To James Monroe September 10, 1794

To James Monroe September 10, 1794


I ADDRESS this memorial to you, in consequence of a letter I received from a friend, 18 Fructidor (September fourth), in which he says, "Mr. Monroe has told me, that he has no orders [meaning from the American Government] respecting you; but I am sure he will leave nothing undone to liberate you; but, from what I can learn, from all the late Americans, you are not considered either by the Government, or by the individuals, as an American citizen. You have been made a French citizen, which you have accepted, and you have further made yourself a servant of the French Republic; and, therefore, it would be out of character for an American Minister to interfere in their internal concerns. You must therefore either be liberated out of compliment to America, or stand your trial, which you have a right to demand."

This information was so unexpected by me, that I am at a loss how to answer it. I know not on what principle it originates; whether from an idea that I had voluntarily abandoned my citizenship of America for that of France, or from any article of the American Constitution applied to me. The first is untrue with respect to any intention on my part; and the second is without foundation, as I shall show in the course of this memorial.

The idea of conferring honor of citizenship upon foreigners, who had distinguished themselves in propagating the principles of liberty and humanity, in opposition to despotism, war and bloodshed, was first proposed by me to Lafayette, at the commencement of the French Revolution, when his heart appeared to be warmed with those principles. My motive in making this proposal, was to render the people of different nations more fraternal than they had been, or then were. I observed that almost every branch of science had possessed itself of the exercise of this right, so far as it regarded its own institution.

Most of the academies and societies in Europe, and also those of America, conferred the rank of honorary member, upon foreigners eminent in knowledge, and made them, in fact, citizens of their literary or scientific republic, without affecting or anyways diminishing their rights of citizenship in their own country or in other societies: and why the science of government should not have the same advantage, or why the people of one nation should not, by their representatives, exercise the right of conferring the honor of citizenship upon individuals eminent in another nation, without affecting their rights of citizenship, is a problem yet to be solved.

I now proceed to remark on that part of the letter, in which the writer says, that from what he can learn from all the late Americans, I am not considered in America, either by the Government or by the individuals, as an American citizen.

In the first place I wish to ask, what is here meant by the Government of America? The members who compose the Government are only individuals, when in conversation, and who, most probably, hold very different opinions upon the subject. Have Congress as a body made any declaration respecting me, that they now no longer consider me as a citizen? If they have not, anything they otherwise say is no more than the opinion of individuals, and consequently is not legal authority, nor anyways sufficient authority to deprive any man of his citizenship. Besides, whether a man has forfeited his rights of citizenship, is a question not determinable by Congress, but by a court of judicature and a jury; and must depend upon evidence, and the application of some law or article of the Constitution to the case. No such proceeding has yet been had, and consequently I remain a citizen until it be had, be that decision what it may; for there can be no such thing as a suspension of rights in the interim.

I am very well aware, and always was, of the article of the Constitution which says, as nearly as I can recollect the words, that "any citizen of the United States, who shall accept any title, place, or office, from any foreign king, prince, or state, shall forfeit and lose his right of citizenship of the United States."

Had the article said, that any citizen of the United States, who shall be a member of any foreign convention, for the purpose of forming a free constitution, shall forfeit and lose the right of citizenship of the United States, the article had been directly applicable to me; but the idea of such an article never could have entered the mind of the American Convention, and the present article is altogether foreign to the case with respect to me. It supposes a government in active existence, and not a government dissolved; and it supposes a citizen of America accepting titles and offices under that government, and not a citizen of America who gives his assistance in a convention chosen by the people, for the purpose of forming a government de nouveau founded on their authority.

The late Constitution and Government of France was dissolved the tenth of August, 1792. The National Legislative Assembly then in being, supposed itself without sufficient authority to continue its sittings, and it proposed to the departments to elect not another legislative assembly, but a convention for the express purpose of forming a new constitution. When the Assembly were discoursing on this matter, some of the members said, that they wished to gain all the assistance possible upon the subject of free constitutions; and expressed a wish to elect and invite foreigners of any nation to the Convention, who had distinguished themselves in defending, explaining and propagating the principles of liberty.

It was on this occasion that my name was mentioned in the Assembly. (I was then in England.) After this, a deputation from a body of the French people, in order to remove any objection that might be made against my assisting at the proposed convention, requested the Assembly, as their representatives, to give me the title of French citizen; after which, I was elected a -member of the Convention, in four different departments, as is already known.

The case, therefore, is, that I accepted nothing from any king, prince or state, nor from any government: for France was without any government, except what arose from common consent, and the necessity of the case. Neither did / ma\e myself a servant of the French Republic, as the letter alluded to expresses; for at that time France was not a republic, not even in name. She was altogether a people in a state of revolution.

