Autobiography by Thomas Jefferson


In a conference with the Count de Vergennes, it was thought better to leave
to legislative regulation on both sides such modifications of our
commercial intercourse as would voluntarily flow from amicable
dispositions. Without urging, we sounded the ministers of the several
European nations at the court of Versailles, on their dispositions towards
mutual commerce, and the expediency of encouraging it by the protection of
a treaty. Old Frederic of Prussia met us cordially and without hesitation,
and appointing the Baron de Thulemeyer, his minister at the Hague, to
negotiate with us, we communicated to him our Project, which with little
alteration by the King, was soon concluded. Denmark and Tuscany entered
also into negotiations with us. Other powers appearing indifferent we did
not think it proper to press them. They seemed in fact to know little about
us, but as rebels who had been successful in throwing off the yoke of the
mother country. They were ignorant of our commerce, which had been always
monopolized by England, and of the exchange of articles it might offer
advantageously to both parties. They were inclined therefore to stand aloof
until they could see better what relations might be usefully instituted
with us. The negotiations therefore begun with Denmark & Tuscany we
protracted designedly until our powers had expired; and abstained from
making new propositions to others having no colonies; because our commerce
being an exchange of raw for wrought materials, is a competent price for
admission into the colonies of those possessing them: but were we to give
it, without price, to others, all would claim it without price on the
ordinary ground of gentis amicissimae.

Mr. Adams being appointed Min. Pleny. of the U S. to London, left us in
June, and in July 1785. Dr. Franklin returned to America, and I was
appointed his successor at Paris. In Feb. 1786. Mr. Adams wrote to me
pressingly to join him in London immediately, as he thought he discovered
there some symptoms of better disposition towards us. Colo. Smith, his
Secretary of legation, was the bearer of his urgencies for my immediate
attendance. I accordingly left Paris on the 1st. of March, and on my
arrival in London we agreed on a very summary form of treaty, proposing an
exchange of citizenship for our citizens, our ships, and our productions
generally, except as to office. On my presentation as usual to the King and
Queen at their levees, it was impossible for anything to be more ungracious
than their notice of Mr. Adams & myself. I saw at once that the ulcerations
in the narrow mind of that mulish being left nothing to be expected on the
subject of my attendance; and on the first conference with the Marquis of
Caermarthen, his Minister of foreign affairs, the distance and
disinclination which he betrayed in his conversation, the vagueness &
evasions of his answers to us, confirmed me in the belief of their aversion
to have anything to do with us. We delivered him however our Projet, Mr.
Adams not despairing as much as I did of it's effect. We afterwards, by one
or more notes, requested his appointment of an interview and conference,
which, without directly declining, he evaded by pretences of other pressing
occupations for the moment. After staying there seven weeks, till within a
few days of the expiration of our commission, I informed the minister by
note that my duties at Paris required my return to that place, and that I
should with pleasure be the bearer of any commands to his Ambassador there.
He answered that he had none, and wishing me a pleasant journey, I left
London the 26th. arrived at Paris on the 30th. of April.

While in London we entered into negotiations with the Chevalier Pinto,
Ambassador of Portugal at that place. The only article of difficulty
between us was a stipulation that our bread stuff should be received in
Portugal in the form of flour as well as of grain. He approved of it
himself, but observed that several Nobles, of great influence at their
court, were the owners of wind mills in the neighborhood of Lisbon which
depended much for their profits on manufacturing our wheat, and that this
stipulation would endanger the whole treaty. He signed it however, & it's
fate was what he had candidly portended.

