Front Page Titles (by Subject) JAY TO JUDGE PETERS. - The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, vol. 4 (1794-1826)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
JAY TO JUDGE PETERS. - John Jay, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, vol. 4 (1794-1826) 
The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, ed. Henry P. Johnston, A.M. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890-93). Vol. 4 (1794-1826).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
JAY TO JUDGE PETERS.
Bedford, 29th March, 1811.
I have received your letter of the 14th ult., and also the book on Plaster-of-Paris, which you were so obliging as to send me, and for which accept my thanks.
Your letter conveyed to me the first and only information I have received, that a copy of President Washington’s valedictory address had been found among the papers of General Hamilton, and in his handwriting; and that a certain gentleman had also a copy of it in the same handwriting.
This intelligence is unpleasant and unexpected. Had the address been one of those official papers which, in the course of affairs, the secretary of the proper department might have prepared, and the President have signed, these facts would have been unimportant; but it was a personal act—of choice, not of official duty,—and it was so connected with other obvious considerations, as that he only could with propriety write it. In my opinion, President Washington must have been sensible of this propriety, and therefore strong evidence would be necessary to make me believe that he violated it. Whether he did or did not, is a question which naturally directs our attention to whatever affords presumptive evidence respecting it; and leads the mind into a long chain of correspondent reflections. I will give you a summary of those which have occurred to me; not because I think them necessary to settle the point in question, for the sequel will show that they are not, but because the occasion invites me to take the pleasure of reviewing and bearing testimony to the merits of our departed friend.
Is it to be presumed from these facts, that General Hamilton was the real, and the President only the reputed, author of that address? Although they countenance such a presumption, yet I think its foundation will be found too slight and shallow to resist that strong and full stream of counter evidence, which flows from the conduct and character of that great man,—a character not blown up into transient splendour by the breath of adulation, but, being composed of his great and memorable deeds, stands, and will forever stand, a glorious monument of human excellence.
So prone, however, is “poor human nature” to dislike and depreciate the superiority of contemporaries, that when these facts come to be generally known (and generally known they will be) many, with affected regret and hesitation, will infer and hint that Washington had less greatness of talent, and less greatness of mind, than his friends and admirers ascribed to him. Nor will the number of those be few, who, from personal or party inducements, will artfully encourage and diligently endeavour to give currency to such imputations.
On the other hand, there are men of candour and judgment (and time will increase their number) who, aiming only at truth, will cheerfully trace and follow its footsteps, and on finding, gladly embrace it. Urged by this laudable motive, they will attentively examine the history of his life; and in it they will meet with such numerous proofs of his knowledge and experience of men and things in general, and of our national affairs in particular, as to silence all doubts of his ability to conceive and express every idea in that address. A careful perusal of that history will convince them, that the principles of policy which it recommends as rules for the conduct of others, are precisely those by which he regulated his own.
There have been in the world but two systems or schools of policy; the one founded on the great principles of wisdom and rectitude, the other on cunning and its various artifices. To the first of these belonged Washington and all the other worthies of every country who ascended to the temple of honour through the temple of virtue. The doctrines, maxims, and precepts of this school have been explained and inculcated by the ablest writers, ancient and modern. In all civilized countries they are known, though often neglected; and in free states have always been publicly commended and taught. They crossed the Atlantic with our forefathers; and in our days particularly, have not only engaged the time and attention of students, but have been constantly and eloquently displayed by able men in our senates and assemblies. What reason can there be to suppose that Washington did not understand these subjects? If it be asked what these subjects comprehend or relate to, the answer is this: They relate to the nature and duties of man—to his propensities and passions—his virtues and vices—his habits and prejudices—his real and relative wants and enjoyments—his capacities for social and national happiness—and the means by which, according to time, place, and other existing circumstances, it is, in a greater or less degree, to be procured, preserved, or increased. From a profound investigation of these subjects, enlightened by experience, result all that knowledge and those maxims and precepts of sound policy which enable legislators and rulers to manage and govern public affairs wisely and justly.
