Extremely Rare Letter of President Washington to Secretary of State Jefferson, Ordering Implementation of the His Neutrality Policy

One of the great policies in American diplomatic history is to be followed “...with as little loss of time as may be”

Key Facts

  • Extremely rare letter of Washington to Jefferson
  • Related to the Neutrality Proclamation

President Washington was inaugurated in April 1789 and his first concerns were domestic. Through his first term, with the exception of lingering problems with Britain left over from the American Revolution, foreign policy issues were not a significant concern for him.

Make arrangements for carrying them into effect with as little loss of time as may be

That changed in April 1793 when word reached the United States that war had broken out between revolutionary France and Great Britain and its allies. Washington and his Cabinet members agreed that the nation was too young and its military too small to risk any sort of engagement with either France or Britain. On April 22, 1793, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality that barred American ships from supplying war matériel to either side. This was Washington’s first major foreign policy decision and his first important foreign policy paper. But if the Americans had any thought that a declaration of neutrality would end the matter as far as the United States was concerned, they soon found they were very much mistaken.

The threat to American neutrality

Citizen Genêt was dispatched by the French government to the United States to promote American support for France in the war. He arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on April 8, weeks before the neutrality proclamation. Instead of traveling to the then-capital of Philadelphia to present himself to President Washington for accreditation, Genêt stayed in South Carolina where his goals were to recruit and arm American privateers which would join French expeditions against the British. He commissioned four privateering ships in total: the Republicaine, the Anti-George, the Sans-Culotte, and the Citizen Genêt. His actions endangered American neutrality and when Genêt actually met with Washington, he asked for what amounted to a suspension of that neutrality (but was refused). Meanwhile, Genêt’s privateers were capturing British ships and rearming them as privateers.

The British minister to the U.S., George Hammond, complained to Secretary of State Jefferson about this on May 8, 1793, saying that these privateers, illegally fitted out at Charleston, had gone to sea and made prizes of several British vessels which they had brought back into American ports. Hammond announced that he doubted not “that the executive government of the United States will pursue such measures as to its wisdom may appear the best calculated...for restoring to their rightful owners any captures” so made.

Washington’s Cabinet-style government seeks to avoid entanglements

What to do about the Genet problem generally and the prizes and goods Genet’s ships were bringing into U.S. ports posed a serious problem for the U.S. government. The President decided to request written opinions from his advisors on the problem. This style of governing, where Washington solicited a range of Cabinet-level opinions to guide his thought process, became a hallmark of his leadership. Consequently, members of the Cabinet submitted their opinions. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, seconded by Secretary of War Henry Knox, thought that the prizes should be restored to the British. This opinion was submitted to the President on May 15. Hamilton argued that the U.S. had been bound in duty to prevent this situation from occurring in the first place, and if it could not prevent the injury, it should redress it by means of the remedy that was present; that is, by restoring the prizes now resting in her ports. If it did not Britain would be justified in considering it an act of aggression upon her by the United States.

In his opinion, Jefferson acknowledged that the United States should prevent France from fitting out privateers in our ports, in order to preserve a fair and secure neutrality. But, he continued, Great Britain should be satisfied with a moderate apology on the part of the United States. As to restoration of the prizes--that was impossible. The commission given to the privateers was acknowledged to be valid as between the belligerents. At the moment of capture, then, property in the prizes had been vested in the captors; the English owner had lost all right to the property. The United States could only restore it to him through an act of reprisal against France. Attorney General Edmund Randolph’s opinion essentially agreed with Jefferson, but added a new wrinkle. Even if the British had no right to restoration of the prizes themselves, it might have a right to compensation from the U.S.

The President was impressed with the weight of the arguments for compensation but against restoring the prizes themselves; so he decided. This was a compromise between the conflicting opinions that existed in the Cabinet. Besides the question of restitution this question also involved a decision on what was to be done about the privateers illegally fitted out. Were they and their prizes to be permitted to use American ports the same as all French vessels or were these vessels to be considered as having forfeited their rights because of their illegal origin? Both sides on this issue took positions, with the final opinion, Randolph’s, favoring ordering away the privateers and doing nothing more. Jefferson said, “The President confirmed the last opinion & it seemed to be his own.” Thus the U.S. would not go to extremes to stop the privateering, but might opt to compensate the British instead.

This decision was officially announced to the British and French foreign ministers in letters dated the same day in June. In the one to Great Britain, Jefferson wrote that British citizens could have their grievances heard in the U.S. Admiralty Courts, and he hoped Hammond would see “in these proceedings of the President, unequivocal proof of the line of strict right which he means to pursue. The measures now mentioned are taken in justice to the one party; the ulterior measure of seizing and restoring the prizes, is declined, in justice to the others.” Hammond was not unhappy overall with the attention the Washington administration was giving to a number of issues related to Britain’s war with France, and rather than object to this decision about prizes, he expressed “satisfaction with its [the U.S. government’s] general disposition...” Washington had again found the wisest course to be that which lay between the positions of Jefferson and Hamilton.

Hammond’s conclusion that it was inadvisable to try to obtain a reversal of the decision not to restore these prizes marked the end of the controversy so far as prizes already captured were concerned. But unfortunately these were not the most important aspect of the situation, as future prizes could dwarf the existing ones in number. Genet did not send the proscribed privateers away as requested and they remained in or cruising out of American ports; they brought more prizes into these ports and would bring others. This marks the beginning of the second and most crucial stage in the controversy. Everyone in the U.S. government, including Jefferson, acknowledged that the U.S. ought to prevent American ports being used for belligerent purposes. But the question was what to do if they were nonetheless.

