Thomas Jefferson and the Case of the Missing Letters

Today’s post is written by Jackie Kilby, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

After a meeting with President George Washington in Mount Vernon on October 1, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson rode off to Alexandria. It was only later that day did he realize he “unfortunately dropped… some papers… [on] the road between Mount Vernon and Alexandria,” as stated in his letter to James Madison.[1] At this time Madison was a Representative in the House for the State of Virginia.

On October 7, 1792, President George Washington received a package from a neighbor, who so graciously returned Jefferson’s papers that were “found in the Road.” Washington sent one letter in the stack of papers to the Alexandria post office, and then forwarded the rest to Jefferson to “relieve [Jefferson’s] anxiety.”

Letter from President George Washington to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, October 7, 1792. Letters Received (Misc Letters), October 1 THRU December 31, 1792 (NAID 16972482).

The letter that Washington had mailed to the Alexandria post office was from James Madison to Daniel Carroll, a plantation owner and former Continental Congressman from Maryland. It is unknown what this letter contained, but in the preceding and following letters between Madison and Carroll, they discussed current situations with the Federal City [Washington, D.C.], Carroll’s possible return to the Maryland State Government as a Legislator, and even the public debt incurred by the newly formed Government. So it can be assumed the letter mailed off by Washington contained information of a sensitive, but not confidential, nature. Soon after Jefferson lost the letters, he informed Carroll of the dropped papers and that a letter from Madison was among them. Carroll then wrote to Madison on October 1, 1792, saying he was aware that Jefferson lost Madison’s most recent letter, and that the letter would “probably be recovered.” [2]

In total, Jefferson lost six letters in that stack on October 1, 1792, including Madison’s letter to Carroll.  Jefferson stated to Madison that those letters were “unimportant… I had not a moment’s uneasiness about them.”[3]

The five additional letters lost were:

  • Two letters from Edward Church to Jefferson, on May 16, 1792 and May 17, 1792, which discuss his possible appointment as Consul to Lisbon, as well as the court case concerning, and some disparaging comments about, the capture of a vessel in New Orleans.
  • And last, but not least, was a letter from Edward Telfair to Jefferson, on August 21, 1792, transmitting copies of the Executive Proceedings of the State of Georgia, and addressing information relating to the theft of slaves belonging to an East Florida owner, John Blackwood. The slaves were supposedly stolen by men from Georgia.

While Jefferson might have thought they were “unimportant,” these letters touched on all manner of State Department affairs. From foreign affairs in Europe, to the theft of slaves between the Spanish Territory of Florida and the American Colony of Georgia, and even offenses against American ships at sea. The letters lost, and eventually recovered, show a wide breadth of the issues Jefferson and Washington discussed on a regular basis.

It was truly amazing that Washington’s neighbor found Jefferson’s dropped letters, recognized them, and proceeded to return them to Washington. Maybe it was foreshadowing, but to quote Jefferson from a letter to William Temple Franklin on July 16, 1790, “A good neighbor is a very desirable thing.”[5]

Yes, Mr. Jefferson, it really is.

Transcriptions for these and many related records can be found at Founders Online.  If you are in the holiday weekend mood you may enjoy President’s/Presidents’/Presidents Day? or George Washington’s Birthday. Whichever way you write it, the Text Message wishes you a Happy Presidents Day Weekend!


[1] Madison, J. & Jefferson, T. (1792) Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 1, 1792. October 1. [Manuscript/Mixed Material], Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

[2] Madison, J. & Carroll, D. (1792) Daniel Carroll to James Madison, October 1, 1792. October 1. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

[3] (1792) Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 17, 1792. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

[4] (1792) John M. Pintard to Thomas Jefferson, May 15, 1792. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

[5] (1790) Thomas Jefferson to William Temple Franklin, July 16, 1790, with Copy.  [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

2 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson and the Case of the Missing Letters

  1. Wonderful story, Jackie. The early State Department records are a treasure trove.

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