The information first recieved as to the bed of Sulphur at Genesee was certainly such as to interest the government and make it our duty to enquire into it. this has been done. the result is that there is at the spring not more than a ton of sulphur formed … we do not think it an object for the government to intermeddle with: at the same time we give you just credit for the readiness you have shewn to accomodate the public with the purchase, had it been expedient for them to buy.
To Mountjoy Bayly, January 5, 1804
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Careful leaders must discern the motives of seemingly helpful people.
Bayly was a Revolutionary War veteran from Maryland and a not-too-successful businessman and Federalist politician. In his first letter to the President, he offered to sell land containing a sulfur spring. Sulfur was a component in gunpowder, and a ready supply was necessary for the nation’s defense. Claiming the British were about to buy that land, he bought it instead, ostensibly to secure it for the United States.
In a second letter, Bayly attempted to clarify some controversy about the quantity and quality of the sulfur at the spring. Then, in a self-pitying way, he claimed selling this land was essential for the provision of his “large, young, helpless, and friendless family.”
Jefferson’s courteous reply explained that an investigation indicated only a small supply of sulfur, not a large one that would have been of great interest to the nation. As such, it did not merit the government’s involvement. Nonetheless, Jefferson thanked a political opponent for his offer of help.
Left unsaid by the President was that the nation was not in the business of rescuing people from their own poor choices.