History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/First/II:17

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Chapter 17: Jefferson's Enemies[edit]

Whatever objects the President and the Secretary of State may have expected to gain by their change of tone in the winter of 1803-1804 toward Spain and England, they must have been strangely free from human passions if they were unconscious of making at least two personal enemies upon whose ill-will they might count. If they were unaware of giving their victims cause for bitterness,—or if, as seemed more probable, they were indifferent to it,—the frequent chances of retaliation which the two ministers enjoyed soon showed that in diplomacy revenge was not only sweet but easy. Even the vehement Spanish hatred felt by Yrujo for Madison fell short of the patient Anglo-Saxon antipathy rooted in the minds of the British minister and his wife. When Yrujo, in March 1804, burst into the State Department with the Mobile Act in his hand and denounced Madison to his face as party to an "infamous libel" he succeeded in greatly annoying the secretary without violating Jefferson's "canons of etiquette." Under the code of republican manners which the President and his secretary had introduced, they could not fairly object to anything which Yrujo might choose to say or do. Absolute equality and "the rule of pêle mêle" reached their natural conclusion between such hosts and guests in freedom of language and vehemence of passion. What might have been Merry's feelings or conduct had he met with more cordiality and courtesy was uncertain; but the mortifications of his first month at Washington embittered his temper, and left distinct marks of acrimony in the diplomacy of America and England, until war wiped out the memory of reciprocal annoyances. The Spaniard's enmity was already a peril to Madison's ambition, and one which became more threatening every day; but the Englishman's steady resentment was perhaps more mischievous, if less noisy. The first effect of Jefferson's tactics was to ally the British minister with Yrujo; the second bound him to Senator Pickering and Representative Griswold; the third united his fortunes with those of Aaron Burr. Merry entered the path of secret conspiracy; he became the confidant of all the intriguers in Washington, and gave to their intrigues the support of his official influence.

The Federalists worked mischievously to widen the breach between the British minister and the President. They encouraged Merry's resentment. Late in January, nearly two months after the first pêle-mêle, Madison officially informed Merry for the first time that the President meant to recognize no precedence between foreign ministers, but that all, even including secretaries of legation in charge, were to be treated with perfect equality, or what Madison termed "a complete pell-mell," and would be received, even at their first audience, with no more ceremony than was practised toward any other individual. Merry replied that this notice should have been given to him on his arrival, and that he could not acquiesce in it without instructions. He then wrote to his Government,[1]

"I have now but too much reason to fear, what I did not at first suspect, that the marked inattention toward me of the present Administration of this country has been a part of their unfriendly disposition toward his Majesty and toward the nation which I have the honor to represent."
At the same moment, in January and February, 1804, Pickering and Griswold were plotting their New England confederacy. Merry was taken by them into the secret, and gave them aid. The Senate, February 9, voted to strike out the fifth article of Rufus King's boundary convention, and to approve the other articles, which provided for fixing the disputed boundary-line of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Merry wrote to his Government that the object of cancelling the fifth article was to deprive Great Britain of her treaty-right to navigate the Mississippi:[2]

"It is hardly necessary for me to point out to your Lordship that the other articles of the convention are of great importance to the Eastern States of America, which are much interested in the immediate settlement of the eastern boundary. I am led to believe from the language of some of the members of this State [Massachusetts] that their anxiety on this head is so great that the rejection of those articles by his Majesty would, as having been occasioned by the exclusion on the part of this government of the fifth article, prove to be a great exciting cause to them to go forward rapidly in the steps which they have already commenced toward a separation from the Southern part of the Union. The members of the Senate have availed themselves of the opportunity of their being collected here to hold private meetings on this subject, and I learn from them that their plans and calculations respecting the event have been long seriously resolved. They think that whenever it shall take place it will happen suddenly, yet with quietness and the universal concurrence of the people. Although it does not appear to be their opinion that any external secret agency would accelerate the moment, they naturally look forward to Great Britain for support and assistance whenever the occasion shall arrive."

