western Territory from Jany to July 1790 made by the Secretary of the said Territory to the President of the U.S., upon which the President requests your opinion as to what should be done respecting them.

“I have likewise the honor to transmit, by the President’s order, a Letter & packet from the President of the National Assembly of France directed to the President & Members of the American Congress. This direction prevented the President from opening them when they came to his hands; and he yesterday caused them to be delivered to the Vice-President that they might be opened by the Senate. The Vice-President returned them unopened, with an opinion of the Senate that they might be opened with more propriety by the President of the U.S. and a request that he would do it & communicate to Congress such parts of them as in his opinion might be proper to be laid before the Legislature. The President therefore requests that you would become acquainted with their Contents and inform him what (if any) should be laid before Congress. Another Letter from the National Assembly addressed particularly to the President is enclosed herewith for your perusal. The Presdt has the translation of this letter” (DLC:GW).

Internal evidence suggests that GW opened the packet before it was delivered to Jefferson. There is a draft of Lear’s letter of transmittal, also dated 8 Dec. 1790, in DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, in which the instruction that Jefferson should “become acquainted with their Contents” was substituted for the canceled words “open & inspect Letter & packet.”

This incident has been frequently cited as an example of Washington’s tendency to defer to Congress, but in fact the contemporary evidence suggests that GW may have believed the letter actually was intended for Congress alone. GW had received a letter from the National Assembly of France, dated 20 June 1790, which he directed Lear to transmit to Jefferson along with the letter and packet to the “President & Members of the American Congress.” Washington transmitted a copy of the 20 June letter he had received from the National Assembly to Congress on 26 Jan. 1791, with the explanation that it was addressed to “the President of the United States.” Washington thus seems to have been in possession of indisputable evidence that the National Assembly knew how to address the president of the United States at the time he received Bénière’s letter and packet. The fact that GW first directed the letter and packet to John Adams is consistent with the view that GW believed they simply had been delivered improperly. Washington previously had opened ambiguously addressed letters, including letters addressed to the president of Congress. In an effort to explain why GW chose to defer the opening of this ambiguously addressed letter when he had previously opened others without scruple, Julian Boyd hypothesizes that GW was attempting to determine the temper of the Senate in regard to the French tributes to Franklin before transmitting the letter dated 20 June 1790 he had received from the National Assembly of France bearing the signature of Abbé Sieyès. Boyd’s argument depends on GW having known the true identity of the writer of the unopened letter—which he manifestly did not. The simpler answer—that GW believed the letter and packet to have come from the National Assembly, as Lear wrote to Jefferson on 8 Dec., and to have been improperly delivered to the president of the United States—seems more likely (Boyd’s analysis of this problem is in 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 19:78–106).

GW may have been particularly scrupulous in this case because he believed the letter and packet to have been sent by the National Assembly of France, but in fact Bénière was president of the Commune of Paris. The packet that accompanied his letter contained twenty-six copies of a public eulogy on Benjamin Franklin, delivered by Abbé Fauchet, and published as Éloge civique de Benjamin Franklin, prononcé, le 21 juillet 1790, dans la Rotonde, au nom de la Commune de Paris par, M. l’Abbé Fauchet (Paris, 1790).

1Though Jefferson advised communicating the letter and the copies of Fauchet’s eulogy to Congress, GW directed Lear to lay them before the Senate alone. He did so on 10 Dec., with a note, saluting Adams as “Mr. President,” which reads: “I am commanded by the President of the United States to deliver to the Senate a letter and sundry Pamphlets which have come to his hands from the President of the Assembly of Representatives and members of Congress of the United States” (DLC:GW).

In his diary William Maclay described the scene in the Senate when Bénière’s letter and the pamphlets were delivered: “Our President looked over the letter some time and then began reading the additions that followed the Presidents name he was a Doctor of the Sorbonne &ca. &ca. to the number of 15 (as our President said) These appellatives of Office, he chose to call titles, and then said some sarcastic things against the National Assembly for abolishing Titles. I could not help remarking that this whole Matter was received and transacted with a coldness and apathy, That astonished me, & the letter and all the Pamphlets were sent. down to the Representatives, as if unworthy the attention of our body. I deliberated with myself Whether I should not rise & claim one of the Copies. in right of my being a Member. I would however only have got into a Wrangle by so doing. without working any change on my fellow Members. there might be others who indulged the same sentiments. But. ’Twas silence all” (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 341). The House of Representatives received Bénière’s letter and the twenty-six pamphlets on 10 Dec. and immediately returned half of the pamphlets to the Senate. Two of the copies retained by the House of Representatives were transmitted for the use of the president to Lear by the House clerk John Beckley (Beckley to Lear, 11 Dec. 1790, DLC:GW). A copy of the pamphlet, presumably one of these two, was in GW’s library at his death and is now (1996) in the collection of the Boston Athenæum (Griffin, Boston Athenæum Washington Collection, description begins Appleton P. C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 79).

On 17 Dec. 1790 GW directed Lear to lay a second unopened letter before the Senate. This was a communication from the president of the Provincial Assembly at Cap Français, dated 7 Sept. 1790, describing the alarming situation in Haiti and asking for assistance (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). It was addressed to “Messieurs Le Président et les respectable membres de L’Auguste congrès des Etats unis de L’amerique.” The Senate again declined to open a letter presented under these circumstances and returned it to GW with a request that he communicate any contents requiring the attention of Congress. GW apparently determined that the letter did not require any action (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 19:87).

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