It wasn’t an “Aha!” moment but rather one of the many “Hmmm” moments most scholars come across on a daily basis. And this one was dated Dec. 26, 1795.
A couple years ago, in Huntington Frontiers magazine, I told a story about the “Aha!” moment. In my article, “Surveying the Past,” I described the unique bond between William Short (1759–1849) and his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, who had purchased a tract of land in Virginia (called “Indian Camp”) on Short’s behalf in 1795. A map from The Huntington, complete with notes in Jefferson’s hand, proved to be crucial to a group of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists who were planning a dig at the site, which is now known as Morven and owned by the University of Virginia.
I wrote that article at the conclusion of my graduate program at the University of Virginia. I then became the director of research at Morven, but I’ve managed to return to The Huntington often since I am also a Pasadena native and make frequent trips home.
As part of my research about Short, I looked through The Huntington’s catalog and finding aid for the Brock collection, the large group of manuscripts amassed by historian Robert Alonzo Brock (1839–1914) and purchased by Henry Huntington in 1922. There, in the same set of materials that included that important map, I found a reference to a letter written by Short to his cousin on the day after Christmas, 1795. Might this letter fill in other important details about Short?
Despite the “Aha!” moment that map played in my research for the Morven team, I have learned the scholarly restraint that I shouldn’t expect each and every find in an archive to have great import—but rather to see each piece of information as part of a puzzle that will round out details I didn’t know before. What might this letter tell me?
As I waited for the item to come from the depths of the basement archive, I pondered what I knew about Short’s life in 1795, prior to his purchase of that tract of land. Short served as Jefferson’s private secretary during Jefferson’s term as Minister to France from 1784 to 1789 and had remained in Europe after Jefferson’s return to the United States. His romantic liaison with a French duchess, Rosalie de la Rochefoucauld, cast Short’s lot with the ancient regime, including members of Rosalie’s family who were assassinated, with Rosalie herself being imprisoned, as the French Revolution launched wars across Europe and closed France’s borders—leaving Short transiting between diplomatic postings handling the international financial affairs of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in the Netherlands and the diplomatic endeavors of his “adoptive father,” Secretary of State Jefferson, in Spain.
The year 1795 had been an especially difficult one for Short. For more than two years he had relentlessly pursued a treaty with Spain that would achieve Jefferson’s goal of obtaining the crucial navigation rights of the Mississippi River through Spanish-controlled territory along the United States’ then-western border down to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet in June, Short found himself denied the prize as he learned that the U.S. minister to Britain, Thomas Pinckney, had been sent to Spain for the final talks and signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo (known today as Pinckney’s Treaty instead of Short’s Treaty). Short could only watch as Pinckney received the honors that Short had worked for, and when he finally received the confirmation of his resignation from the diplomatic service, Short had to endure the long trip back to Paris by coach with Pinckney.
So what did the letter say? It seemed to be not unlike an e-mail from today—an innocent request to his cousin, Fulwar Skipwith Jr., to pass along his regrets to a mutual acquaintance:
Inadvertently accepted an invitation from Madame de St. Hilaire for a concert today—without recollecting that I was previously & indispensably engaged—Yet should be in my power I will call on her this morning to make my excuse—but I should be prevented, which will be probably the case, I shall take it as a particular favor if you will be so good as to be my organ for that purpose—If in my power I shall call also on our countryman this amicable lady—if not be so good as to present them my compliments.
Hmmm. I knew already that Skipwith had arrived in Paris earlier in the year, appointed as consul-general to Paris by Jefferson. But the note isn’t so innocent after all—Madame de St. Hilaire was a former member of the royal household who had been an attendant to Marie Antoinette, and with whom Short was probably acquainted through the duchess Rosalie (with whom Short had at last been reunited). This brief note illuminates the unusual attainment of both Short and Skipwith among the nobility who had survived the Revolution, their thorough immersion in the language and society of France, and the extent of their acceptance in the political nuclei of Parisian salons.
So now I wondered if this letter might raise questions about Short and Skipwith’s involvement in the political intrigues of the XYZ Affair between the United States and France two years later. (The name of that episode comes from the use of those three letters in place of the names of the three U.S. diplomats who had been caught up in tense negotiations with the French foreign minster.) Such a burden of proof is too much to ask of a 106-word note of excuse. Yet when Elbridge Gerry, the so-called “Z” of the affair and the last of the U.S. commissioners to be released after the XYZ negotiations, was returning home in 1798, William Short booked passage back to the U.S. with him—only to be called back to Paris at the last minute by the entreaties of the duchess.
Did Skipwith indeed convey Short’s regrets, that day after Christmas in 1795? I haven’t found that note yet.
Laura Voisin George is director of research at Morven.