Letter from George Washington to Marquis de LaFayette (1786)

No study questions

No related resources


My dear Marquis: The Letter which you did me the favor to write to me by Mr. Barrett dated the 6th. of Feby., together with the parcel and packages which accompanied it, came safely to hand; and for which I pray you to accept my grateful acknowledgments.

The account given of your tour thro’ Prussia and other States of Germany, to Vienna and back; and of the Troops which you saw reviewed in the pay of those Monarchs, at different places, is not less pleasing than it is interesting; and must have been as instructive as entertaining to yourself. Your reception at the Courts of Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere must have been pleasing to you: to have been received by the King of Prussia, and Prince Henry his brother, (who as soldiers and politicians can yield the palm to none) with such marks of attention and distinction, was as indicative of their discernment, as it is of your merit, and will encrease my opinion of them. It is to be lamented however that great characters are seldom without a blot. That one man should tyranise over millions, will always be a shade in that of the former; whilst it is pleasing to hear that a due regard to the rights of mankind, is characteristic of the latter: I shall revere and love him for this trait of his character. To have viewed the several fields of Battle over which you passed, could not, among other sensations, have failed to excite this thought, here have fallen thousands of gallant spirits to satisfy the ambition of, or to support their sovereigns perhaps in acts of oppression or injustice! melancholy reflection! For what wise purposes does Providence permit this? Is it as a scourge for mankind, or is it to prevent them from becoming too populous? If the latter, would not the fertile plains of the Western world receive the redundancy of the old?

For the several articles of intelligence with which you have been so good as to furnish me, and for your sentimts. on European politics, I feel myself very much obliged; on these I can depend. Newspaper accounts are too sterile, vague and contradictory, on which to form any opinion, or to claim even the smallest attention.

The account of and observations which you have made of the policy and practice of Great Britain at the other Courts of Europe, respecting these States, I was but too well informed and convinced of before. Unhappily for us, though their accounts are greatly exaggerated, yet our conduct has laid the foundation for them. It is one of the evils of democratical governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act right; but then evil of this nature seldom fail to work their own cure. It is to be lamented, nevertheless, that the remedies are so slow, and that those, who may wish to apply them seasonably are not attended to before they suffer in person, in interest and in reputation. I am not without hopes, that matters will take a more favorable turn in the foederal Constitution. The discerning part of the community have long since seen the necessity of giving adequate powers to Congress for national purposes; and the ignorant and designing must yield to it ere long. Several late Acts of the different Legislatures have a tendency thereto; among these, the Impost which is now acceded to by every State in the Union, (tho’ clogged a little by that of New York) will enable Congress to support the national credit in pecuniary matters better than it has been; whilst a measure in which this state has taken the lead at its last session, will it is to be hoped give efficient powers to that Body for all commercial purposes. This is a nomination of some of its first characters to meet other Commissioners from the several States in order to consider of and decide upon such powers as shall be necessary for the sovereign power of them to act under; which are to be reported to the respective Legislatures at their autumnal sessions for, it is to be hoped, final adoption; thereby avoiding those tedious and futile deliberations, which result from recommendations and partial concurrences; at the same time that it places it at once in the power of Congress to meet European Nations upon decisive and equal ground. All the Legislatures, which I have heard from, have come into the proposition, and have made very judicious appointments: much good is expected from this measure, and it is regretted by many, that more objects were not embraced by the meeting. A General Convention is talked of by many for the purpose of revising and correcting the defects of the foederal government; but whilst this is the wish of some, it is the dread of others from an opinion that matters are not yet sufficiently ripe for such an event.

The British still occupy our Posts to the Westward, and will, I am persuaded, continue to do so under one pretence or another, no matter how shallow, as long as they can: of this, from some circumstances which had occurred, I have been convinced since August, 1783 and gave it as my opinion at that time, if not officially to Congress as the sovereign, at least to a number of its members, that they might act accordingly. It is indeed evident to me, that they had it in contemplation to do this at the time of the Treaty; the expression of the Article which respects the evacuation of them, as well as the tenor of their conduct since relative to this business, is strongly marked with deception. I have not the smallest doubt but that every secret engine is continually at work to inflame the Indian mind, with a view to keep it at variance with these States, for the purpose of retarding our settlements to the Westward, and depriving us of the fur and peltry trade of that country.

Your assurances my dear Marquis, respecting the male and female Asses, are highly pleasing to me, I shall look for them with much expectation and great satisfaction, as a valuable acquisition and important service.

The Jack which I have already received from Spain, in appearance is fine; but his late royal master, tho’ past his grand climacteric, cannot be less moved by female allurements than he is; or when prompted, can proceed with more deliberation and majestic solemnity to the work of procreation. The other Jack perished at Sea.

Mr. Littlepage in his dispute with Mr. Jay seems to have forgot his former situation. It is a pity, for he appears to be a young man of abilities. At the next meeting of the Potomac Company (which I believe will not be ’till August) I will communicate to them your sentiments respecting the terms on which a good Ingénieur des ponts and chaussées may be had and take their opinion thereon.

The benevolence of your heart my Dr. Marqs. is so conspicuous upon all occasions, that I never wonder at any fresh proofs of it; but your late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it. Some petitions were presented to the Assembly, at its last Session, for the abolition of slavery, but they could scarcely obtain a reading. To set them afloat at once would, I really believe, be productive of much inconvenience and mischief; but by degrees it certainly might, and assuredly ought to be effected; and that too by Legislative authority.

I give you the trouble of a letter to the Marqs. de St. Simon, in which I have requested to be presented to Mr. de Menonville. The favourable terms in which you speak of Mr. Jefferson gives me great pleasure: he is a man of whom I early imbibed the highest opinion. I am as much pleased, therefore, to meet confirmations of my discernment in these matters, as I am mortified when I find myself mistaken.

I send herewith the copies of your private Letters to me, promised in my last, and which have been since copied by your old aid. As Mrs. Washington and myself have both done ourselves the honor of writing to Madame de la Fayette, I shall not give you the trouble at this time of presenting my respects to her; but pray to accept every good wish which this family can render for your health and every blessing this life can afford you. I cannot conclude without expressing to you the earnest enquiries and ardent wishes of your friends (among whom, I claim to stand first) to see you in America, and of giving you repeated assurances of the sincerity of my friendship, and of the Affectionate regard with which I am etc.


No prior document in this Era
No next document in this Era
Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.