George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 17 October 1792

From Thomas Jefferson

Philadelphia Oct. 17. 1792.


In a letter from Monticello I took the liberty of saying that as soon as I should return here, where my letter books were, I would take the liberty of troubling you with the perusal of such parts of my correspondence from France as would shew my genuine sentiments of the new constitution.1 when I arrived in Philadelphia, the 5th inst. I found that many of my letters had been already put into the papers, by the gentlemen possessed of the originals, as I presume, for not a word of it had ever been communicated to me, and the copies I had retained were under a lock of which I had the key.2 these publications are genuine, and render it unnecessary to give you any further trouble than to see extracts from two or three other letters which have not been published, and the genuine letter for the payment of the French debt.3 pardon my adding this to so many troubles as you have. I think it necessary you should know my real opinions that you may know how to make use of me, and it is essential to my tranquillity not to be mis-known to you. I hope it is the last time I shall feel a necessity of asking your attention to a disagreeable subject, being with sincere wishes for your tranquility & happiness, & with perfect respect, Sir your most obedt & most humble servt

Th: Jefferson

ALS, DLC:GW; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC: James Monroe Papers.

1The question of whether Jefferson had opposed ratification of the Constitution became an issue for public debate in 1792. This question reflected the growing political division within GW’s cabinet over Alexander Hamilton’s financial policies and the animosity between Jefferson and Hamilton. For Jefferson’s earlier denial to GW that he had written letters against ratification while the U.S. minister to France, see Jefferson’s letter to GW of 9 Sept. 1792.

2Although Jefferson did not challenge Hamilton or his policies openly in the public press, his political allies often did. James Monroe, assisted by James Madison, wrote six unsigned articles that used extracts from Jefferson’s past correspondence to counter criticism of Jefferson that appeared in a series of essays published in the Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia) between July and December 1792 and written by Hamilton using various pseudonyms: “T.L.,” “An American,” “Amicus,” “Catullus,” and “Metellus” (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 12:107, 123–25, 157–64, 188–94, 224, 354–57, 379–85, 393–401, 498–506, 578–87, 613–17, 13:229–31, 348–56). Monroe’s rebuttals appeared in the 22 Sept., 10, 20, 30 Oct., 8 Nov., 3, 31 Dec. issues of Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia).

3Jefferson enclosed several extracts, all of which are in DLC:GW. The first one was from his letter to Alexander Donald, written at Paris on 7 Feb. 1788: “I wish with all my soul that the 9. first conventions may accept the new Constitution, because this will secure to us the good it contains, which I think great & important. but I equally wish that the 4. latest conventions, whichever they be, may refuse to accede to it till a declaration of rights be annexed. this would probably command the offer of such a declaration, & thus give to the whole fabric, perhaps as much perfection as any one of that kind ever had. by a declaration of rights, I mean one which shall stipulate freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce against monopolies, trial by juries in all cases, no suspensions of the Habeas corpus, no standing armies. these are fetters against doing evil which no honest government should decline. there is another strong feature in the new constitution which I as strongly dislike. that is the perpetual re-elegibility of the President. of this I expect no amendment at present, because I do not see that any body has objected to it on your side the water. but it will be productive of cruel distress to our country even in your day & mine. the importance to France & England to have our government in the hands of a friend or a foe, will occasion their interference by money & even by arms. our President will be of much more consequence to them than a king of Poland. we must take care however that neither this nor any other objection to the new form produce a schism in our union. that would be an incurable evil, because near friends falling out never reunite cordially; whereas all of us going together, we shall be sure to cure the evils of our new constitution, before they do great harm.”

The second extract was from Jefferson’s letter to Edward Carrington of 27 May 1788, also written from Paris: “my first wish was that 9. states would adopt it in order to ensure what was good in it, & that the others might, by holding off, produce the necessary amendments. but the plan of Massachusets is far preferable, & will I hope be followed by those who are yet to decide. there are two amendments only which I am anxious for. 1. a bill of rights, which it is so much the interest of all to have, that I concieve it must be yielded. the 1st amendment proposed by Massachusets will in some degree answer this end, but not so well. it will do too much in some instances and too little in others. it will cripple the federal government in some cases where it ought to be free, & not restrain it in some others where restraint would be right. the 2d amendment which appears to me essential is the restoring the principle of necessary rotation, particularly to the Senate & Presidency: but most of all to the last. re-eligibility makes him an officer for life, & the disasters inseparable from an elective monarchy render it preferable, if we cannot tread back that step, that we should go forward & take refuge in an hereditary one. of the correction of this article however I entertain no present hope because I find it has scarcely excited an objection in America. and if it does not take place ere long, it assuredly never will. the natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild, & government to gain ground. as yet our spirits are free. our jealousy is only put to sleep by the unlimited confidence we all repose in the person to whom we all look as our president. after him, inferior characters may perhaps succeed & awaken us to the danger which his merit has led us into. for the present however, the general adoption is to be prayed for, & I wait with great anxiety for the news from Maryland & S. Carolina, which have decided before this, & wish that Virginia, now in session, may give the 8th vote of approbation. there could then be no doubt of N. Carolina, N. York & N. Hampshire.”