As the summer of 1804 came on, Merry's despatches grew more sombre. He reported that at Norfolk twelve British ships were detained at one time in consequence of the desertion of their seamen, several of whom had entered the United States service on the frigates which were under orders for Tripoli. Six British seamen having deserted at Charleston and re-enlisted in the same way, Merry remonstrated. He was told that the seamen, having voluntarily enlisted in the United States service, could not be restored, because the British government never restored American seamen who had voluntarily enlisted. Merry could only reply that the British government did not knowingly enlist deserters. On the other hand, Madison remonstrated in "high language," "accompanied even with some degree of menace," against the conduct of Captain Bradley of the frigate "Cambrian," one of the British squadron cruising off Sandy Hook, for taking a British seaman out of a British vessel with American jurisdiction. Merry added that in contrast to this strictness toward England the authorities had allowed the officers of the French frigate "La Poursuivante," at Baltimore, to send armed parties on shore at night for the purpose of seizing French seamen, one of whom they had actually taken by force from a Spanish vessel lying at the wharf.

"From this government having brought into serious discussion objects which would certainly have passed unnoticed had they occurred in relation to the King's enemies, his Majesty's ministers may be led to suspect that such a resolution has been dictated by some hostile design," wrote Merry, with increasing solemnity; "but it is proper for me to observe that. . . I cannot persuade myself that they will dare to provoke hostilities with his Majesty, at least before Mr. Jefferson's re-election to the Presidency shall have taken place."[3]

Merry made a representation to Madison on impressments; but his arguments did not satisfy the secretary. "This specimen of Merry shows him to be a mere diplomatic pettifogger," wrote Madison privately to the President.[4]

Merry's temper was in this stage of ever-increasing irritability, when an event occurred which gave him, as it seemed, a chance to gratify his resentments. After the adjournment of Congress in March the British minister heard nothing from Pickering and Griswold. Early in June he wrote home that the democrats were carrying all the elections:[5]

"In addition to this triumph of the reigning party, there have lately appeared in the prints of this country, which are generally made the instruments of the measures of all parties, publications of the discovery that has been made of secret meetings held at this place by some of the Federal members during the last sitting of Congress for the purpose of consulting upon the important point of the separation of the Eastern from the Southern States, which publications seem to have imposed a complete silence upon the Federal adherents."

A few weeks afterward, July 11, occurred the duel between Burr and Hamilton. Merry had no relations with Hamilton, and felt no peculiar interest in his fate; but he had become intimate with Burr at Washington, and watched his career with the curiosity which was the natural result of their common hatred of Jefferson. July 21 Burr fled from New York, and a few days afterward reached Philadelphia, where Merry was passing the summer. While there, Burr sent one of his friends—an Englishman named Williamson—to the British minister with a startling message, which Merry immediately transmitted to his Government:[6]

"I have just received an offer from Mr. Burr, the actual Vice-President of the United States (which situation he is about to resign), to lend his assistance to his Majesty's government in any manner in which they may think fit to employ him, particularly in endeavoring to effect a separation of the western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the mountains, in its whole extent. His proposition on this and other subjects will be fully detailed to your Lordship by Colonel Williamson, who has been the bearer of them to me, and who will embark from England in a few days. It is therefore only necessary for me to add that if after what is generally known of the profligacy of Mr. Burr's character, his Majesty's minister should think proper to listen to his offer, his present situation in this country, where he is now cast off as much by the democratic as by the Federal party, and where he still preserves connections with some people of influence, added to his great ambition and spirit of revenge against the present Administration, may possibly induce him to exert the talents and activity which he possesses with fidelity to his employers."

