Description

    Thomas Jefferson Historically Important Autograph Letter Signed: Just a month after George Washington's "Proclamation of Neutrality," the Secretary of State tells the Governor of Maryland that he has shown his letter to President Washington and that those citizens who aided French Charge d'Affaires Citizen Genet in the capture of the British ship now in a Maryland port would be prosecuted.

    Signed: "Th.Jefferson" as Washington's Secretary of State, one page, 7.5" x 9.25". Philadelphia, May 25, 1793. To "H[is]. E[xcellency]. The Governor of Maryland" [Thomas Sim Lee]. In full: "Sir, I am honoured with your Excellency's letter of the 20th and have duly laid the same before the President. measures had been already taken for prosecuting such American citizens as had joined in the capture therein mentioned, a letter to that effect having been written to the Attorney of the U.S. in the state of Maryland. with respect to the prize, the government did not think itself authorized to do anything. your Excellency will have been informed by a letter from the Secretary at war, addressed to you as the head of the militia of your state, of the measures proposed for preventing the fitting out privateers in our ports in future, as well as for the preservation of peace within our limits. I have the honour to be with great respect & esteem, your Excellency's most obedt & most humble svnt." With a printed photograph of Citizen Genet.

    Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was Washington's first Secretary of State, entering his duties on March 22, 1790, after returning from France where he had been U.S. Minister since 1785. He served until December 31, 1793. In April, 1793, before Washington's "Proclamation of Neutrality," Jefferson urged that the United States maintain its alliance with France in the European wars, but his position changed after the "Genet Affair."

    Citizen Edmond C. Genet (1763-1834) was named Charge d'Affaires to the United States in 1793 by the French government to gain support for France's war with England and Spain. He arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 8, 1793, and began commissioning privateers to capture British vessels of commerce and bring them into U.S. ports. There was much anti-British and pro-French sentiment by Americans Genet met in Charleston and as he rode to Philadelphia to take his post.

    In April, 1793, news had reached the United States that King Louis XVI had been guillotined and that France had declared war on England and Spain. Reacting to these events, on April 22, 1793, President Washington issued what has become known as the "Proclamation of Neutrality" which stated that "Whereas it appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the United Netherlands, of the one part, and France on the other; and the duty and interest of the United States require that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers; I have therefore thought fit by these presents...to exhort and warn the citizens of the United States carefully to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsoever, which may in any manner tend to contravene such disposition. And I do hereby also make known, that whatsoever of the citizens of the United States shall render himself liable to punishment or forfeiture under the law of nations, by committing, aiding, or abetting hostilities against any of the said Powers...will not receive the protection of the United States, against such punishment or forfeiture; and further, that I have given instructions to those officers, to whom it belongs, to cause prosecutions to be instituted against all persons, who shall, within the cognizance of the courts of the United States, violate the law of nations, with respect to the Powers at war, or any of them."

    Maryland Governor Thomas Sim Lee (1745-1819) wrote to Secretary of State Jefferson on May 20, 1793. Genet's privateers had captured a British vessel and had harbored it in Maryland. The British consul had sought Governor Lee's protection for the ship. Lee wrote Jefferson, in part, "We have acquainted the consul with our incompetency...to interfere, even supposing the capture to be illegal...and have advised him that it can only be obtained from the general government." Lee served twice as Governor of Maryland (1779-1783, 1792-1794) and was a Member of the Continental Congress in 1783.

    This letter is Jefferson's reply, informing Lee that he has shown his letter to President Washington. Jefferson tells Lee that the U.S. Attorney in Maryland had been notified and that American citizens who were involved in the capture would be prosecuted. This action had been legalized by Washington's April 22nd "Proclamation of Neutrality." Jefferson informs Lee that the federal government wasn't authorized to do anything respecting the prize, the ship's cargo seized by the privateer. Jefferson also advises Lee that the Secretary of War (Henry Knox) will write him what he can do, as head of the state militia, to prevent privateers from being fitted for action in American ports in the future, inferring that it's the state's responsibility, not the federal government's. In August, 1793, after Genet's continued actions in defiance of the U.S. government, Washington asked France to recall Genet. Realizing that he faced the guillotine if he returned to France, Genet asked if he could remain in the United States and Washington granted his request for political asylum. Genet later became an American citizen.

    The "Genet Affair" was the first test of America's national foreign policy and the execution of the "separation of powers" principles of the U.S. Constitution. In this letter, Thomas Jefferson writes of the federal prosecution of American citizens involved in the capture of a British ship, the acknowledgment that the federal government did not think itself authorized to confiscate the British cargo taken by the privateers, and that it was the state militia, not the federal government, who would have to institute measures for preventing privateers from fitting ships in U.S. ports in the future.

    Letters referring to the Genet Affair are rarely encountered outside of government archives. This one, from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to Maryland Governor Thomas Sim Lee concerning Citizen Genet in what was the first test of President Washington's foreign policy is in extra fine condition; there is a minor mounting remnant on verso which does not show through. Washington's policy of keeping the nation out of foreign wars set a strong precedent which lasted until World War I. This magnificent historically important letter would be a significant addition to any major collection. From the Gary Grossman Collection.




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