It was not until the Convention met that France was declared a republic, and monarchy abolished; soon after which a committee was elected, of which I was a member, to form a constitution, which was presented to the Convention [and read by Condorcet, who was also a member] the fifteenth and sixteenth of February following, but was not to be taken into consideration till after the expiration of two months, and if approved of by the Convention, was then to be referred to the people for their acceptance, with such additions or amendments as the Convention should make.

In thus employing myself upon the formation of a constitution, I certainly did nothing inconsistent with the American Constitution. I took no oath of allegiance to France, or any other oath whatever. I considered the citizenship they had presented me with as a honorary mark of respect paid to me not only as a friend to liberty, but as an American citizen. My acceptance of that, or of the deputyship, not conferred on me by any king, prince or state, but by a people in a state of revolution and contending for liberty, required no transfer of my allegiance or of my citizenship from America to France. There I was a real citizen, paying taxes; here, I was a voluntary friend, employing myself on a temporary service. Every American in Paris knew that it was my constant intention to return to America, as soon as a constitution should be established, and that I anxiously waited for that event.

I know not what opinions have been circulated in America. It may have been supposed there that I had voluntarily and intentionally abandoned America, and that my citizenship had ceased by my own choice. I can easily [believe] there are those in that country who would take such a proceeding on my part somewhat in disgust. The idea of forsaking old friendships for new acquaintances is not agreeable. I am a little warranted in making this supposition by a letter I received some time ago from the wife of one of the Georgia delegates in which she says

"Your friends on this side the water cannot be reconciled to the idea of your abandoning America."

I have never abandoned her in thought, word or deed; and I feel it incumbent upon me to give the assurance to the friends I have in that country and with whom I have always intended and am determined, if the possibility exists, to close the scene of my life. It is there that I have made myself a home. It is there that I have given the services of my best days. America never saw me flinch from her cause in the most gloomy and perilous of her situations; and I know there are those in that country who will not flinch from me. If I have enemies (and every man has some) I leave them to the enjoyment of their ingratitude. (I subjoin in a note, for the sake of wasting the solitude of a prison, the answer that I gave to the part of the letter above mentioned. It is not inapplicable to the subject of this Memorial; but it contains somewhat of a melancholy idea, a little predictive, that I hope is not becoming true so soon.

"You touch me on a very tender point when you say that my friends on your side the water cannot be reconciled to the idea of my abandoning America. They are right. I had rather see my horse Button eating the grass of Borden-Town or Morrisania than see all the pomp and show of Europe.

"A thousand years hence (for I must indulge a few thoughts) perhaps in less, America may be what Europe now is. The innocence of her character, that won the hearts of all nations in her favor, may sound like a romance and her inimitable virtues as if it had never been. The ruin of that liberty which thousands bled for or struggled to obtain may just furnish materials for a village tale or extort a sigh from rustic sensibility, while the fashionable of that day, enveloped in dissipation, shall deride the principle and deny the fact.

"When we contemplate the fall of Empires and the extinction of the nations of the Ancient World, we see but little to excite our regret than the mouldering ruins of pompous palaces, magnificent museums, lofty pyramids and walls and towers of the most costly workmanship; but when the Empire of America shall fall, the subject for contemplative sorrow will be infinitely greater than crumbling brass and marble can inspire it. It will not then be said, here stood a temple of vast antiquity; here rose a babel of invisible height; or there a palace of sumptuous extravagance; but here, Ah, painful thought; the noblest work of human wisdom, the grandest scene of human glory, the fair cause of Freedom rose and fell. Read this, and then ask if I forget America."-Author.)

It is somewhat extraordinary that the idea of my not being a citizen of America should have arisen only at the time that I am imprisoned in France because, or on the pretense that, I am a foreigner. The case involves a strange contradiction of ideas. None of the Americans who came to France while I was in liberty had conceived any such idea or circulated any such opinion; and why it should arise now is a matter yet to be explained. However discordant the late American Minister G. M. [Gouverneur Morris] and the late French Committee of Public Safety were, it suited the purpose of both that I should be continued in arrestation. The former wished to prevent my return to America, that I should not expose his misconduct; and the latter, lest I should publish to the world the history of its wickedness. While that Minister and the Committee continued I had no expectation of liberty. I speak here of the Committee of which Robespierre was member.

I ever must deny, that the article of the American Constitution already mentioned, can be applied either verbally, intentionally, or constructively, to me. It undoubtedly was the intention of the Convention that framed it, to preserve the purity of the American Republic from being debased by foreign and foppish customs; but it never could be its intention to act against the principles of liberty, by forbidding its citizens to assist in promoting those principles in foreign countries; neither could it be its intention to act against the principles of gratitude.