By what other means than the practical uses of this knowledge could Washington have been able to lead and govern an army, hastily collected from various parts, and who brought with them to the field all the license and all the habits which they had indulged at home? Could he, by the force of orders and proclamations, have constrained them to render him that obedience, confidence, and warm attachment which he soon acquired, and which, throughout all vicissitudes and distresses, continued constant and undiminished to the last? By what other means could he have been able to frustrate the designs of dark cabals, and the unceasing intrigues of envious competitors, and the arts of the opposing enemy? By what other means could he have been able, in so masterly a manner, to meet and manage all those perplexing embarrassments which the revolutionary substitution of a new government—which the want of that power in Congress which they had not, and of that promptitude which no deliberative body can have—which the frequent destitution, and constant uncertainty of essentials supplies—which the incompetency of individuals, on whom much depended, the perfidy of others, and the mismanagement of many, could not fail to engender? We know, and history will inform posterity, that, from the first of his military career, he had to meet and encounter, and surmount a rapid succession of formidable dfficulties, even down to the time when his country was enabled, by the success of their arms, to obtain the honourable peace which terminated the war. His high and appointed course being then finished, he disdained the intimations of lawless ambition to prolong it. He disbanded the army under circumstances which required no common degree of policy or virtue; and, with universal admiration and plaudits, descended joyfully and serenely into the shades of retirement. They who ascribe all this to the guidance and protection of Providence, do well; but let them recollect, that Providence seldom interposes in human affairs but through the agency of human means.
When, at a subsequent and alarming period, the nation found that their affairs had gone into confusion, and that clouds, portending danger and distress, were rising over them from every quarter, they instituted under his auspices a more efficient government, and unanimously committed the administration of it to him. Would they have done this without the highest confidence in his political talents and wisdom? Certainly not. No novice in navigation was ever unanimously called upon to take the helm or command of a ship on the point of running among the breakers. This universal confidence would have proved a universal mistake, had it not been justified by the event. The unanimous opinion entertained and declared by a whole people in favour of any fellow-citizen is rarely erroneous,—especially in times of alarm and calamity.
To delineate the course and enumerate the measures which he took to arrive at success, would be to write a volume. The firmness and policy with which he overcame the obstacles placed in his way by the derangement of national affairs, by the devices of domestic demagogues and of foreign agents, as well as by the deleterious influences of the French Revolution, need not be particularized. Our records and histories and memoirs render it unnecessary. It is sufficient to say, and it can be said with truth, that his administration raised the nation out of confusion into order, out of degradation and distress into reputation and prosperity. It found us withering—it left us flourishing.
Is it to be believed that, after having thus led the nation out of a bewildered state, and guided them for many years from one degree of prosperity to another, he was not qualified, on retiring, to advise them how to proceed and go on? And what but this is the object and the burden of his valedictory address? He was persuaded that, as the national welfare had been recovered and established, so it could only be preserved and prolonged by a continued and steady adherence to those principles of sound policy and impartial justice which had invariably directed his administration. Although the knowledge of them had been spread and scattered among the people, here a little and there a little, yet, being desirous to mark even the last day of his public life by some act of public utility, he addressed and presented them to his fellow-citizens, in points of light so clear and strong, as to make deep impression on the public mind. These last parental admonitions of this father of his country were gratefully received and universally admired. But the experience of ages informs us that it is less difficult to give good advice, than to prevail on men to follow it.
Such and so obvious is the force of the preceding considerations, as to render doubts of the President’s ability to give the advice contained in the address too absurd to have many serious advocates. But it would not surprise me if certain classical gentlemen, associating the facts you mention with the style and fashion of the address, should intimate, that his ability to compose it substantially in his mind does not prove that he was also capable of communicating his advice in a paper so well written.
Let those gentlemen recollect the classical maxim which they learned at school:
They may also be referred to another classical maxim which reaches us, that they who well understand their subject will be at no loss for words:
But his ability to write well need not be proved by the application of maxims; it is established by facts. We are told to judge of a tree by its fruit; let us, in like manner, judge of his pen by its performances.
Few men, who had so little leisure, have written so much. His public letters alone are voluminous, and public opinion has done justice to their merits; many of them have been published, and they who read them will be convinced that at the period of the address he had not to learn how to write well. But it may be remarked that the address is higher finished than the letters; and so it ought to be. That address was to be presented to the whole nation, and on no common occasion; it was intended for the present and future generations; it was to be read in this country, and in foreign countries; and to be criticised, not only by affectionate friends and impartial judges, but also by envious and malignant enemies. It was an address which, according as it should or should not correspond with his exalted character and fame, would either justify or impeach the prevailing opinion of his talents and wisdom. Who, therefore, can wonder that he should bestow more thought, and time, and pains on that address than on a letter?
