Post-script: Jefferson’s accusations and Adams’s Revenge, Part 12 of 13

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John Hancock was not the only “founding father” with whom the Rotches tangled. While in France, Thomas Jefferson had met the Rotches (possibly staying overnight at their home in Dunkirk), even commenting on the refinement and beauty of their young daughters. The relationship soured, however, when Jefferson publicly accused William’s son Benjamin of personally intervening to sink the economic negotiations between the United States and France after independence.

With British ports all but closed to them, American merchants teetered on the edge of insolvency. They pressured the government to normalize economics relationships with reliable partners. Jefferson, first as Minister to France (1785 – 1789) and then as Secretary of State under President George Washington (1790 – 1793), attempted to negotiate commerce treaties with France that would allow Americans exclusive rights of trade. Whale oil was at the forefront of these discussions, as Nantucket whalers desperately sought to avoid their complete ruin. As we have seen, some had already fled to Nova Scotia while the Rotches had already agreed to remove to Dunkirk, France.

Desperate to stem the tide, Jefferson convinced France to eliminate all duties on foreign oil from the United States in 1787.  Both the Americans and the French hoped that this would buoy the  American whalefishery enough to stave off the threat from the British. The British, however, responded by subsidizing their whalers, incentivizing them to flood the French market and undercut both French and American merchants.  The French responded with an arret in September closing  the French ports to all foreign oil.  Clearly, this act disproportionately benefitted the Rotches  who, on paper at least, were now considered French. Jefferson was incensed, convinced the Rotches had intervened at the highest level to advance their family’s cause at the cost of their native land.

Benjamin insisted, in fact, “he had been the strenuous advocate for [American whale oil’s] admission.” William thought it best to let the whole matter blow over. In a letter to son-in-law Samuel Rodman, he wrote: “What I have mentioned respecting B’s meeting the Ministers, Ambassador, etc., thou may keep within our circle as it is not my intent to publish anything in our own favour; as truths cannot be rec’d by many at this time; I therefore avoid vindication, having a satisfaction in my own mind, that is the result of a consciousness of having done nothing to merit censures so liberally bestowed on me.”1 For his part, Jefferson held a grudge. He remained adamant that Rotch purposefully sabotaged the American cause, writing years later in his official report as Secretary of State that the Dunkirk whalers had profited enormously “by the great premiums received from their government, perhaps too by extraordinary indemnifications.”2


1 Letter dated Dunkirk 10 month 12, 1790 MSS 2 S-g 1, Series A, Folder 2 Folder 4

2 Report of the Secretary of State on the subject of the cod and whale fisheries, made conformably to an order of the house of rep of the US referring to him the representation of the general court of the commonwealth of Massachusetts on those subjects feb 1 1791


Published as part of a series

  1. Before the Rockefellers, there were the Rotches
  2. For those who fail at business…there’s always politics
  3. The Tea Party: bad for business
  4. A different kind of sunken treasure
  5. The Falkland gambit
  6. “No step between being clear, and death”
  7. Patriotism…and false flags?
  8. America’s first trade war: bad for business
  9. You can run but you can’t hide (in France)
  10. Whaler, traitor, coward…spy?
  11. Can you ever go home again?
  12. Post-script: Jefferson’s accusations and Adams’s
  13. Adams’s revenge

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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