France had aided America in the establishment of her revolution, when invaded and oppressed by England and her auxiliaries. France in her turn was invaded and oppressed by a combination of foreign despots. In this situation, I conceived it an act of gratitude in me, as a citizen of America, to render her in return the best services I could perform.

I came to France (for I was in England when I received the invitation) not to enjoy ease, emoluments and foppish honors, as the article supposes; but to encounter difficulties and dangers in defense of liberty; and I must question whether those who now malignantly seek (for some I believe do) to turn this to my injury, would have had courage to have done the same thing. I am sure Gouverneur Morris would not. He told me the second day after my arrival (in Paris), that the Austrians and Prussians, who were then at Verdun, would be in Paris-in a fort-night. "I have no idea," said he, "that seventy thousand disciplined troops can be stopped in their march by any power in France."

Besides the reasons I have already given for accepting the invitations to the Convention, I had another that has reference particularly to America, and which I mentioned to Mr. Pinckney the night before I left London to come to Paris: "That it was to the interest of America that the system of European governments should be changed and placed on the same principle with her own." Mr. Pinckney agreed fully in the same opinion. I have done my part toward it.

It is certain that governments upon similar systems agree better together than those that are founded on principles discordant with each other; and the same rule holds good with respect to the people living under them. In the latter case they offend each other by pity, or by reproach; and the discordancy carries itself to matters of commerce. I am not an ambitious man, but perhaps I have been an ambitious American. I have wished to see America the Mother Church of government and I have done my utmost to exalt her character and her condition.

I have now stated sufficient matter to show that the article in question is not applicable to me; and that any such application to my injury, as well in circumstances as in right, is contrary both to the letter and intention of that article, and is illegal and unconstitutional. Neither do I believe that any jury in America, when they are informed of the whole of the case, would give a verdict to deprive me of my rights upon that article. The citizens of America, I believe, are not very fond of permitting forced and indirect explanations to be put upon matters of this kind.

I know not what were the merits of the case with respect to the person who was prosecuted for acting as prize master to a French privateer, but I know that the jury gave a verdict against the prosecution. The rights I have acquired are dear to me. They have been acquired by honorable means, and by dangerous service in the worst of times, and I cannot passively permit them to be wrested from me. I conceive it my duty to defend them, as the case involves a constitutional and public question, which is, how far the power of the Federal Government extends, in depriving any citizen of his rights of citizenship, or of suspending them.

That the explanation of national treaties belongs to Congress is strictly constitutional; but not the explanation of the Constitution itself, any more than the explanation of law in the case of individual citizens. These are altogether judiciary questions. It is, however, worth observing, that Congress, in explaining the article of the treaty with respect to French prizes and French privateers, confined itself strictly to the letter of the article. Let them explain the article of the Constitution with respect to me in the same manner, and the decision, did it appertain to them, could not deprive me of my rights of citizenship, or suspend them, for I have accepted nothing from any king, prince, state or government.

You will please observe that I speak as if the Federal Government had made some declaration upon the subject of my citizenship; whereas the fact is otherwise; and your saying that you have no order respecting me is a proof of it. Those therefore who propagate the report of my not being considered as a citizen of America by Government, do it to the prolongation of my imprisonment, and without authority; for Congress, as a government, has neither decided upon it, nor yet taken the matter into consideration; and I request you to caution such persons against spreading such reports. But be these matters as they may, I cannot have a doubt that you will find and feel the case very different, since you have heard what I have to say, and known what my situation is [better] than you did before your arrival.

But it was not the Americans only, but the Convention also, that knew what my intentions were upon that subject. In my last discourse delivered at the Tribune of the Convention, January 19, 1793, on the motion for suspending the execution of Louis XVI, I said (the Deputy Bancal read the translation in French):

"It unfortunately happens that the person who is the subject of the present discussion, is considered by the Americans as having been the friend of their revolution. His execution will be an affliction to them, and it is in your power not to wound the feelings of your ally. Could I speak the French language I would descend to your bar, and in their name become your petitioner to respite the execution of the sentence.

"As the Convention was elected for the express purpose of forming a Constitution, its continuance cannot be longer than four or five months more at furthest; and, if after my return to America, I should employ myself in writing the history of the French Revolution, I had rather record a thousand errors on the side of mercy than be obliged to tell one act of severe justice.

"Ah citizens! give not the tyrant of England the triumph of seeing the man perish on a scaffold who had aided my much-loved America."

Does this look as if I had abandoned America? But if she abandons me in the situation I am in, to gratify the enemies of humanity, let that disgrace be to herself. But I know the people of America better than to believe it, though I undertake not to answer for every individual.

