Item of the Day: Letter from Timothy Pickering to Rufus King (1798)

Full Title: [ALS] Timothy Pickering, Trenton, to Rufus King, Esq, London September 15, 1798.

[Timothy Pickering (1745-1829) was serving as John Adams’ Secretary of State when he wrote this letter in September 1798 to Adams’ minister plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James, Rufus King. In this letter, Pickering expresses his outrage over the XYZ affair. A year earlier, Adams had attempted to normalize relations with France by dispatching Charles Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry ( 1744-1813) to Paris to negotiate a new treaty and avoid war. Before negotiations could begin, however, French Prime Minister Charles Maurice Talleyrand demanded payment of millions of dollars in bribes. The American delegates refused to pay whereupon Talleyrand directed Marshall and Pinckney to leave the country. But he asked Gerry, who had long been known to oppose a war with France, to remain. Gerry agreed to do so believing Adams would soon empower him with the authority to continue the negotiations and that his removal would ignite an irrevocable rupture with France. When the details of the bribe became public, however, all efforts toward crafting a new treaty ended. The scandal inflamed anti-French sentiment at home and pushed America into the Quasi-War, an undeclared war with France that lasted until 1800. Pickering, a reactionary Federalist and long time adversary of Gerry, was particularly vitriolic in his public condemnation labeling Gerry a “Jacobin” and guilty of traitorous maneuverings with the French. Adams for his part, never wavered in his defense of Gerry but tired of Pickering’s extremist positions. In May 1800 Adams fired Pickering for undermining American neutrality and plotting war with France. Gerry resuscitated his political career to be twice elected Governor of Massachusetts. He also served as Vice President of the United States under James Madison.

In this original signed letter Pickering’s harshest criticisms of Gerry were written in numerical code. Sensitive letters traveling between high level government officials were typically copied several times. The sender retained a copy while dispatching the coded copy which upon receipt was deciphered and transcribed above the code.]

Dear Sir,

A gentleman has just called to form me that he can receive a letter from me for England next Monday morning. I take the occasion to note the private letters received from you, which are now before me. It is possible there may be some others not arranged in the file. Nov. 13 & Dec. 23, 1797. Jan 6, Feb 7, April 7, 9, 16, 1798. All of them accompanied with letters from General Pinckney, except those or Nov 13 and Feb 7. Their contents were communicated to the President, according to your wish expressed in your letter of Dec. 23. Your letter of Feb 7 expressed your opinion of Mr. Gerry as communicated to Gen. Pinckney, an opinion in which all the public men whom I had heard speak of Mr. G & I form my acquaintance with him, were ready to concur. But General Pinckney in a letter to his brother of April 4 says “I have made great sacrifices of my feelings to preserve union but in vain. I never met with a man 1126.10077. 641.1041.1246.1410.
1465.448.1079.710.1126.856. 1410.1338.322.28.493.128.1079.893.545. (Deciphered as “so destitute of candour and so full of deceit as Mr. Gerry”) And Mr. Marshall is of his opinion.

I received lately your letter of July 14 mentioning that Mr. Gerry remained in Paris on the 26th of June. I think it probable that he will wait till the positive recall of June 25th reaches him. Yet the instructions of March 23rd, which he rec’d May 12 & on the 13th wrote me he should duly observe, were, in their proper effect, also positive, seeing no one case described existed to warrant his stay, or to excuse his not demanding his passport and returning. His absurd & preposterous conduct, while it excites extreme regret on public account, has procured for him only indignation and contempt.

The newspapers will have informed you of the extensive calamity of the yellow fever, which has visited Philadelphia, New-York, Wilmington in Delaware, New-London, Boston, and Portsmouth New Hampshire. It is more malignant & mortal than in any former year. In Boston, Portsmouth & New London, the deaths have yet been few. In Philadelphia more than twice as numerous as in 1793, in the same period of time, altho’ the city is much more depopulated by removals now than at that time.

I am your faithful & obedient servant,

Timothy Pickering

[Written in the margin — Mr. Fenno, the printer died yesterday or this day. B. F. Bache died a few days before. Monday morning, September 17, Yesterday I was informed that Greenleaf of New York, the printer of the Argus, was also dead.]

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Filed under 1790's, Letters, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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