Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to William Lewis, 4 March 1781

To William Lewis

Richmond March 4 1781


It having been found necessary to engage voluntarily or to impress all the armed vessels of private property which can be had immediately, together with their crews, arms &c., and the crews of other vessels as far as necessary to man these, you will be pleased to take such of them as are lying at Ozbornes; and fall down immediately to Hood’s, taking with you such other of the said vessels as you may find in the river on your way down. These vessels are to be under your command until you join any superior officer. You will endeavour to be at Hood’s on the 6th instant, and there to await orders from Baron Steuben, or the Commanding officer of the French Squadron. The Vessels and their loading are ensured by the State, a reasonable hire to be allowed, the usual share of captures and plunder, and they will be detained but a very short time.

I am Sir Your most obed. Servt,

Thos.: Jefferson

Tr (Vi); at head of text: “Copy of a Letter from Govr. Jefferson, addressed to Cap. Willm. Lewis of the ship Renown”; for the documents accompanying the Tr see below.

A copy of TJ’s letter, together with his subsequent letters to Lewis of 8, 11, 18 and 29 Mch. 1781 (q.v.), and copies of letters of Steuben to Lewis of 8 Jan., 9, 14, 17 Mch., and 24 Apr. 1781, was submitted by John Ball, principal owner and sole agent of the ship Renown, in support of a petition presented to the General Assembly on 9 Dec. 1785, requesting payment for the ship and her cargo and for her service to the state. In his petition Ball states that in 1781 he was a resident of the West Indies and “had been for a very considerable Time a Subject of the United Provinces of Holland”; that the Renown, Captain William Lewis, “a Dutch Bottom and under Dutch Colours,” arrived in James River prior to Arnold’s invasion and suffered “considerable loss in her Cargo by the præditory devastations of General Arnold”; that on 4 Mch. 1781 the ship was loaded with tobacco and 198,496 pounds of crop was ready to sail when TJ “meditating a Descent upon the British Garrison of Porstmouth … issued an Order for engaging voluntarily or impressing all the armed Vessels of private property”; that Lewis obeyed the impress; that the ship remained in state service for 26 days; that during that time the ship had opportunities to clear the enemy and sail; that during its impressment a British fleet arrived; and that, consequently, the Renown was captured by the British in April 1781. The committee of claims, to which the petition was submitted, reported to the House on 31 Dec. 1785 that they found it would have been impossible for the Renown to clear the British ships in the harbor when she was ready to sail and that similar claims for other ships had been rejected. The House therefore rejected the claim for the ship and her cargo but allowed the claim for the hire of the ship when she was in public service (petition of John Ball to the General Assembly [Vi]; JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1785, 1828 edn., p. 80, 134; see also William Lewis to TJ, 5 Feb. 1781; Commission to William Lewis, 4 Mch., following).

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