Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 22 The Asbestos Mind

NEVERTHELESS, politics could not long remain out of Jefferson s ken, either in America or in Europe. As American Minister to France, it was his job to be fully acquainted with developments at home and abroad, and to work steadily for the advantage and benefit of his country. Jefferson was no shirker of work, and he performed his duties steadily and well, in spite of certain flights off the handle which fortunately did not show up in his public commitments.

Washington, back home, was financially and otherwise interested in a project for digging canals which would join the western waters with the rivers that flowed through Virginia and Maryland into the Atlantic. It was a tremendous scheme, with inestimable economic advantages to the two states, and bearing far-reaching political consequences in its train. For the western country, confronted with the almost impassable barrier of the Appalachian Mountains, was compelled to ship its produce down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans and the Gulf. Thereby it came under Spanish influence and suffered from the disabilities imposed by the Spaniards on foreign trade. More and more, the western settlers were to look for their salvation, either through juncture or obversely by war, with the Spaniard.

Washington foresaw those consequences plainly, and convinced the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia that the canals he contemplated were both feasible and advantageous. But neither the public treasuries nor private individuals seemed to have funds sufficient to finance the scheme. In desperation he turned to Jefferson for help. Would "the monied men of France, Holland, England or any other Country with which you may have intercourse . . . be induced to become Adventurers in the Scheme" and, if so, on what terms?1

At this particular moment, American funds and projects were not in repute in Europe. Even the Dutch, the chief investors and moneylenders of the day, were cautious about making further commitments to a country whose finances were in chaotic condition and whose Congress seemed to have little power to levy taxes and duties whereby foreign debts could be paid.

Almost at the same time that Jefferson received Washington's request, the famous Dutch firm of bankers, N. & J. Van Staphorst, was inquiring of him whether American funds were sound. He assured the bankers that the funds which constituted the foreign debt of America were absolutely safe

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