Volume 17 opens with a significant episode in American history—the understanding between Jefferson and Hamilton that decided the divisive questions of the assumption of state debts and the fixing of the permanent seat of government.
Hard after this came the threat of war between England and Spain, posing the first issue in foreign policy for Jefferson as Secretary of State and producing both division and deception in the cabinet. All agreed upon a policy of neutrality, but Jefferson urged that a firm price be exacted—from Spain, the opening of the Mississippi to navigation; from England, a pledge not to commit aggression on Spanish territory bordering the United States. From this emerged the profound but ill-kept secret of David Humphreys’ mission to Spain and Alexander Hamilton’s attempts through consultations with the British secret agent, Major George Beckwith, to guide foreign policy in the direction of closer relations with England, commercial and other. Beckwith’s role and Hamilton’s duplicity are disclosed and analyzed at length in an editorial note to a group of documents on the Anglo-Spanish war crisis.
In the midst of this threat to national security, the Secretary of State found time to begin afresh his investigation of the state of the whale and cod fisheries, to systematize the consular establishment, to guide the various steps for creating the Federal City, to supervise the removal of the offices to Philadelphia, to continue his correspondence on a uniform system of weights and measures, to publish Thomas Paine’s essay on a mint, to advise the President on relations with Holland bankers, to exchange views with him on the navigability of western rivers, and to observe his ratification of an Indian treaty with the famous Alexander McGillivray. He also watched events in revolutionary France through the eyes of William Short, made arrangements with Benjamin Franklin Bache to create a weekly newspaper of national circulation, ordered French wines for the President and for himself, accompanied Washington to Rhode Island, negotiated about a thoroughbred for himself, urged Virginia farmers during the war crisis to shift from tobacco to wheat, and for a few days was able to be reunited with his daughters at Monticello and—interrupted by an urgent trip to Richmond—to give some attention to putting his private affairs in order.