My duties at Paris were confined to a few objects; the receipt of our
whale-oils, salted fish, and salted meats on favorable terms, the admission
of our rice on equal terms with that of Piedmont, Egypt & the Levant, a
mitigation of the monopolies of our tobacco by the Farmers-general, and a
free admission of our productions into their islands; were the principal
commercial objects which required attention; and on these occasions I was
powerfully aided by all the influence and the energies of the Marquis de La
Fayette, who proved himself equally zealous for the friendship and welfare
of both nations; and in justice I must also say that I found the government
entirely disposed to befriend us on all occasions, and to yield us every
indulgence not absolutely injurious to themselves. The Count de Vergennes
had the reputation with the diplomatic corps of being wary & slippery in
his diplomatic intercourse; and so he might be with those whom he knew to
be slippery and double-faced themselves. As he saw that I had no indirect
views, practised no subtleties, meddled in no intrigues, pursued no
concealed object, I found him as frank, as honorable, as easy of access to
reason as any man with whom I had ever done business; and I must say the
same for his successor Montmorin, one of the most honest and worthy of
human beings.

Our commerce in the Mediterranean was placed under early alarm by the
capture of two of our vessels and crews by the Barbary cruisers. I was very
unwilling that we should acquiesce in the European humiliation of paying a
tribute to those lawless pirates, and endeavored to form an association of
the powers subject to habitual depredations from them. I accordingly
prepared and proposed to their ministers at Paris, for consultation with
their governments, articles of a special confederation in the following

* * *
"Proposals for concerted operation among the powers at war with the
Piratical States of Barbary.

1. It is proposed that the several powers at war with the
Piratical States of Barbary, or any two or more of them who shall
be willing, shall enter into a convention to carry on their
operations against those states, in concert, beginning with the

2. This convention shall remain open to any other power who shall
at any future time wish to accede to it; the parties reserving a
right to prescribe the conditions of such accession, according to
the circumstances existing at the time it shall be proposed.

3. The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical
states to perpetual peace, without price, & to guarantee that
peace to each other.

4. The operations for obtaining this peace shall be constant
cruises on their coast with a naval force now to be agreed on. It
is not proposed that this force shall be so considerable as to be
inconvenient to any party. It is believed that half a dozen
frigates, with as many Tenders or Xebecs, one half of which shall
be in cruise, while the other half is at rest, will suffice.

5. The force agreed to be necessary shall be furnished by the
parties in certain quotas now to be fixed; it being expected that
each will be willing to contribute in such proportion as
circumstance may render reasonable.

6. As miscarriages often proceed from the want of harmony among
officers of different nations, the parties shall now consider &
decide whether it will not be better to contribute their quotas
in money to be employed in fitting out, and keeping on duty, a
single fleet of the force agreed on.

7. The difficulties and delays too which will attend the
management of these operations, if conducted by the parties
themselves separately, distant as their courts may be from one
another, and incapable of meeting in consultation, suggest a
question whether it will not be better for them to give full
powers for that purpose to their Ambassadors or other ministers
resident at some one court of Europe, who shall form a Committee
or Council for carrying this convention into effect; wherein the
vote of each member shall be computed in proportion to the quota
of his sovereign, and the majority so computed shall prevail in
all questions within the view of this convention. The court of
Versailles is proposed, on account of it's neighborhood to the
Mediterranean, and because all those powers are represented
there, who are likely to become parties to this convention.

8. To save to that council the embarrassment of personal
solicitations for office, and to assure the parties that their
contributions will be applied solely to the object for which they
are destined, there shall be no establishment of officers for the
said Council, such as Commis, Secretaries, or any other kind,
with either salaries or perquisites, nor any other lucrative
appointments but such whose functions are to be exercised on
board the sd vessels.

9. Should war arise between any two of the parties to this
convention it shall not extend to this enterprise, nor interrupt
it; but as to this they shall be reputed at peace.

10. When Algiers shall be reduced to peace, the other pyratical
states, if they refuse to discontinue their pyracies shall become
the objects of this convention, either successively or together
as shall seem best.

11. Where this convention would interfere with treaties actually
existing between any of the parties and the sd states of Barbary,
the treaty shall prevail, and such party shall be allowed to
withdraw from the operations against that state."

