Autobiography by Thomas Jefferson


But to return to our Congress at Annapolis, the definitive treaty of peace
which had been signed at Paris on the 3d. of Sep. 1783. and received here,
could not be ratified without a House of 9. states. On the 23d. of Dec.
therefore we addressed letters to the several governors, stating the
receipt of the definitive treaty, that 7 states only were in attendance,
while 9. were necessary to its ratification, and urging them to press on
their delegates the necessity of their immediate attendance. And on the
26th. to save time I moved that the Agent of Marine (Robert Morris) should
be instructed to have ready a vessel at this place, at N. York, & at some
Eastern port, to carry over the ratification of the treaty when agreed to.
It met the general sense of the house, but was opposed by Dr. Lee on the
ground of expense which it would authorize the agent to incur for us; and
he said it would be better to ratify at once & send on the ratification.
Some members had before suggested that 7 states were competent to the
ratification. My motion was therefore postponed and another brought forward
by Mr. Read of S. C. for an immediate ratification. This was debated the
26th. and 27th. Reed, Lee, [Hugh] Williamson & Jeremiah Chace urged that
ratification was a mere matter of form, that the treaty was conclusive from
the moment it was signed by the ministers; that although the Confederation
requires the assent of 9. states to enter into a treaty, yet that it's
conclusion could not be called entrance into it; that supposing 9. states
requisite, it would be in the power of 5. states to keep us always at war;
that 9. states had virtually authorized the ratifion having ratified the
provisional treaty, and instructed their ministers to agree to a definitive
one in the same terms, and the present one was in fact substantially and
almost verbatim the same; that there now remain but 67. days for the
ratification, for it's passage across the Atlantic, and it's exchange; that
there was no hope of our soon having 9. states present; in fact that this
was the ultimate point of time to which we could venture to wait; that if
the ratification was not in Paris by the time stipulated, the treaty would
become void; that if ratified by 7 states, it would go under our seal
without it's being known to Gr. Britain that only 7. had concurred; that it
was a question of which they had no right to take cognizance, and we were
only answerable for it to our constituents; that it was like the
ratification which Gr. Britain had received from the Dutch by the
negotiations of Sr. Wm. Temple.

On the contrary, it was argued by Monroe, Gerry, Howel, Ellery & myself
that by the modern usage of Europe the ratification was considered as the
act which gave validity to a treaty, until which it was not obligatory.3
That the commission to the ministers reserved the ratification to Congress;
that the treaty itself stipulated that it should be ratified; that it
became a 2d. question who were competent to the ratification? That the
Confederation expressly required 9 states to enter into any treaty; that,
by this, that instrument must have intended that the assent of 9. states
should be necessary as well to the completion as to the commencement of the
treaty, it's object having been to guard the rights of the Union in all
those important cases where 9. states are called for; that, by the contrary
construction, 7 states, containing less than one third of our whole
citizens, might rivet on us a treaty, commenced indeed under commission and
instructions from 9. states, but formed by the minister in express
contradiction to such instructions, and in direct sacrifice of the
interests of so great a majority; that the definitive treaty was admitted
not to be a verbal copy of the provisional one, and whether the departures
from it were of substance or not, was a question on which 9. states alone
were competent to decide; that the circumstances of the ratification of the
provisional articles by 9. states, the instructions to our ministers to
form a definitive one by them, and their actual agreement in substance, do
not render us competent to ratify in the present instance; if these
circumstances are in themselves a ratification, nothing further is
requisite than to give attested copies of them, in exchange for the British
ratification; if they are not, we remain where we were, without a
ratification by 9. states, and incompetent ourselves to ratify; that it was
but 4. days since the seven states now present unanimously concurred in a
resolution to be forwarded to the governors of the absent states, in which
they stated as a cause for urging on their delegates, that 9. states were
necessary to ratify the treaty; that in the case of the Dutch ratification,
Gr. Britain had courted it, and therefore was glad to accept it as it was;
that they knew our constitution, and would object to a ratification by 7.
that if that circumstance was kept back, it would be known hereafter, &
would give them ground to deny the validity of a ratification into which
they should have been surprised and cheated, and it would be a dishonorable
prostitution of our seal; that there is a hope of 9. states; that if the
treaty would become null if not ratified in time, it would not be saved by
an imperfect ratification; but that in fact it would not be null, and would
be placed on better ground, going in unexceptionable form, tho' a few days
too late, and rested on the small importance of this circumstance, and the
physical impossibilities which had prevented a punctual compliance in point
of time; that this would be approved by all nations, & by Great Britain
herself, if not determined to renew the war, and if determined, she would
never want excuses, were this out of the way. Mr. Reade gave notice he
should call for the yeas & nays; whereon those in opposition prepared a
resolution expressing pointedly the reasons of the dissent from his motion.
It appearing however that his proposition could not be car-ried, it was
thought better to make no entry at all. Massa-chusetts alone would have
been for it; Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia against it, Delaware,
Maryland & N. Carolina, would have been divided.

