JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph manuscript translation (unsigned) as Secretary of State, of A LETTER FROM KING LOUIS XVI OF FRANCE TO PRESIDENT GEORGE WASHINGTON, headed "Translation of the King of France's letter of Sep.19.1791 to the President," addressed at bottom to "The United States of North America." [Louis's letter dated 19 Sepotember 1791, Jefferson's translation prepared in Philadelphia, ca 5 March 1792]. 1 page, 4to, (9 1/8 x 7 3/8 in.). Fine condition.
KING TO PRESIDENT: LOUIS XVI INFORMS PRESIDENT WASHINGTON THAT HE HAS ACCEPTED THE NEW REVOLUTIONARY CONSTITUTION OF FRANCE
An important letter bearing on French-American relations whose reception and interpretation nearly caused a rupture between the Executive and Legislative branches. The Secretary of State has carefully translated an historic letter from King Louis XVI to President Washington announcing his formal acceptance of the new French Constitution, whose provisions had drastically curtailed the powers of the monarch. The text penned here by Jefferson is identical to that furnished by the President to Congress for their information on 5 March 1792. In his accompanying message of transmittal, Washington ackowledged Congress's "friendly interest...in whatever may promote the happiness and prosperity of the French nation" (Messages and Papers of the Presidents, ed. J.D. Richards, 1:116-117).
The task of translating this submissive message from the humbled French King must have provided a certain grim satisfaction to the Secretary of State. As U.S. Minister to France in 1785-1789, Jefferson had witnessed the early phases of the Revolution, including the storming of the Bastille, and assisted Lafayette and Rabaut de St. Etienne in drafting the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," which the King steadfastly refused to endorse. Since Jefferson's return, the King had attempted to flee the country in June 1791, but was intercepted and brought back to Paris a virtual prisoner, while the Assembly drafted a new Constitution intended to make France a Constitutional monarchy. This was the Constitution accepted by the King on 14 September.
The King's letter, written five days later, is ambiguously addressed to "The United States of America." Jefferson's translation reads: "Very dear, great friend & allies. We make it our duty to inform you that we have accepted the Constitution which has been presented to us in the name of the nation, & according to which France will be henceforth governed. We do not doubt that you will take an interest in an event so important to our kingdom & to us; & it is with real pleasure we take this occasion to renew to you assurances of the sincere friendship we bear you. Whereupon we pray god to have you, very dear, very great friends & allies in his just and holy keeping. Written at Paris the 19th day of September 1791. Your very good friend & ally Louis." (Jefferson has even added the name of the scribe, Montmorin, who penned the letter on the King's behalf).
The King's letter nearly touched off controversy because the President and many in Congress held widely differing views of the French Constitution, the King's acceptance of it, and France's future course. Initially, the House seemed to deem it proper for the President to answer Louis directly. Washington therefore asked Jefferson to draft a letter to the King in reply. Jefferson's draft "deliberately avoided even the slighteset hint of praise for the French Constitution because of his recognition that the President was much less sanguine than he about the course of the French Revolution." That letter, signed by Washington on 10 March, had already been dispatched through diplomatic channels when the House of Representatives, at the instigation of radical members including James Madison, passed a follow-up resolution asking that the President, in his response to the King, express strong approval of the Constitution; the Senate followed suit with a milder, but similar resolution.
"Washington was infuriated," the editors of the Jefferson Papers note. He regarded the House resolution "as a flagrant example of legislative encroachment on the executive authority to conduct foreign affairs" (Jefferson, Papers, ed. C. Cullen et al, 23:221fn). In addition, he considered any comment on the French plan of government to be unwarranted meddling in that nation's sovereign affairs. Jefferson, though, convinced the President to overlook Congress's incipient challenge to the executive's Constitutional authority and to comply with Congress, pointing out the widespread American sentiment in support of the French revolutionary cause. Accordingly, Washington ordered his first letter retrieved from the boat on which it was to be carried, and a new letter--again drafted by Jefferson--acknowledging Congress's approval of the new Constitution and attaching copies of its approving resolutions, was substituted. Jefferson's translation of the king's letter was also published in Philip Freneau's National Gazette on March 8.
For a detailed account of the complex ramifications of the letter, see Papers, ed. C. Cullen et al, 23:221fn. and Jefferson's memoranda on his meetings with Washington, ibid. 23:260-265.
Provenance: Philip D. Sang (sale, Sotheby Parke-Bernet, 20 June 1979, lot 721).