* * *
Spain had just concluded a treaty with Algiers at the expense of 3.
millions of dollars, and did not like to relinquish the benefit of that
until the other party should fail in their observance of it. Portugal,
Naples, the two Sicilies, Venice, Malta, Denmark and Sweden were favorably
disposed to such an association; but their representatives at Paris
expressed apprehensions that France would interfere, and, either openly or
secretly support the Barbary powers; and they required that I should
ascertain the dispositions of the Count de Vergennes on the subject. I had
before taken occasion to inform him of what we were proposing, and
therefore did not think it proper to insinuate any doubt of the fair
conduct of his government; but stating our propositions, I mentioned the
apprehensions entertained by us that England would interfere in behalf of
those piratical governments. "She dares not do it," said he. I pressed it
no further. The other agents were satisfied with this indication of his
sentiments, and nothing was now wanting to bring it into direct and formal
consideration, but the assent of our government, and their authority to
make the formal proposition. I communicated to them the favorable prospect
of protecting our commerce from the Barbary depredations, and for such a
continuance of time as, by an exclusion of them from the sea, to change
their habits & characters from a predatory to an agricultural people:
towards which however it was expected they would contribute a frigate, and
it's expenses to be in constant cruise. But they were in no condition to
make any such engagement. Their recommendatory powers for obtaining
contributions were so openly neglected by the several states that they
declined an engagement which they were conscious they could not fulfill
with punctuality; and so it fell through.

May 17. In 1786. while at Paris I became acquainted with John Ledyard of
Connecticut, a man of genius, of some science, and of fearless courage, &
enterprise. He had accompanied Capt Cook in his voyage to the Pacific, had
distinguished himself on several occasions by an unrivalled intrepidity,
and published an account of that voyage with details unfavorable to Cook's
deportment towards the savages, and lessening our regrets at his fate.
Ledyard had come to Paris in the hope of forming a company to engage in the
fur trade of the Western coast of America. He was disappointed in this, and
being out of business, and of a roaming, restless character, I suggested to
him the enterprise of exploring the Western part of our continent, by
passing thro St. Petersburg to Kamschatka, and procuring a passage thence
in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka Sound, whence he might make his
way across the continent to America; and I undertook to have the permission
of the Empress of Russia solicited. He eagerly embraced the proposition,
and M. de Semoulin, the Russian Ambassador, and more particularly Baron
Grimm the special correspondent of the Empress, solicited her permission
for him to pass thro' her dominions to the Western coast of America. And
here I must correct a material error which I have committed in another
place to the prejudice of the Empress. In writing some Notes of the life of
Capt Lewis, prefixed to his expedition to the Pacific, I stated that the
Empress gave the permission asked, & afterwards retracted it. This idea,
after a lapse of 26 years, had so insinuated itself into my mind, that I
committed it to paper without the least suspicion of error. Yet I find, on
recurring to my letters of that date that the Empress refused permission at
once, considering the enterprise as entirely chimerical. But Ledyard would
not relinquish it, persuading himself that by proceeding to St. Petersburg
he could satisfy the Empress of it's practicability and obtain her
permission. He went accordingly, but she was absent on a visit to some
distant part of her dominions,4 and he pursued his course to within 200.
miles of Kamschatka, where he was overtaken by an arrest from the Empress,
brought back to Poland, and there dismissed. I must therefore in justice,
acquit the Empress of ever having for a moment countenanced, even by the
indulgence of an innocent passage thro' her territories this interesting

May 18. The pecuniary distresses of France produced this year a measure of
which there had been no example for near two centuries, & the consequences
of which, good and evil, are not yet calculable. For it's remote causes we
must go a little back.

