George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 30 July 1791

From Thomas Jefferson

Philadelphia July 30. 1791.


I have the honour to inclose for your perusal a letter which I have prepared for mister Short.1

The ill humour into which the French colonies are getting, & the little dependence on the troops sent thither, may produce a hesitation in the National assembly as to the conditions they will impose in their constitution, in a moment of hesitation small matters may influence their decision. they may see the impolicy of insisting on particular conditions which operating as grievances on us, as well as on their colonists, might produce a concert of action. I have thought it would not be amiss to trust to mister Short the sentiments in the cyphered part of the letter, leaving him to govern himself by circumstances whether to let them leak out at all or not, & whether so as that it may be known, or remain unknown, that they come from us. a perfect knowlege of his judgment & discretion leave me entirely satisfied that they will be not used, or so used, as events shall render proper. but if you think that the possibility that harm may be done, overweighs the chance of good, I would expunge them, as in cases of doubt it is better to say too little than too much.2 I have the honour to be with the most perfect respect & attachment Sir Your most obedient & most humble servant

Th: Jefferson

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

1Jefferson’s letter of 28 July to William Short opened “some new and important matters,” particularly the administration’s policy on the new French navigation acts and trade with the French colonies in the Caribbean. Jefferson encoded one paragraph, which concludes: “An exchange of surplusses and wants between neighbour nations, is both a right and a duty under the moral law, and measures against right should be mollified in their exercise, if it be wished to lengthen them to the greatest term possible. Circumstances sometimes require that rights the most unquestionable should be advanced with delicacy. It would seem that the one now spoken of would need only a mention to be assented to by an unprejudiced mind: But with respect to America, Europeans in general have been too long in the habit of confounding force with right. The Marquis de la Fayette stands in such a relation between the two countries, that I think him perfectly capable of seizing what is just as to both. Perhaps on some occasion of free conversation you might find an opportunity of impressing these truths on his mind, and that from him they might be let out at a proper moment, as meriting consideration and weight, when they shall be engaged in the work of forming a Constitution for our neighbours. In policy, if not in justice, they should be disposed to avoid oppression, which falling on us, as well as on their Colonies, might tempt us to act together” (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 20:686–91). The editors of the Jefferson Papers suggest that Jefferson might have contrived the degree of discretion permitted Short as an opportunity to express full confidence in the abilities of his protege, whose pretensions for appointment as minister to France Jefferson wished to advance (ibid., 691n). For background to the French National Assembly acts affecting the American tobacco and whale oil trades, see Lafayette to GW, 7 Mar. and note 1, and GW to Lafayette, 28 July and note 2.

2GW replied to Jefferson this day: “I have given your letter to Mr Short, dated the 28th instt an attentive perusal. As you place confidence in his judgment and discretion, I think it is very proper that the sentiments which are expressed in the cyphered part of it, should be handed to him; and approve the communicating of them to him accordingly” (ALS, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers).

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