When this discourse was pronounced, Marat launched himself into the middle of the hall and said that "I voted against the punishment of death because I was a Quaker." I replied that "I voted against it both morally and politically."

I certainly went a great way, considering the rage of the times, in endeavoring to prevent that execution. I had many reasons for so doing. I judged, and events have shown that I judged rightly, that if they once began shedding blood, there was no knowing where it would end; and as to what the world might call honor, the execution would appear like a nation killing a mouse; and in a political view, would serve to transfer the hereditary claim to some more formidable enemy. The man could do no more mischief; and that which he had done was not only from the vice of his education, but was as much the fault of the nation in restoring him after he had absconded June 21, 1791, as it was his.

I made the proposal for imprisonment until the end of the war and perpetual banishment after the war, instead of the punishment of death. Upwards of three hundred members voted for that proposal. The sentence for absolute death (for some members had voted the punishment of death conditionally) was carried by a majority of twenty-five out of more than seven hundred.

I return from this digression to the proper subject of my memorial.

Painful as the want of liberty may be, it is a consolation to me to believe that my imprisonment proves to the world that I had no share in the murderous system that then reigned. That I was an enemy to it, both morally and politically, is known to all who had any knowledge of me; and could I have written French as well as I can English, I would publicly have exposed its wickedness and shown the ruin with which it was pregnant. They who have esteemed me on former occasions, whether in America or in Europe, will, I know, feel no cause to abate that esteem, when they reflect the imprisonment with preservation of character is preferable to liberty with disgrace.

I here close my memorial and proceed to offer you a proposal that appears to me suited to all the circumstances of the case; which is that you reclaim me conditionally, until the opinion of Congress can be obtained on the subject of my citizenship of America; and that I remain in liberty under your protection during that time.

I found this proposal upon the following grounds:

First, you say you have no orders respecting me; consequently, you have no orders not to reclaim me; and in this case you are left discretionary judge whether to reclaim or not. My proposal therefore unites a consideration of your situation with my own.

Secondly, I am put in arrestation because I am a foreigner. It is therefore necessary to determine to what country I belong. The right of determining this question cannot appertain exclusively to the Committee of Public Safety or General Surety; because I appeal to the Minister of the United States, and show that my citizenship of that country is good and valid, referring at the same time, through the agency of the Minister, my claim of right to the opinion of Congress. It being a matter between two governments.

Thirdly, France does not claim me for a citizen; neither do I set up any claim of citizenship in France. The question is simply whether I am or am not a citizen of America. I am imprisoned here on the decree for imprisoning foreigners because, say they, I was born in England.

I say in answer that, though born in England, I am not a subject of the English Government any more than any other American who was born, as they all were, under the same government, or than the citizens of France are subjects of the French monarchy under which they were born. I have twice taken the oath of abjuration to the British King and Government and of allegiance to America-once as a citizen of the State of Pennsylvania in 1776, and again before Congress, administered to me by the President, Mr. Hancock, when I was appointed Secretary in the office of Foreign Affairs in 1777.

The letter before quoted in the first page of this memorial, says, "It would be out of character for an American Minister to interfere in the internal affairs of France." This goes on the idea that I am a citizen of France, and a member of the Convention, which is not the fact. TheConvention have declared me to be a foreigner; and consequently the citizenship and the election are null and void. It also has the appearance of a decision, that the article of the Constitution, respecting grants made to American citizens by foreign kings, princes or states, is applicable to me; which is the very point in question, and against the application of which I contend.

I state evidence to the Minister, to show that I am not within the letter or meaning of that article; that it cannot operate against me; and I apply to him for the protection that I conceive I have a right to ask and to receive. The internal affairs of France are out of the question with respect to my application or his interference. I ask it not as a citizen of France, for I am not one:

I ask it not as a member of the Convention, for I am not one; both these, as before said, have been rendered null and void; I ask it not as a man against whom there is any accusation, for there is none; I ask it not as an exile from America, whose liberties I have honorably and generously contributed to establish; I ask it as a citizen of America, deprived of his liberty in France, under the plea of being a foreigner; and I ask it because I conceive I am entitled to it upon every principle of constitutional justice and national honor.

But though I thus positively assert my claim because I believe I have a right to do so, it is perhaps most eligible, in the present situation of things, to put that claim upon the footing I have already mentioned; that is, that the Minister reclaims me conditionally until the opinion of Congress can be obtained on the subject of my citizenship of America, and that I remain in liberty under the protection of the Minister during that interval.


N.B. I should have added that as Gouverneur Morris could not inform Congress of the cause of my arrestation, as he knew it not himself, it is to be supposed that Congress was not enough acquainted with the case to give any directions respecting me when you came away.