George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Justus Erick Bollman, 10 April 1796

Philadelphia April 10 1796


It is in compliance with Your request to communicate to You by writing my Ideas respecting the means that might be used in order to rescue Gen. Lafayette from imprisonment, that I have the honor to submit the following remarks to Your consideration!

1. It appears from the answer which the Emperor gave to Madam Lafayette, and from a Conversation she had with Baron Thugut, his Majesty’s present minister of foreign affairs, that the imprisonment of the Marquis is prolonged not as much from motifs of policy or animosity peculiar to the Emperor himself or to any of his ministers, but from a restriction he is laid under with respect to this subject by the Brittish Ministry!

2. The inducements which effect this Conduct of the Brittish Ministry seem to be personal hatred, vengence, and an apprehension lest the Marquis, when arrived in this Country, might embrace the Interests of France and make use of his popularity to alienate the public mind from the Brittish Cause. They are of such a nature therefore as likely to continue during the present war, the end of which appears to be far distant, and they may continue even beyond this period!

3. From the unsuccessful applications already made by Mr Pinckeney in London, and from the reasons stated in the preceding paragraph, it seems to follow that renewed applications in London, provided they could not be supported by more weighty inducements than urged hitherto, would prove equally ineffectual, and that it therefore would be useless to pursue this way of giving assistance to the Marquis, though in itself the most direct and the most natural!

4. But it is not probable that during the present war and the dependence of the Emperor on Brittish supplies he should ever be prevailed upon openly to counteract the request of the Brittish Ministry and to set the Marquis free by a formal order to this effect! All to be aimed at, and what may be obtained in my opinion, is to induce him to connive at his escape, and thus to change the present rigour of his imprisonment that it becomes easy for the Marquis to effect it. Similar expedients have been frequently resorted to by the Monarchs in Europe in similar circumstances!

5. It will therefore be necessary to proceed with great Circumspection, and to avoid increasing the embarassment of the Emperor in this affair, or hurting his politic delicacy! A new application in London would be improper, because it might occasion a repeated request of the Emperor to keep the General in prison. A direct and ostensible application in Vienna would be improper also, because a Compliance of the Emperor would in this case be more evident and expose himself and his ministers to censure. An intermediate interference of the United States seems in every respect preferable, and the less this interference is suspected in London, or manifest in Vienna, the more probable it will prove successful.

6. There are in Europe, I believe, principally two persons, whose good services it would be precious and beneficial to obtain. The one—Count Bernstorf, minister of foreign affairs of the king of Denmark, a consumed politician of great integrity, a professed admirer of the Marquis, and, according to some late accounts from Germany at present very influential in the proceedings of the Cabinet of Vienna. The other—Prince Henry of Prussia, likewise a friend and personal acquaintance of the Marquis, and who, since the peace with France, has reassumed a very actif and deciding part in the menagement of prussian Politics. It is by these two eminent characters that an application to the Emperor in behalf of the Marquis may be procured from the kings of Denmark and Prussia, and the most effectual step therefore that, in my opinion, at present could be taken for the benefit of the Marquis, would be to send a confidential person to Europe with several letters from General Washington, written, in his Character as President of the United States, to the king of Denmark, The king of Prussia, Count Bernstorf and Prince Henry! The distance being so great, and the Communication between Germany and the United States so slow and difficult it would perhaps be advisable to write an other letter to the Emperor himself, which might be delivered by the Danish or Prussian minister in Vienna. All these letters were to be left at the discretion of the Confidential person employed, who had to make use of them according as the situation of affairs in Europe at his arrival there, a minute inquiry into all influential Circumstances, and the advice of Count Bernstorf and Prince Henry would direct him!

7. All these efforts however would probably be unsuccessful unless supported by the private interest of some very influential Individuals in Vienna. To gain the exertions of these may require means which to employ perhaps would be incompatible with the Delicacy of the Executif Chief of a Republic, and I therefore think the Confidential person to be employed ought to have, before his departure, an interview with young Mr Lafayette, in order to receive from him the necessary means, and to make with him the necessary arrangements relatif to this point!

8. It appears to me that the success of these new endeavours to rescue the General from imprisonment will in a great measure depend on the choice of a person sufficiently calculated for this purpose. The better he is acquainted with General Lafayette, his character, his merits, the attachment which this Country at large and the President personally bears to him; the more fully he is informed of the causes of his captivity, and the disposition of those on whom his fate depends: the better he will be able to furnish in Copenhague and Berlin the data for the application to be made at Vienna! Besides, I think, it may be advisable to choose in preference a person well acquainted with the German language and of some connexions in the Country where he is to be send to, because, the necessity of taking various kinds of informations and of maintaining a secret intelligence in Vienna and Olmütz with the friends of the Marquis; the great advantage that may arise from the opportunity of making through these friends some communications to the Marquis himself; and the occasion there may be for employing other persons in order to assist the Marquis and to receive him after he has been furnished with an opportunity to absent himself—all these circumstances together make such knowledge of the German-language and such connexions in the Country where the Marquis is imprisoned of no trifling importance to a desirable completion of this business!

9. I conclude with observing that an actif and generous interference of this kind, should even the object not be obtained, will, notwithstanding, be highly honorable to the United States and beneficial to the Marquis. Honorable to the United States—because it is a testimony of their affection, their gratitude; and beneficial to the Marquis—because it increases the Consideration he enjoys in Europe, and comforts him in prison by gratifying his sensibility! I have the honor to be with the highest esteem Sir Your most obt and hble st

J. Erick Bollmann

DLC: Papers of George Washington.

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