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    Jefferson writes about Shay's Rebellion, the national debt and foreign policy

    Thomas Jefferson Autograph Letter Signed "Th: Jefferson." Two pages (both sides of a single sheet), 6.75" x 8.75", Paris; December 25, 1786. Letter from Jefferson, United States Minister to France, to C. W. F. Dumas, [Leyden, Holland], concerning Shays' Rebellion and the financial situation in pre-revolutionary France and in the United States. Jefferson served as minister to France from 1785 to 1789. The letter reads:

    A dislocation of my right wrist has for upwards of three months prevented me the honour of writing to you. I begin to use it a little for the pen, but it is with great pain. To this cause alone I hope you will ascribe that I have to acknolege at one time the receipt of so many of your letters. Their dates are Sep. 12. 26. Oct. 6. 17. 19. 23. Nov. 3. 17. Dec. 1. and there is one without a date. They were communicated to the M. de la fayette according to your desire, & those to Mr. Jay have been forwarded from time to time as private conveiances occurred, except some of the last for which no such conveiance has occurred till now, a gentleman is setting out for London & from thence for N. York.

    We receive news from America of collections of the people in three or four instances in the Eastern states, demanding delays in the proceedings of the courts of justice. Those states, as you know, depended before the war chiefly on their whale oil and fish. The former was consumed in London, but being now loaded there with heavy duties, cannot go there. Much of their fish went up the Mediterranean, now shut to us by the pyratical states. Their debts therefore press them, while the means of paiment have lessened. The mobs however separated, without a single injury having been offered to the person or property of any one, nor did they continue 24. hours in any one place. This country has opened a market for their whale oil, & we have made a good treaty of peace with Marocco, but with Algiers we can do nothing.-An American paper has published a letter as from me to the Count de Vergennes on the subject of our productions of tobacco and rice. It is surreptitious & falsified, & both the true & untrue parts very improper for the public eye. How a newswriter of America got at it, is astonishing, & with what views it has been altered. I will be much obliged to you if you will endeavor to prevent its [sic] publication in the Leyden gazette.

    The following question I take the liberty of proposing to you confidentially. This country wants money in it's [sic] treasury. Some individuals have proposed to buy our debt of 24. millions at a considerable discount. I have informed Congress of it, & suggested to them the expediency of borrowing this sum in Holland if possible, as well to prevent loss to this country, as to draw all their money transactions to one point. But could they borrow the money in Holland? I would be obliged to you for your opinion on this question, as it would decide me in pressing this matter further on Congress, or letting it drop. It will readily occur to you that the answer should come through the hands of your Ambassador here alone. The pain in which I write, obliges me, after many thanks for the interesting details of transactions in your country, to assure you of the esteem and respect with which I have the honor to be, Sir, your most obedient & most humble servant,

    Th: Jefferson

    Jefferson opens his letter with a reference to his recent wrist injury. In September 1786, he dislocated his right wrist in a fall, when he attempted to jump a fence in Paris. The bones were not set well by surgeons, which resulted in his suffering wrist pain for the rest of his life. In the month after the injury, Jefferson's secretary, William Short, had to write his letters for him. For a few months, he used his left hand to write letters until he could use his right hand.

    The "collections of people" mentioned by Jefferson in his letter refers to what became known as Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, which broke out in the summer of 1786. The rebellion comprised a series of armed attacks of government property, primarily courthouses, and eventually turned into a military confrontation in 1787. The rebellion was named after one of its leaders, Daniel Shays, a farmer and former soldier who fought against the British at Bunker Hill. Many of the rebels were, like Shays, farmers and former Revolutionary soldiers, who were financially burdened by rising debts and high taxes. Many had received meager compensation during the war and were thus having trouble surviving in the post-war period. Unable to pay their debts, these farmers faced arrest and foreclosure. At first, the farmers attempted a peaceful approach to alleviate their concerns, but soon turned to more forceful actions, including the delay in the opening of debtors' courts by such measures as physically blocking judges from entering courthouses. Jefferson first became aware of events in Massachusetts from his colleagues John Adams and John Jay. As his letter to Dumas indicates, Jefferson showed little concern about the uprising, believing it was overall peaceful. He hoped that newly opened French markets and a possible deal with Morocco would help ease the farmers' financial burdens. Yet, when the rebellion later turned violent in the new year, Jefferson remained fairly sanguine compared to his friends in New England in particular and in the United States in general. In a letter to Abigail Adams, dated February 22, 1787, he wrote, "The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then." (founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0182) The rebellion was eventually quashed by state soldiers, with most of the rebels receiving pardons.

    Two additional issues discussed by Jefferson relate to a letter he wrote John Jay (not the Count de Vergennes as Jefferson mistakenly states) concerning commercial treaty negotiations with France in which he was involved and the desperate economic situation of that country as well as in the United States. He was clearly embarrassed and upset that his letter to Jay was published in an American paper. He requests that Dumas prevent publication in the Gazette de Leide. As to the financial troubles in France as it related to the economic situation in the United States, Jefferson showed his concern for strengthening American credit abroad through payment of foreign debts. The United States debt to France as a result of its critical support against the British in the Revolutionary War amounted to 24 million livres. Nonpayment of the debt to France, which was undergoing extreme fiscal distress, was causing friction between the two countries, which Jefferson wished to alleviate. With the United States government unable to pay the debt, Jefferson was willing to consider offers from unnamed individuals to buy the American debt at a significant discount. Jefferson proposed making up the difference to France by borrowing money from sources in Holland, and asks Dumas his opinion of the matter.

    Charles William Frédéric Dumas (1721-1796) was a German-born intellectual living in the Dutch Republic who served as an American diplomat during the American Revolution. Moving to the Netherlands around 1750, Dumas befriended Benjamin Franklin when the latter was in Holland at the beginning of the American Revolution. Franklin chaired the American colonies' shadow government, the Committee of Correspondence, which employed Dumas as a secret agent to aid American interests in Europe. When John Adams became the American minister to Holland, Dumas acted as his secretary and translator. When Adams left Amsterdam in late 1782, Dumas acted as chargé d'affaires ad interim from the United States. In 1775, Dumas devised the first diplomatic cipher used by the Continental Congress and Benjamin Franklin for secret correspondence with agents in Europe. Dumas planted stories favorable to the United States in the Gazette de Leide (in Leyden, Holland), with the goal of gaining a good credit rating for the United States in financial markets. In 1776, Dumas contacted officials in Holland, Spain and France seeking trade in badly needed materials for the United States. This led to beneficial trade during the revolution.

    This is an important letter that provides insight into Jefferson's diplomatic activities in France in the years between the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and the various issues with which he was involved. The letter is framed to an overall size of 27" x 16" with an engraving of Jefferson. The frame can be opened so that both sides of the letter are visible.

    Condition: Gently toned, with a few light ink smudges. A small bit of paper loss at center of bottom margin (about a quarter inch in diameter) does not affect any text.




    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    October, 2018
    25th Thursday
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