Papers of John Adams, volume 17

To the Count Frederik von Reventlow

From Richard Henry Lee

From Thomas Jefferson, 31 July 1785 Jefferson, Thomas Adams, John
From Thomas Jefferson
Dear Sir Paris July 31. 1785.

I was honoured yesterday with your’s of the 24th. instant. when the {1st. article} of {our instrns} of May {7.} 1784.1 was {under debate in Congress,} it was {proposed} that {neither party} should make {the other pay} in {their ports greater duties than} they {paid} in the {ports} of the {other.} one {Objection} to this was {it’s impracticability,} another {that it} would {put it} out {of our power to lay} such {duties} on {alien importation} as might {encourage importation} by {natives. some members} much {attached} to {English policy} thought such a {distinction} should actually be {established. some} thought the {power} to do it should be {reserved} in {case any} peculiar circumstances should {call for it, tho} under the present or {perhaps any} probable {circumstances they} did not {think} it would be {good policy} ever to {exercise} it. the {footing gentis amicissimi} was therefore {adopted} as you see in the {instruction.}2 as far as my enquiries enable me to judge {France & Holland} make no {distinction of duties between Aliens} and {natives. I} also rather believe that the {other states of Europe} make {none, England} excepted, to whom this {policy,} as that of her {navigation act, seems 289peculiar.} the question then {is, Should} we {disarm ourselves} of the {power to} make this {distinction against all nations} in order to {purchase an exemption} from the {Alien duties} in {England} only; for if we {put her importations} on the {footing of native,} all other {nations with whom we treat will} have a {right to claim the same. I} think we {should because against other nations} who make no {distinction} in their {ports between us} & their {own subjects,} we ought {not to} make a {distinction in ours.} and {if the English} will {agree} in {like manner to} make none, we {should with equal reason abandon} the {right} as against {them.} I think all the {world would gain} by {setting commerce} at perfect {liberty. I} remember that when we were {digesting} the {general form} of {our treaty} this {proposition} to {put foreigners} and {natives on the same footing} was {considered} and we were {all three} ({Dr. F.}) as {well as you} and {myself} in {favor of} it. {we} finally however {did not admit} it partly from the {objection} you {mention, but} more {still} on account of {our instructions.} but tho the {English proclamation} had {appeared} in {America} at the time of {framing these instructions} I think it’s {effect as to alien duties} had {not yet been experienced} and therefore was {not attended} to. {if it} had been {noted} in the {debate I am} sure that the {annihilation of our whole trade} would have been {thought too great a price to pay} for the {reservation of} a {barren power} which a {majority of the members} did not propose {ever to exercise tho} they were willing to {retain it. stipulating equal rights} for {foreigners & natives we} obtain more in {foreign ports than} our {instructions require,} and {we} only {part} within {our own ports,} a {power} of which {sound policy} would {probably} for {ever forbid} the {exercise.} add to this that {our treaty will be} for a very {short term,} and {if any} evil be {experienced under it,} a {reformation will soon} be in {our power. I am therefore} for {putting} this among {our original propositions} to the {court of London. if} it should {prove} an {insuperable obstacle with them, or if} it should {stand} in the way of {a greater advantage, we} can {but abandon} it in the {course} of the {negociation.}

In my copy of the cypher, on the Alphabetical side, numbers are wanting from the word {“Denmark”} to {“disc”} inclusive, and from {“gone”} to {“governor”} inclusive. I suppose them to have been omitted in copying. will you be so good as to send them to me from yours by the first safe conveyance?3 compliments to the ladies & to Colo. Smith from Dr. Sir / Your friend & servant

Th: Jefferson

RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “Mr Jefferson July 31. / 1785.” The decoded text, by WSS, appears on the RC below each line. On the third and fourth pages of the RC, otherwise blank except for the endorsement, is CFA’s decoded version of the letter, which he designated as a “Translation.” The text that Jefferson encoded has been supplied from his draft (DLC:Jefferson Papers).


See vol. 16:193.


At this point in his draft, Jefferson wrote and then canceled, “I do not recollect whether your proposition, to put foreigners on the footing of natives, was proposed made at all but the object which excluded the other proposition would oppose this also. I am of opinion the effect of Alien duties in England was not at that moment known or attended to.”


The information requested here was enclosed with JA’s reply of 7 Aug., below. In WSS’s hand, it supplied the code numbers for the words or portions of words requested by Jefferson, but see Jefferson’s letter of 17 Aug., below, regarding the arrival of the 7 Aug. letter and the enclosure, which had been opened en route.