Celebrated writers of France and England had already sketched good
principles on the subject of government. Yet the American Revolution seems
first to have awakened the thinking part of the French nation in general
from the sleep of despotism in which they were sunk. The officers too who
had been to America, were mostly young men, less shackled by habit and
prejudice, and more ready to assent to the suggestions of common sense, and
feeling of common rights. They came back with new ideas & impressions. The
press, notwithstanding it's shackles, began to disseminate them.
Conversation assumed new freedoms. Politics became the theme of all
societies, male and female, and a very extensive & zealous party was formed
which acquired the appellation of the Patriotic party, who, sensible of the
abusive government under which they lived, sighed for occasions of
reforming it. This party comprehended all the honesty of the kingdom
sufficiently at it's leisure to think, the men of letters, the easy
Bourgeois, the young nobility partly from reflection, partly from mode, for
these sentiments became matter of mode, and as such united most of the
young women to the party. Happily for the nation, it happened at the same
moment that the dissipations of the Queen and court, the abuses of the
pension-list, and dilapidations in the administration of every branch of
the finances, had exhausted the treasures and credit of the nation,
insomuch that it's most necessary functions were paralyzed. To reform these
abuses would have overset the minister; to impose new taxes by the
authority of the King was known to be impossible from the determined
opposition of the parliament to their enregistry. No resource remained then
but to appeal to the nation. He advised therefore the call of an assembly
of the most distinguished characters of the nation, in the hope that by
promises of various and valuable improvements in the organization and
regimen of the government, they would be induced to authorize new taxes, to
controul the opposition of the parliament, and to raise the annual revenue
to the level of expenditures. An Assembly of Notables therefore, about 150.
in number named by the King, convened on the 22d. of Feb. The Minister
(Calonne) stated to them that the annual excess of expenses beyond the
revenue, when Louis XVI. came to the throne, was 37. millions of livres;
that 440. millns. had been borrowed to reestablish the navy; that the
American war had cost them 1440. millns. (256. mils. of Dollars) and that
the interest of these sums, with other increased expenses had added 40
millns. more to the annual deficit. (But a subseqt. and more candid
estimate made it 56. millns.) He proffered them an universal redress of
grievances, laid open those grievances fully, pointed out sound remedies,
and covering his canvas with objects of this magnitude, the deficit
dwindled to a little accessory, scarcely attracting attention. The persons
chosen were the most able & independent characters in the kingdom, and
their support, if it could be obtained, would be enough for him. They
improved the occasion for redressing their grievances, and agreed that the
public wants should be relieved; but went into an examination of the causes
of them. It was supposed that Calonne was conscious that his accounts could
not bear examination; and it was said and believed that he asked of the
King to send 4. members to the Bastile, of whom the M. de la Fayette was
one, to banish 20. others, & 2. of his Ministers. The King found it shorter
to banish him. His successor went on in full concert with the Assembly. The
result was an augmentation of the revenue, a promise of economies in it's
expenditure, of an annual settlement of the public accounts before a
council, which the Comptroller, having been heretofore obliged to settle
only with the King in person, of course never settled at all; an
acknowledgment that the King could not lay a new tax, a reformation of the
criminal laws, abolition of torture, suppression of Corvees, reformation of
the gabelles, removal of the interior custom houses, free commerce of grain
internal & external, and the establishment of Provincial assemblies; which
alltogether constituted a great mass of improvement in the condition of the
nation. The establishment of the Provincial assemblies was in itself a
fundamental improvement. They would be of the choice of the people, one
third renewed every year, in those provinces where there are no States,
that is to say over about three fourths of the kingdom. They would be
partly an Executive themselves, & partly an Executive council to the
Intendant, to whom the Executive power, in his province had been heretofore
entirely delegated. Chosen by the people, they would soften the execution
of hard laws, & having a right of representation to the King, they would
censure bad laws, suggest good ones, expose abuses, and their
representations, when united, would command respect. To the other
advantages might be added the precedent itself of calling the Assemblee des
Notables, which would perhaps grow into habit. The hope was that the
improvements thus promised would be carried into effect, that they would be
maintained during the present reign, & that that would be long enough for
them to take some root in the constitution, so that they might come to be
considered as a part of that, and be protected by time, and the attachment
of the nation.

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