A long term threat to neutrality and national security

The President again raised the question of the prizes on August 2. Jefferson wrote, “He desired we would meet at my office the next day to consider what should be done with the vessels armed in our ports by Mr. Genet & their prizes.” Hamilton acknowledged, at a cabinet meeting on August 3, that he had lost patience with the French minister and his privateers. He proposed to suppress the privateers by military coercion and to deliver their prizes to their original owners. There is not much doubt that the conduct of Genet and the captains of these vessels would have justified such action by the United States, but was it the wisest course? Jefferson thought not. He proposed to “require from Mr. Genet a delivery of the prizes to their owners, otherwise that, in consequence of the assurance we had given the British Minister, we should be bound to pay for them & must take credit for it with France.” He would also inform the French Minister that we would allow no further asylum in our ports to the proscribed privateers. Jefferson believed that it would be cheaper to pay Britain for the prizes brought into American ports against U.S. policy than to risk a war with France, by seizing her armed vessels. Either course would equally well fulfill the neutral duties assumed by the United States. All that Great Britain could claim was restitution or compensation. Jefferson’s plan was agreed to, with the additional provision that the governors of the states were to be notified that the proscribed privateers were not to be permitted to stay in our ports. This last provision was an attempt to remove the cause and prevent the need of frequent new decisions.

Jefferson prepared letters to the two ministers, and these he submitted to the President. They were accepted by him and sent each containing the phrase “The President considers it as incumbent upon the United States” to make compensation for the vessels if the prizes were not restored”. Washington insisted that “the expression be so guarded as to convey nothing more than an opinion of the executive” and Jefferson succeeded in so guarding it. The decision that the U.S. should furnish compensation for these prizes that had been taken by the proscribed privateers brought into American ports, and which could not be restored to Great Britain, was acceptable to Hammond, but he was not satisfied with all the details. The letter to Hammond on August 7 had restated the complaint, named the individual prizes to which the complaint applied and concluded with a statement that if measures for restitution should fail, the President considered it as incumbent on the United States to make compensation “for the vessels.” On August 30, Hammond officially requested an interpretation of these words specifically to determine whether the letter applied just to named prizes or also those that might be taken in the future by proscribed privateers. This was a very pertinent question in view of the failure of the privateers to leave the ports of the United States after a similar decision of the cabinet in June.

An opportunity to set a general rule for neutrality

Jefferson immediately saw that Hammond wished to establish a general rule that either restitution or compensation would be made. He drafted a letter to Hammond dated September 5 to establish the grounds on which he thought a general rule should be formed. This letter furnishes a good summary of the administration’s policy on this key point, and it is included in Yale University’s list of important documents of American diplomatic history, precisely because of the efforts of the Washington administration to create a safe position for the United States and to walk a fine and neutral line. The United States, wrote Jefferson, was bound by treaties with certain belligerents to protect and defend, or restore “by all means in their power,” the vessels of these nations which might be in the waters or ports of the United States. If all the means in its power were used and failed in their effect, this country was not bound by the treaties to make compensation to those nations. The United States did not have a similar  with Great Britain but the President decided that, to avoid any suspicion of unneutral conduct, the United States should apply the same rule toward that country as applied to the others. Further, the President thought it incumbent upon the United States to make compensation for already-taken vessels. As to prizes made under the same circumstances and brought in after the date of Jefferson’s former letter (August 7), the President determined that all the means in the power of the country should be used for their restitution. If these failed, since compensation would not have been due to the three other powers in an analogous case, it was his opinion that it ought not to be granted specially to Great Britain, (lest with no treaty with the U.S., Britain find itself more favored than nations with such a treaty). This language could be considered tantamount to a rejection of Hammond’s compensation requests, and the administration decided it did not want to go that far. So a sentence was added to the effect that the President was willing to formulate a general rule to the extent of expressing his opinion that compensation would be appropriate if any future cases should arise similar to those before August 7: “But still if any Cases shall arise subsequent to that date, the circumstances of which shall place them on similar ground with those before it, the President would think Compensation equally incumbent on the United States.” In other words, indemnity should be given if the United States again decided not to use all the means in its power to expel the offending privateers or to prevent new armaments.

In accordance with Washington’s Cabinet style of governing, Secretary of State Jefferson submitted this draft letter to the President for his review, which was all the more important seeing as how the President himself was making representations to a foreign power. Washington approved it two days later in this letter. Autograph Letter Signed as President, Philadelphia, September 7, 1793, to Thomas Jefferson. ”Sir: I have received your letter of yesterday’s date, and approving the measures suggested therein, desire you will make arrangements for carrying them into effect with as little loss of time as may be.” This letter is included in Fitzgerald’s The Writings of George Washington, volume 33, page 84, with Fitzgerald noting that the text and recipient are contained in the “letter book” in the Washington Papers.

Per these very instructions, Jefferson then sent his important letter to Hammond, setting forth American neutrality policy and that letter, approved by Washington here, was considered so important that Article 9 of the Jay Treaty of 1795 incorporated the entire letter within the treaty itself.

This is the first letter of George Washington to Thomas Jefferson we have carried. A search of auction records for the past 32 years (1975-2007) reveals no Washington-to-Jefferson letters as President/Secretary of State having reached the market. It showed just one letter of Washington to Jefferson of any kind sold over the past two decades: a cover letter of Washington from 1787 sending Jefferson a copy of the new Constitution, which sold for $230,000.