JEFFERSON, Thomas. Letter signed ("Th:Jefferson") as U.S. Secretary of State, to His Excellency Juan de Quesada y Barnuevo, Governor of East Florida, Philadelphia, 10 March 1791. 2 pages, 4to (9 3/8 x 7¾ in.), integral blank with recipient's docket, second page very lightly browned, otherwise in excellent condition.
"JUSTICE AND FRIENDSHIP": THE PROBLEM OF FUGITIVE SLAVES SEEKING FREEDOM IN FLORIDA
A particularly significant early diplomatic letter which curiously foreshadows the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, enacted more than a half-century later in response to the same issue. On 10 March Governor Quesada had written Secretary of State Jefferson, informing him that the Queen of Spain had ordered that fugitive slaves from the U.S. would not be permitted to enter Spanish Florida as free persons and requesting cooperation in recovering fugitives from Spanish Florida who had sought shelter in Georgia.
Here, the Secretary of State formally notifies Quesada that a representative (James Seagrove, Superintendant of the Creek Indians) is being sent to enter negotiations for restitution: "We have received with great Satisfaction, notification of the Orders of his Catholic Majesty, not to permit that Persons held in Slavery within the United States, introduce themselves as free Persons into the province of Florida. The known justice of his Majesty and of his Government was a certain Dependance to us, that such should be his Will. The assurance your Excellency has been pleased to give us of your friendly Dispositions, leave us no doubt you will have faithfully executed a Regulation so essential to Harmony and good Neighborhood. As a consequence of the same Principles of Justice and Friendship, we trust that your Excellency will permit, to aid the Recovery of Persons of the same description [slaves], who have heretofore taken refuge within your Government. The bearer hereof, James Seagrove Esqr., is authorized to wait on your Excellency to confer on this Subject, and to concur in such arrangements as you shall approve for the recovery of such Fugitives..."
Jefferson's letter documents one of the first instances in which the new nation was forced to confront the problem of fugitive slaves. The issue--inevitable whenever a slave-holding and a free state shared a border--was destined to become increasingly contentious both internationally and, later, even within the nation's own borders. In his personal letter of instructions to James Seagrove which accompanied Jefferson's letter, President Washington authorized Seagrove to enter into negotiation with Quesada; characterizing Seagrove's mission as "delicate in its nature," and likely "to require the greatest address and temper in its treatment." Seagrove's first task, Washington wrote, was "to arrest the further reception of fugitive slaves, your next to obtain restitution of those slaves, who have fled to Florida since the date of Governor Quesada's letter to Mr. Jefferson," and finally to secure "the Governor's order for a general relinquishment of all fugitive slaves, who were the property of citizens of the United States..." (see Washington, Writings, ed. J.C. Fitzpatrick, 31:288-290). Initially an outspoken opponent of the institution of slavery (especially in his Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785), Jefferson had begun by this period to evolve "a somewhat tortured position on slavery that combined unequivocal condemnation of the institution in the abstract with blatant procrastination whenever specific emancipation schemes were suggested" (Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx, p.175).
Provenance: Paul C. Richards, Catalogue 181 (1983), no.129.