Our body was little numerous, but very contentious. Day after day was
wasted on the most unimportant questions. My colleague Mercer was one of
those afflicted with the morbid rage of debate, of an ardent mind, prompt
imagination, and copious flow of words, he heard with impatience any logic
which was not his own. Sitting near me on some occasion of a trifling but
wordy debate, he asked how I could sit in silence hearing so much false
reasoning which a word should refute? I observed to him that to refute
indeed was easy, but to silence impossible. That in measures brought
forward by myself, I took the laboring oar, as was incumbent on me; but
that in general I was willing to listen. If every sound argument or
objection was used by some one or other of the numerous debaters, it was
enough: if not, I thought it sufficient to suggest the omission, without
going into a repetition of what had been already said by others. That this
was a waste and abuse of the time and patience of the house which could not
be justified. And I believe that if the members of deliberative bodies were
to observe this course generally, they would do in a day what takes them a
week, and it is really more questionable, than may at first be thought,
whether Bonaparte's dumb legislature which said nothing and did much, may
not be preferable to one which talks much and does nothing. I served with
General Washington in the legislature of Virginia before the revolution,
and, during it, with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them
speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to
decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing
that the little ones would follow of themselves. If the present Congress
errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the
people send 150. lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield
nothing, & talk by the hour? That 150. lawyers should do business together
ought not to be expected. But to return again to our subject.

Those who thought 7. states competent to the ratification being very
restless under the loss of their motion, I proposed, on the 3d. of January
to meet them on middle ground, and therefore moved a resolution which
premising that there were but 7. states present, who were unanimous for the
ratification, but, that they differed in opinion on the question of
competency. That those however in the negative were unwilling that any
powers which it might be supposed they possessed should remain unexercised
for the restoration of peace, provided it could be done saving their good
faith, and without importing any opinion of Congress that 7. states were
competent, and resolving that treaty be ratified so far as they had power;
that it should be transmitted to our ministers with instructions to keep it
uncommunicated; to endeavor to obtain 3. months longer for exchange of
ratifications; that they should be informed that so soon as 9. states shall
be present a ratification by 9. shall be sent them; if this should get to
them before the ultimate point of time for exchange, they were to use it,
and not the other; if not, they were to offer the act of the 7. states in
exchange, informing them the treaty had come to hand while Congress was not
in session, that but 7. states were as yet assembled, and these had
unanimously concurred in the ratification. This was debated on the 3d. and
4th. and on the 5th. a vessel being to sail for England from this port
(Annapolis) the House directed the President to write to our ministers

Jan. 14. Delegates from Connecticut having attended yesterday, and another
from S. Carolina coming in this day, the treaty was ratified without a
dissenting voice, and three instruments of ratification were ordered to be
made out, one of which was sent by Colo. Harmer, another by Colo. Franks,
and the 3d. transmitted to the agent of Marine to be forwarded by any good

Congress soon took up the consideration of their foreign relations. They
deemed it necessary to get their commerce placed with every nation on a
footing as favorable as that of other nations; and for this purpose to
propose to each a distinct treaty of commerce. This act too would amount to
an acknowledgment by each of our independance and of our reception into the
fraternity of nations; which altho', as possessing our station of right and
in fact, we would not condescend to ask, we were not unwilling to furnish
opportunities for receiving their friendly salutations & welcome. With
France the United Netherlands and Sweden we had already treaties of
commerce, but commissions were given for those countries also, should any
amendments be thought necessary. The other states to which treaties were to
be proposed were England, Hamburg, Saxony, Prussia, Denmark, Russia,
Austria, Venice, Rome, Naples, Tuscany, Sardinia, Genoa, Spain, Portugal,
the Porte, Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis & Morocco.

