Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to the Virginia Delegates in Congress, 10 May 1781

To the Virginia Delegates in Congress

In Council May 10th. 1781


A small Affair has taken Place between the British commanding Officer in this State (Genl. Phillips) and the Executive which as he may endeavour to get Rid of through the medium of Congress, I think it necessary previously to apprise you of it.

General Scott obtained Permission from the Commandant at Charlestown for vessels with necessary Supplies to go from hence to them, but instead of sending the Original sent only a Copy of the Permission taken by his Brigade Major. I applied to Genl. Phillips to supply this Omission by furnishing a Passport for the vessel. Having just before taken great Offence at a Threat of Retaliation in the Treatment of Prisoners he inclosed his answer to my Letter under this Address ‘To Thos. Jefferson Esqr. American Governor of Virginia.’ I paused on receiving the Letter and for some time would not open it. However when the miserable Condition of our Brethren in Charlestown occurred to me, I could not determine that they should be left without the necessaries of Life while a Punctilio should be discussing between the British General and myself: and knowing that I had an Opportunity of returning the Compliment to Mr. Phillips in a Case perfectly corresponding, I opened the Letter.

Very shortly after I received as I expected the Permission of the Board of War for the British Flag vessel then in Hampton Road with Cloathing and Refreshments to proceed to Alexandria. I inclosed and addressed it ‘To William Phillips Esqr. commanding the British Forces in the Commonwealth of Virginia.’ Personally knowing Phillips to be the proudest man of the proudest Nation on Earth I well know he will not open this Letter; but having Occasion at the same Time to write to Capt. Gerlach the Flag master, I informed him that the Convention Troops in this State should perish for want of necessaries before any should be carried to them through this State till Genl. Phillips either swallowed this Pill of Retaliation or made an Apology for his rudeness. And in this, should the matter come ultimately to Congress, we hope for their Support. He has the less right to insist on the expedition of his Flag because his Letter instead of inclosing a Passport to expedite ours, contained only an Evasion of the Application by saying he had referred it to Sir Henry Clinton and in the mean time he has come up the river and taken the vessel with her Loading which we had chartered and prepared to send to Charlestown and which wanted nothing but the Passport to enable her to depart. I would further observe to you that this Gentleman’s letters to Baron Steuben first, and afterwards to the Marquis Fayette, have been in a stile so intolerably insolent and haughty, that both these Gentlemen have been obliged to inform him that if he thinks proper to address them again in the same spirit all Intercourse shall be discontinued.

I am with very great Respect & Esteem Gentlemen Your mo: obt. Servt,

Th: Jefferson

RC (DLC: PCC, No. 71, ii); in a clerk’s hand, signed and addressed by TJ; endorsed in part: “Read 29 Referred to the board of War” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xx, 571). FC (Vi). Tr (DLC: TJ Papers).

On this episode, see Charles Scott to TJ, 30 Jan. 1781; TJ to Phillips, 31 Mch. and 20 Apr.; Phillips to TJ, 6 Apr.; TJ to Gerlach, 3 May; and the depositions concerning the Alert, 2 May 1781. Several assertions by TJ make it seem apparent that the letter from Phillips bearing an offensive address could not be that of 6 Apr. 1781. These are: (1) that Phillips’ offensive letter came “to hand” after 20 Apr. (TJ to Gerlach, 3 May 1781); (2) that TJ paused “on receiving the Letter and for some time would not open it,” but finally permitted humanitarian reasons to prevail over punctilio; (3) that “very shortly” after this he received permission to let the flag General Riedesel proceed and enclosed the passports in a letter bearing a retaliatory address; (4) that, at the same time, he wrote to Gerlach; (5) that Phillips’ letter, instead of enclosing a passport, contained only an evasion to the effect that it was necessary to refer the problem to Sir Henry Clinton; and (6) that “in the meantime” (italics supplied) Phillips had come up the river and taken the Alert. But these assertions, which seem to point to a missing letter from Phillips to TJ written sometime between 10 and 18 Apr. as the one that bore the offensive address, are either mistaken or contradictory. For there is no evidence that TJ received any letter from Phillips after 20 Apr. or that he answered Phillips’ letter of 6 Apr. except insofar as his letter of 20 Apr. is an answer—and that letter could not have preceded or have produced Phillips’ offensive address since it was not dispatched until 3 May. In the second place, TJ was wrong in thinking he had delayed opening Phillips’ letter. It is true that he delayed a direct response until 20 Apr., but on 10 Apr., immediately on receipt of Phillips’ letter of 6 Apr., he forwarded it to Steuben and asked that the matter be carried forward according to the stipulations that Phillips had set forth. This Steuben did, writing to Phillips on 15 Apr. (the letter was actually written by William Davies) and Phillips replied on 18 Apr. just as he was setting out on the expedition up the James, saying that the matter would have to be referred for decision to Sir Henry Clinton. Third, the assertion that TJ received the passport for the flag General Riedesel “very shortly” after he had opened the offensive letter is in contradiction to the assertion that that letter had come to hand after 20 Apr., for the passports arrived on 20 Apr. Fourth, the statement that he wrote to Gerlach at the same time that he wrote to Phillips is erroneous in implying that his letter to Phillips with the retaliatory address was written on 3 May, the date of the letter to Gerlach, for TJ had written Phillips on 20 Apr. and “recalled” it in order to re-address it on 3 May. Fifth, Phillips’ statement that it was necessary to refer the matter to Sir Henry Clinton may have been an evasion, but it was made in his letter to Steuben of 18 Apr. and there is no reason for believing that he wrote a letter to TJ containing such a statement. Finally, the phrase “in the meantime” seems to point to the fact that Phillips’ letter was written some time before 18 Apr., which would have been quite unlikely in view of the fact that Phillips had not by that date received an answer from TJ to his letter of 6 Apr. Considering these evidences, it seems conclusive that the letter whose address gave TJ offense was that of 6 Apr.—the last that Phillips’ addressed to him. On the “intolerably insolent and haughty” letters from Phillips to Lafayette and Steuben, see notes to Weedon to TJ, 25 Apr. and to the depositions concerning the Alert, 2 May 1781. The passports were not granted nor tobacco shipped to Charleston until after TJ had left office and Phillips had died; Cornwallis speedily effected a matter that had been in train for several months (David Ross to William Davies, 4 Aug. 1781; CVSP description begins Calendar of Virginia State Papers … Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond description ends , ii, 291); and within two weeks after the present letter was written, Lafayette had forwarded to Cornwallis the passport for the flag Riedesel (see James Maury to David Ross, 24 May, enclosed in Ross to TJ, 26 May).

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