Meanwhile a change of ministry occurred in England. Pitt returned to power, representing a state of feeling toward America very different from that which prevailed under the mild rule of Addington. Subordinates were quick to feel such changes in the temper of their superiors. Every British officer knew that henceforth he had behind him an energetic government, which required vigorous action in maintaining what it claimed as British rights. Merry felt the new impulse like the rest; but Pitt's return acted most seriously on the naval service. After the renewal of the war in May, 1803, a small British squadron cruised off Sandy Hook, keeping a sharp look-out for French frigates in New York Harbor, and searching every merchant-vessel for enemy's property. During the summer of 1804 this annoyance became steadily greater, until the port of New York was almost blockaded, until the port of New York was almost blockaded, and every vessel that sailed out or in was liable not only to be stopped and searched, but to lose some part of its crew by impressment. The British ministry did indeed instantly recall Captain Bradley of the "Cambrian" for violating American jurisdiction, and gave strict orders for lenient exercise of belligerent rights; but all the more it showed the intention of insisting upon the submission of America to such rules as England should prescribe. The President, already in trouble with Spain, began to feel the double peril; but Congress pressed him forward, and even while busy with the trial of Judge Chase it found time for two measures which greatly disturbed the British envoy.

The first of these measures was an "Act for the more effectual preservation of peace in the ports and harbors of the United States." Under this law any United States marshal, on the warrant of any United States judge, was bound to board any British or other foreign ship-of-war lying in American waters, and seize every person charged with having violated the peace. If the marshal should be resisted, or if surrender was not made, he must call in the military power, and compel surrender by force of arms. If death should ensue, he should be held blameless; but the resisting party should be punished as for felonious homicide. Further, the President was authorized to interdict at will the ports of the United States to all or any armed vessels of a foreign nation; and to arrest and indict any foreign officer who should come within the jurisdiction after committing on the high seas "any trespass or tort, or any spoliation, on board any vessel of the United States, or any unlawful interruption or vexation of trading-vessels actually coming to or going from the United States."

Such laws were commonly understood in diplomacy as removing the subject in question from the field of negotiation, preliminary to reprisals and war. The act was passed with little debate in the last hours of the session, in the midst of the confusion which followed the acquittal of Judge Chase. Merry immediately called on the Secretary of State, and asked him for some assurance that might serve to quiet the apprehensions which his Government would feel on reading the Act.[7] Madison could give none, except that the President would probably not exercise for the present his discretionary powers. As for the words, "any trespass or tort," Madison frankly avowed "he could not but confess they were meant to imply the impressment of any individual whatsoever from on board an American vessel, the exercise of which pretended right on the part of his Majesty's officers was a matter, he said, which the sense of the people at large would never allow the government of this country to acquiesce in."

To this announcement Merry replied in substance that the right was one which would certainly never be abandoned by his Government; and there the matter rested at the close of Jefferson's first term. Madison assured the British minister that the authority granted to the President by Congress over foreign ships of war in American waters would not at present be enforced. He went even a step further toward conciliation. The Legislature of Virginia was induced quietly to modify the Act which had hitherto offered so much encouragement to the desertion of British seamen.[8]

The second threatening measure was a Resolution of the Senate, March 2, 1805, calling upon the Secretary of State for such Acts of the British Parliament as imposed heavier duties on the exportation of merchandise to the United States than on similar goods exported to the nations of Europe. Such an export duty upon merchandise for the United States and the West Indies had in fact been imposed by Parliament some two years before; and this Resolution foreshadowed some commercial retaliation by Congress.

While sending to his Government these warnings to expect from Jefferson's second administration a degree of hostility more active than from the first, Merry suggested means of giving the United States occupation that should induce them to leave England alone. A new element of conspiracy disclosed itself to the British minister.

Under the Louisiana treaty of cession, the United States government had promised that "the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States, and admitted as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States." This pledge had been broken. The usual display of casuistry had been made to prove that the infraction of treaty was no infraction at all; but the more outspoken Republicans avowed, as has been already shown, that the people of Louisiana could not be trusted, or in the commoner phrase that they were unfit for self-government, and must be treated as a conquered race until they learned to consider themselves American citizens.