Although in the habit of depending ultimately on his own judgment, yet no man was more solicitous to obtain and collect light on every question and measure on which he had to decide. He knew that authors, like parents, are not among the first to discover imperfections in their offspring; and that consideration would naturally induce him to imitate the example of those ancient and modern writers (among whom were statesmen, generals, and even men of consular and royal dignity) who submitted their compositions to the judgment of their friends, before they put the last hand to them. Those friends would make notes of whatever defects they observed in the draught, and of the correspondent amendments which they deemed proper. If they found that the arrangement could be improved, they would advise certain transpositions; if the connection between any of the relative parts were obscure, they would make it more apparent; if a conclusion had better be left to implication than expressed, they would strike it out, and so vice versa; if an additional remark or allusion would give force or light to a sentiment or proposition, they would propose it; where a sentence was too long, they would divide it; they would correct redundances; change words less apt, for words more apt, etc. To correct a composition in this way, is to do a friendly office; but to prepare a new one, and offer it to the author as a substitute for his own, would deserve a different appellation.
Among those to whose judgment and candour President Washington would commit such an interesting and delicate task, where is the man to be found, who would have had the hardihood to say to him in substance, though in terms ever so nice and courtly: Sir, I have examined and considered your draught of an address; it will not do; it is really good for nothing. But, sir, I have taken the trouble to write a proper one for you; and I now make you a present of it. I advise you to adopt it and to pass it on the world as your own; the cheat will never be discovered, for you may depend on my secrecy. Sir, I have inserted in it a paragraph that will give the public a good opinion of your modesty. I will read it to you; it is in these words:
“In the discharge of this trust, I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious, in the outset, of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself.”
If it be possible to find a man among those whom he esteemed, capable of offering to him such a present, it is impossible to believe that President Washington was the man to whom such a present would have been acceptable. They who knew President Washington and his various endowments, qualifications, and virtues, know that, aggregately considered, they found a tout ensemble which has rarely been equalled, and perhaps never excelled.
Thus much for presumptive evidence. I will now turn your attention to some that is direct.
The history (if it may be so called) of the address is not unknown to me; but as I came to the knowledge of it under implied confidence, I doubted when I first received your letter whether I ought to disclose it. On more mature reflection, I became convinced that, if President Washington were now alive and informed of the facts in question, he would not only authorize but also desire me to reduce it to writing; that when necessary it might be used to invalidate the imputations to which those facts give colour. This consideration terminated my doubts. I do not consider that a disclosure is necessary at this moment, but I fear such a moment will arrive. Whether I shall then be alive, or in capacity to give testimony, is so uncertain that, in order to avoid the risk of either, I shall now reduce it to writing, and commit it to your care and discretion, de bene esse, as the lawyers say.
Some time before the address appeared, Colonel (afterward General) Hamilton informed me that he had received a letter from President Washington, and with it the draught of a farewell address which the President had prepared, and on which he requested our opinion. He then proposed that we should fix on a day for an interview at my house on the subject. A day was accordingly appointed. On that day Colonel Hamilton attended. He observed to me, in words to this effect—that, after having read and examined the draught, it appeared to him to be susceptible of improvement—that he thought the easiest and best way was to leave the draught untouched and in its fair state; and to write the whole over with such amendments, alterations, and corrections as he thought were advisable; and that he had done so. He then proposed to read it, and to make it the subject of our consideration. This being agreed to, he read it; and we proceeded deliberately to discuss and consider it, paragraph by paragraph, until the whole met with our mutual approbation; some amendments were made during the interview, but none of much importance. Although this business had not been hastily despatched, yet, aware of the consequence of such a paper, I suggested the giving it a further critical examination; but he declined it, saying that he was pressed for time, and was anxious to return the draught to the President without delay. It afterward occurred to me that a certain proposition was expressed in terms too general and unqualified, and I hinted it in a letter to the President.
As the business took the course above mentioned, a recurrence to the draught was unnecessary, and it was not read. There was this advantage in the course pursued—the President’s draught remained (as delicacy required) fair, and not obscured by interlineations, etc. By comparing it with the paper sent with it, he would immediately observe the particular emendations and corrections that were proposed; and would find them standing in their intended places. Hence he was enabled to review and to decide on the whole matter, with much greater clearness and facility than if he had received them in separate and detached notes, and with detailed references to the pages and lines where they were advised to be introduced.
With great esteem and regard,