The third extract was from Jefferson’s letter to John Brown Cutting, written at Paris on 8 July 1788: “the first vessels will probably bring us news of the accession of S. Carolina & Virginia to the new Confederation. the glorious example of Massachusets, of accepting unconditionally & pres[er]ving for future amendment, will I hope reconcile all parties. the argument is unanswerable that it will be easier to obtain amendments from 9. states under the new constitution, than from 13. after rejecting it.

“P.S. July 11. since writing this letter I recieve from America information that S. Carolina has acceded to the new constitution, by a vote of 149. against 72. I hope Virginia will now accede without difficulty.”

Jefferson also included a “Quotation from Fenno’s gazette of Sep. 19. 1792. a peice signed Catullus,” which reads: “I proceed now to state the exact tenor of the advice which mister Jefferson gave to Congress, respecting the transfer of the debt due to France to a company of Hollanders. after mentioning an offer which had been made by such a company for the purchase of the debt he concludes with these extraordinary expressions ‘if there is a danger of the public paiments not being punctual, I submit whether it may not be better that the discontents which would then arise should be transferred from a court of whose good will we have so much need, to the breasts of a private company.’ the above is an extract which was made from the letter in Feb. 1787. the genuineness of the foregoing extract may be depended on.”

This quotation was accompanied by what Jefferson called “an exact copy from the original letter” that he had written at Paris on 26 Sept. 1786 to John Jay: “It being known that M. de Calonne the Minister of finance for this country is at his wit’s end how to raise supplies for the ensuing year, a proposition has been made by a Dutch company to purchase the debt of the U.S. to this country for 20. millions of livres in hand. his necessities dispose him to accede to the proposition. but a hesitation is produced by the apprehension that it might lessen our credit in Europe, & perhaps be disagreeable to Congress. I have been consulted hereon by the Agent for that company. I informed him that I could not judge what effect it might have on our credit, & was not authorised either to approve or disapprove of the transaction. I have since reflected on this subject. if there be a danger that our payments may not be punctual it might be better that the discontents which would thence arise should be transferred from a court of whose good will we have so much need to the breasts of a private company, but it has occurred to me that we might find occasion to do what would be grateful to this court & establish with them a confidence in our honour. I am informed that our credit in Holland is sound. might it not be possible then to borrow there the four & twenty millions due to this country, & thus pay them their whole debt at once. this would save them from any loss on our account; nor is it liable to the objection of impropriety in creating new debts before we have more certain means of paying them: it is only transferring a debt from one creditor to another, & removing the causes of discontent to persons with whom they would do us less injury. thinking that this matter is worthy the attention of Congress, I will endeavor that the negociation shall be retarded till it may be possible for me to know their decision, which therefore I will take the liberty of praying immediately.”

The letter to Jay included the following observation: “Th: J. mentions only to Congress the proposition of a Dutch company to buy at a discount their debt, (which was already in arrears in part, and would be becoming due by large portions soon) and that it might perhaps be better, if the payments should not be punctual, to have a weak enemy rather than a strong one; and he believes that no man’s morality or politics would oppose this making that choice between two adversaries. but instead of supporting this proposition, he passes it by and makes another, to go to Holland and borrow at once our whole debt & pay it, without discount, to our friends, who had saved us by their loans: which would retain the same advantage of giving us a weak instead of a strong enemy in the event of a want of punctuality: and would evidently give us other advantages, which it was not necessary for him to develope, because known to Congress: to wit, in making the new loan in Holland the lenders themselves would always insist that no part of it should be repaid under 10. or 15. years, & then by instalments. this would give time for us to get our government into a way of collecting money. there was also a possibility of a lower interest. but this writer suppresses the real proposition which Th: J. made, interpolates into that of the Dutch company the words ‘I submit whether’ so as to make Th: J. propose the very thing he rejects. his proposition necessarily involved the obtaining longer time for payment; the one he is made to submit to Congress was to leave our friends under the loss of four millions of livres, and ourselves under the pressure of immediate payments, or dishonour. his whole correspondence would shew that he was constantly urging Congress, by new loans, to obtain further time, till the government could become able to levy money. this single letter has been selected, detached from the general correspondence, it’s real proposition suppressed, & the one to which it gives the go-by, is interpolated so as to make him propose an acceptance of the Dutch company’s offer.”

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