The people of New Orleans finding themselves in a position of dependence, which, owing chiefly to their hatred of Governor Claiborne, seemed more irritating than their old Spanish servitude, sent three representatives to Washington to urge upon Congress the duty of executing the treaty. Messieurs Sauvé, Derbigny, and Destréhan accordingly appeared at Washington, and in December, 1804, presented a remonstrance so strong that Government was greatly embarrassed to deal with it.[9] Any reply that should repudiate either the treaty obligation or the principles of American liberty and self-government was out of the question; any reply that should affirm either the one or the other was fatal to the system established by Congress in Louisiana. John Randolph, on whose shoulders the duty fell, made a report on the subject. "It is only under the torture," said he, "that this article of the treaty of Paris can be made to speak the language ascribed to it by the memorialists;" but after explaining in his own way what the article did not mean, he surprised his audience by admitting in effect that the law of the last session was repugnant to the Constitution, and that the people of Louisiana had a right to self-government.[10] Senator Giles said in private that Randolph's report was "a perfect transcript of Randolph's own character; it began by setting the claims of the Louisianians at defiance, and concluded with a proposal to give them more than they asked."[11]

Under these influences the three delegates from the creole society succeeded in getting, not what they asked, but a general admission that the people of Louisiana had political rights, which Congress recognized by an Act, approved March 2, 1805, to the extent of allowing them to elect a General Assembly of twenty-five representatives, and of promising them admission into the Union whenever their free inhabitants should reach the number of sixty thousand. Considering that the people of Louisiana were supposed to be entitled to "all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens," Messieurs Sauvé, Derbigny, and Destréhan thought the concession too small, and expressed themselves strongly on the subject. Naturally the British minister, as well as other ill-affected persons at Washington, listened eagerly to the discontent which promised to breed hostility to the Union.

"The deputies above mentioned," wrote Merry to his Government,[12] "who while they had any hopes of obtaining the redress of their grievances had carefully avoided giving any umbrage or jealousy to the Government by visiting or holding any intercourse with the agents of foreign Powers at this place, when they found that their fate was decided, although the law had not as yet passed, no longer abstained from communicating with those agents, nor from expressing very publicly the great dissatisfaction which the law would occasion among their constituents,—going even so far as to say that it would not be tolerated, and that they would be obliged to seek redress from some other quarter; while they observed that the opportunity they had had of obtaining a correct knowledge of the state of things in this country, and of witnessing the proceedings of Congress, afforded them no confidence in the stability of the Union, and furnished them with such strong motives to be dissatisfied with the form and mode of government as to make them regret extremely the connection which they had been forced into with it. These sentiments they continued to express till the moment of their departure from hence, which took place the day after the close."
Another man watched the attitude of the three delegates with extreme interest. Aaron Burr, March 4, 1805, ceased to hold the office of Vice-president. Since the previous August he had awaited the report of his friend Colonel Williamson, who entered into conferences with members of the British ministry, hoping to gain their support for Burr's plan of creating a Western Confederacy in the Valley of the Ohio. No sooner was Burr out of office than he went to Merry with new communications, which Merry hastened to send to his Government in a despatch marked "Most secret" in triplicate.[13]
"Mr. Burr (with whom I know that the deputies became very intimate during their residence here) has mentioned to me that the inhabitants of Louisiana seem determined to render themselves independent of the United States, and that the execution of their design is only delayed by the difficulty of obtaining previously an assurance of protection and assistance from some foreign Power, and of concerting and connecting their independence with that of the inhabitants of the western parts of the United States, who must always have a command over them by the rivers which communicate with the Mississippi. It is clear that Mr. Burr (although he has not as yet confided to me the exact nature and extent of his plan) means to endeavor to be the instrument of effecting such a connection."

For this purpose Burr asked the aid of the British government, and defined the nature of the assistance he should need,—a British squadron at the mouth of the Mississippi, and a loan of half a million dollars.

"I have only to add that if a strict confidence could be placed in him, he certainly possesses, perhaps in a much greater degree than any other individual in this country, all the talents, energy, intrepidity, and firmness which are required for such an enterprise."

Pending an answer to this proposal, Burr was to visit New Orleans and make himself the head of creole disaffection.