Mar. 16. On the 7th. of May Congress resolved that a Minister
Plenipotentiary should be appointed in addition to Mr. Adams & Dr. Franklin
for negotiating treaties of commerce with foreign nations, and I was
elected to that duty. I accordingly left Annapolis on the 11th. Took with
me my elder daughter then at Philadelphia (the two others being too young
for the voyage) & proceeded to Boston in quest of a passage. While passing
thro' the different states, I made a point of informing myself of the state
of the commerce of each, went on to New Hampshire with the same view and
returned to Boston. From thence I sailed on the 5th. of July in the Ceres a
merchant ship of Mr. Nathaniel Tracey, bound to Cowes. He was himself a
passenger, and, after a pleasant voyage of 19. days from land to land, we
arrived at Cowes on the 26th. I was detained there a few days by the
indisposition of my daughter. On the 30th. we embarked for Havre, arrived
there on the 31st. left it on the 3d. of August, and arrived at Paris on
the 6th. I called immediately on Doctr. Franklin at Passy, communicated to
him our charge, and we wrote to Mr. Adams, then at the Hague to join us at

Before I had left America, that is to say in the year 1781. I had received
a letter from M. de Marbois, of the French legation in Philadelphia,
informing me he had been instructed by his government to obtain such
statistical accounts of the different states of our Union, as might be
useful for their information; and addressing to me a number of queries
relative to the state of Virginia. I had always made it a practice whenever
an opportunity occurred of obtaining any information of our country, which
might be of use to me in any station public or private, to commit it to
writing. These memoranda were on loose papers, bundled up without order,
and difficult of recurrence when I had occasion for a particular one. I
thought this a good occasion to embody their substance, which I did in the
order of Mr. Marbois' queries, so as to answer his wish and to arrange them
for my own use. Some friends to whom they were occasionally communicated
wished for copies; but their volume rendering this too laborious by hand, I
proposed to get a few printed for their gratification. I was asked such a
price however as exceeded the importance of the object. On my arrival at
Paris I found it could be done for a fourth of what I had been asked here.
I therefore corrected and enlarged them, and had 200. copies printed, under
the title of Notes on Virginia. I gave a very few copies to some particular
persons in Europe, and sent the rest to my friends in America. An European
copy, by the death of the owner, got into the hands of a bookseller, who
engaged it's translation, & when ready for the press, communicated his
intentions & manuscript to me, without any other permission than that of
suggesting corrections. I never had seen so wretched an attempt at
translation. Interverted, abridged, mutilated, and often reversing the
sense of the original, I found it a blotch of errors from beginning to end.
I corrected some of the most material, and in that form it was printed in
French. A London bookseller, on seeing the translation, requested me to
permit him to print the English original. I thought it best to do so to let
the world see that it was not really so bad as the French translation had
made it appear. And this is the true history of that publication.

Mr. Adams soon joined us at Paris, & our first employment was to prepare a
general form to be proposed to such nations as were disposed to treat with
us. During the negotiations for peace with the British Commissioner David
Hartley, our Commissioners had proposed, on the suggestion of Doctr.
Franklin, to insert an article exempting from capture by the public or
private armed ships of either belligerent, when at war, all merchant
vessels and their cargoes, employed merely in carrying on the commerce
between nations. It was refused by England, and unwisely, in my opinion.
For in the case of a war with us, their superior commerce places infinitely
more at hazard on the ocean than ours; and as hawks abound in proportion to
game, so our privateers would swarm in proportion to the wealth exposed to
their prize, while theirs would be few for want of subjects of capture. We
inserted this article in our form, with a provision against the molestation
of fishermen, husbandmen, citizens unarmed and following their occupations
in unfortified places, for the humane treatment of prisoners of war, the
abolition of contraband of war, which exposes merchant vessels to such
vexatious & ruinous detentions and abuses; and for the principle of free
bottoms, free goods.

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