Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Richard Claiborne, 17 February 1781

From Richard Claiborne

Richmond 17th. Feby 1781.


I have received Your Excellency’s Warrant of Yesterday for impressing the Boats on James and Appomattox Rivers, to be sent to Sandy Point.

I should chearfully proceed in the business this Morning but Your Excellency well knows the difficulty of executing such a matter without a considerable party of Armed Men. Experience has taught me that it is impracticable, unless the things are taken and secured with a Guard. I can only apply to your Excellency for this assistance in James River; and the instructions which I shall give for the other River, will be sent to Chesterfeild Court-house for another party.

I am Your Excellency’s Most Obedient Humble Servant,

Rd. Claiborne D Q Mr. S. Virga.

RC (Vi); in a clerk’s hand, signed by Claiborne; addressed and endorsed. At foot of text, in TJ’s hand: “Gave order to Capt. Price for officer & 20 men.”

TJ’s action in this case is puzzling in the light of his letter to Steuben of 16 Feb. (third letter of that date) in which he indicates that the Council had “decided against an impress.” His letter to Claiborne of 16 Feb. had authorized impressment and he had issued a warrant for that purpose; moreover, this authorization had been laid before the Council and approved (Va. Council Jour. description begins Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, ed. H. R. McIlwaine description ends , ii, 294); there is no evidence that the Council rescinded this action. It is possible, of course, that the Council could have reconsidered or clarified its intent after TJ had written to Claiborne and before he wrote to Steuben on 16 Feb. But if so, there seems no satisfactory explanation for TJ’s present authorization of troops for impressment except on two grounds: (1) the Council had again reversed itself, or (2) TJ had decided deliberately to disregard the Council’s decision not to impress. Whatever the explanation, it is to be wondered at that TJ gave Claiborne military aid in making impressments of boats when he later refused to order the militia to aid in impressing horses (see TJ to Steuben, 10 Mch.). On 17 Feb. Claiborne pointed out to Steuben that it was needless to attempt to seize boats except by force, and added: “Agreeable to a warrant from the Governor in consequence of your application to him, I have given instructions to an officer and party of men which I accidentally procured on their way through this town [Richmond] to impress the Boats on James River”; Claiborne enclosed orders in blank for Steuben to issue to another impressment party to seize boats in Appomattox river (NHi).

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