Merry was launched into the full tide of conspiracy. At the close of Jefferson's first term he saw reason to hope that he might soon repay with interest the debt of personal and political annoyance which he owed. While Yrujo was actively engaged in bringing upon Madison the anger of Spain and France, Merry endeavored to draw his Government into a system of open and secret reprisals upon the President.

That the new French minister was little better disposed than Merry and Yrujo has been already shown; but his causes for ill-will were of a different and less personal nature. Before Turreau's arrival at Washington in November, 1804, Pichon in one of his last despatches declared that Jefferson had already alienated every foreign Power whose enmity could be dangerous to the United States.

"The state of foreign relations offers a perspective which must put Mr. Jefferson's character to proof," Pichon wrote to Talleyrand in September, 1804.[14] "The United States find themselves compromised and at odds with France, England, and Spain at the same time. This state of things is in great part due to the indecision of the President, and to the policy which leads him to sacrifice everything for the sake of his popularity."

The complaint was common to all French ministers in the United States, and meant little more than that all Presidents and policies displeased them by stopping short of war on England, which was the object of French diplomacy; but this letter also showed that in Pichon's eyes the President had no friends. When Turreau arrived, a few weeks afterward, he quickly intimated that the President need expect from him not even such sentimental sympathy as had been so kindly given by Pichon.

At the same moment it was noticed that Jefferson changed his style of dress. "He has improved much in the article of dress," wrote Senator Plumer in December, 1804;[15] "he has laid aside the old slippers, red waistcoat, and soiled corduroy small-clothes, and was dressed all in black, with clean linen and powdered hair." Apparently the President had profited by the criticisms of the British minister, and was willing to avoid similar comments from the new French envoy; but he supposed that the Frenchman would show equal civility, and assume an equally republican style. He was mistaken. November 23, undisturbed by Merry's experience, Turreau presented himself at his first audience in full regimentals, and with so much gold lace that Jefferson was half inclined to resent it as an impertinence.[16] Turreau next refused to meet Merry at dinner. He followed up these demonstrations by embracing the cause of Yrujo, and ridiculing Madison to his face. He began by warning his Government that "these people have been thoroughly spoiled; it is time to put them back into their place."[17]

Turreau became intimate with the deputies from Louisiana, and notified Talleyrand that a separation of the western country from the Union was universally expected. Already, within three months of his arrival, he put his finger on the men who were to accomplish it.[18] Destréhan, he said, was a man of high merit; "but being only moderately ambitious, and head of a numerous family,—having acquired, too, a great personal esteem,—he is not likely to become the principal mover in innovations which are always dangerous without a combination of evidently favorable chances. It is still less likely that he will ever be the instrument of strangers who should seek to excite troubles for their personal advantage." As for Sauvé, much inferior to his colleague in abilities, he would be guided by Destréhan's influence. Derbigny was different. "Young still, with wit, ready expression, and French manners, I believe him to be greedy of fortune and fame; I suspect that every rôle will suit him, in order to acquire the one or the other; but there are men of more importance whom circumstances are taking to Louisiana."

Then Turreau, for the information of Talleyrand, drew a portrait of the military commander of Upper Louisiana, who had his headquarters at St. Louis, and whose influence on future events was to be watched.

"General Wilkinson is forty-eight years of age. He has an amiable exterior. Though said to be well-informed in civil and political matters, his military capacity is small. Ambitious and easily dazzled, fond of show and appearances, he complains rather indiscreetly, and especially after dinner, of the form of his government, which leaves officers few chances of fortune, advancement, and glory, and which does not pay its military chiefs enough to support a proper style. He listened with pleasure, or rather with enthusiasm, to the details which I gave him in regard to the organization, the dress, and the force of the French army. My uniform, the order with which I am decorated, are objects of envy to him; and he seems to hold to the American service only because he can do no better. General Wilkinson is the most intimate friend, or rather the most devoted creature, of Colonel Burr."

