In this letter, Thomas Jefferson, the nation's first Secretary of State, discusses the difficulty of settling unresolved issues with Britain left over from the Revolutionary war. Americans were concerned about two key issues: the evacuation of British forts in the Northwest Territory and reimbursement for slaves who had been removed from the southern states by Britain during the Revolution. In the fall of 1789 Alexander Hamilton began informal meetings with a representative of Britain, Major George Beckwith, in Québec. In the spring of 1790, President Washington sent Governeur Morris (1752-1816) to England to begin diplomatic negotiations.
The British government acted aloofly toward Morris, and did not comply with any of his requests before his departure in September. In early 1790, however, Britain found itself on the verge of war with Spain over conflicting claims in the Pacific Northwest and requested permission for troops to pass through the United States to attack the Spanish possessions of Louisiana and Florida. The situation was ultimately resolved through negotiations, but it made Britain, which was becoming increasingly aware of its diplomatic isolation, realize the importance of establishing good relations with the United States.
Your letter of March 29 to the President of the United States has been duly received. You have placed the proposition of exchanging a Minister [with Britain] on proper ground. It must certainly come from them [from the British ministry] & come in unequivocal form. With those who respect their own dignity so much, ours must not be counted at nought. On their own proposal formally to exchange a minister, we sent them one. They have taken no notice of that and talking agreeing to exchange one now as if the idea were new. Besides what they are saying to you, they are talking to us thro Quebec; but so informally that they may disavow it when they please. It would only oblige them to make the fortune of the poor Major whom they would pretend to sacrifice. Thro him they talk of a minister, a treaty of commerce and alliance. If the object of the latter be honorable, it is useless; if dishonorable, inadmissable. These tamperings prove they view a war as very possible; & some symptoms indicate designs against the Spanish possessions adjoining us. The consequences of their acquiring all the country on our frontier from the St. Croix to the St. Mary's are too obvious to you to need development. You will readily see the dangers which would environ [face] us. We wish you therefore to intimate to them that we cannot be indifferent to enterprises of this kind. That we should contemplate a change of neighbors with extreme uneasiness; & that a due balance on our borders is not less desirable to us, than a balance of power in Europe has always appeared to them. We wish to be neutral, and we will be so, if they will execute the treaty fairly and attempt no conquests adjoining us. The first condition is just: the 2d imposes no hardship on them. They cannot complain that the other dominions of Spain would be so narrow as not to leave them room enough for conquest.... If the war takes place, we would really wish to be quieted on these two points, offering in return an honorable neutrality. More than this they are not to expect. It will be proper that these ideas be conveyed in delicate and friendly terms; but that they be conveyed if the war takes place; for it is in that case alone, & not till it be begun, that we would wish our disposition to be known. But in no case need they think of our accepting any equivalent for the posts.