Talleyrand had become acquainted with Burr in the United States, and needed no warnings against him; but Turreau showed himself well-informed:

"Mr. Burr's career is generally looked upon as finished; but he is far from sharing that opinion, and I believe he would rather sacrifice the interests of his country than renounce celebrity and fortune. Although Louisiana is still only a Territory, it has obtained the right of sending a delegate to Congress. Louisiana is therefore to become the theatre of Mr. Burr's new intrigues; he is going there under the ægis of General Wilkinson."
Perhaps Turreau received this information from Derbigny, which might account for his estimate of the young man. Certainly Derbigny knew all that Turreau reported, for in an affidavit[19] two years afterward he admitted his knowledge.
"In the winter of 1804-1805," Derbigny made oath, "being then at Washington City in the capacity of a deputy from the inhabitants of Louisiana to Congress, jointly with Messrs. Destréhan and Sauvé, he was introduced to Colonel Burr, then Vice-president of the United States, by General Wilkinson, who strongly recommended to this deponent, and as he believes to his colleagues, to cultivate the acquaintance of Colonel Burr,—whom he used to call 'the first gentleman in America,' telling them that he was a man of most eminent talents both as a politician and as a military character; and. . . General Wilkinson told him several times that Colonel Burr, so soon as his Vice-presidency would be at an end, would go to Louisiana, where he had certain projects, adding that he was such a man as to succeed in anything he would undertake, and inviting this deponent to give him all the information in his power respecting that country; which mysterious hints appeared to this deponent very extraordinary, though he could not then understand them."

What Derbigny in 1807 professed not to have understood, seemed in 1804 clear to Turreau and Merry as well as to others. Turreau closed his catalogue by the significant remark: "I am not the only person who thinks that the assemblage of such men in a country already discontented is enough to give rise to serious troubles there." The treasonable plans of Burr and Wilkinson were a matter of common notoriety, and roused anxious comment even in the mind of John Randolph, who was nursing at home the mortification of Judge Chase's acquittal.[20] Randolph complained of "the easy credulity of Mr. Jefferson's temper," which made the President a fit material for intriguers to work upon. Certainly at the close of his first administration Jefferson seemed surrounded by enemies. The New England Federalists, the Louisiana creoles, Burr and his crew of adventurers in every part of the Union, joined hands with the ministers of England and Spain to make a hostile circle round the President; while the minister of France looked on without a wish to save the government whose friendship Bonaparte had sought to obtain at the cost of the most valuable province and the most splendid traditions of the French people.


  1. Merry to Hawkesbury, Jan. 30, 1804; MSS. British Archives.
  2. Merry to Hawkesbury, March 1, 1804; MSS. British Archives.
  3. Merry to Harrowby, July 18, 1804; MSS. British Archives.
  4. Madison to Jefferson, Aug. 28, 1804; Jefferson MSS.
  5. Merry to Hawkesbury, June 2, 1804; MSS. British Archives.
  6. Merry to Harrowby, Aug. 6, 1804; MSS. British Archives.
  7. Merry to Harrowby, March 4, 1805; MSS. British Archives.
  8. Merry to Harrowby, March 29, 1805; MSS. British Archives.
  9. Remonstrance of the People of Louisiana, Dec. 31, 1804; Annals of Congress, 1804-1805, Appendix, p. 1597.
  10. Report of Committee, Jan. 25, 1805; Annals of Congress, 1804-1805, p. 1014.
  11. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Feb. 1, 1805), i. 342.
  12. Merry to Harrowby, (No. 14), March 29, 1805; MSS. British Archives.
  13. Merry to Harrowby, (No. 15), most secret, March 29, 1805.
  14. Pichon to Talleyrand, 16 Fructidor, An xii. (Sept. 3, 1804); Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  15. Life of Plumer, p. 326.
  16. Diary of J. Q. Adams (Nov. 23, 1804), i. 316.
  17. Turreau to Talleyrand, 27 Janvier, 1805; Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  18. Turreau to Talleyrand, 9 Mars, 1805; Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  19. Affidavit of Peter Derbigny, Aug. 27, 1807. Clark's Proofs against Wilkinson; Note 18. App. p. 38.
  20. Adams's Randolph, p. 157.