Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Thomas McKean, 23 December 1790

To Thomas McKean

Philadelphia December 23d. 1790.


As you have been so friendly as to transmit to the President of the U.S. the papers of Philip Wilson, I take the liberty of availing myself of the same channel to convey to him the opinion of the Attorney general in answer to his application. I do this the rather as not knowing how to address to him. I have the honour to be with real marks of the highest respect & esteem Sir Your most obedt. & most humble servt,

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of text: “the honble. T. McKain.” Enclosures not found.

On 21 Dec. 1790 Tobias Lear wrote TJ: “By the President’s Command, T. Lear has the honor to enclose to the Secretary of State the report of the Attorney General upon the papers of Philip Wilson, and respectfully to suggest to the Secretary of State whether it would not be proper to transmit a copy of the report, together with the papers, either to Judge McKean, through whom Mr. Wilson’s papers were forwarded to the President, or to Mr. Wilson himself. And in case they should be transmitted, that the Secretary of State would, as to him appears most proper, either send them from himself or return them to be sent from the President” (RC in DLC, endorsed by TJ; Dft in DNA: RG 59, MLR, written by Lear on verso of address-leaf bearing in TJ’s hand: “The President of the United States”; not recorded in SJL).

The papers returned by TJ concerned the American ship Mentor, built and owned by Philip Wilson, a Philadelphia merchant and American citizen then residing in London. Mentor was pursued, run ashore, and destroyed on the Delaware coast near Cape Henlopen by two British ships, Centurion and Vulture. This occurred on 1 Apr. 1783, after the period set for the cessation of hostilities, and Wilson in 1785 petitioned the British government for reparation to the extent of about £18,000. William Scott, King’s Advocate-General, ruled and a committee of the Privy Council agreed that the claim was valid. But no settlement was made and in 1788 a suit brought by Wilson against the captain of Centurion was dismissed by the High Court of Admiralty (Wharton, Dipl. Corr., vi, 96–9, 224, 251, 252, 258; Mentor, 165 English reports 141 [1799]; J. B. Moore, International adjudications [New York, 1931], iv, 192; Pinckney to Grenville, 8 June 1793, enclosed in Pinckney to TJ, 27 Aug. 1793). Wilson thereupon sought American assistance, appealing first to Thomas McKean, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania.

“The reason of Mr. Wilson’s application to me,” McKean wrote in forwarding the petition to the President, “respecting an affair I never before heard of, I cannot tell, unless he believes that from a little knowledge I had of his seeming, if not real attachment to the American Revolution, I would interest myself in his behalf, or that humanity would urge me to it. He had two brothers, officers in the British Army during the war, and yet appeared to be anxious for our success, and I believe was active, tho’ particulars have escaped my recollection. He has no other claim upon me” (McKean to Washington, 12 July 1790, PHi: McKean Papers, enclosing letter from Wilson to McKean, Westminster, 11 Mch. 1790, not found). Randolph’s opinion evidently indicated that the appeal lay properly to the British government. But Wilson continued to seek American assistance. He wrote several letters to Washington which the President turned over to the Secretary of State. Assuming that similar cases might arise, TJ instructed the American minister in London to make the matter an official concern. Pinckney, moved by Wilson’s acute distress and by his refusal to accept a settlement of £2,000 offered on grounds of compassion, arranged a loan of £100 and otherwise confused the issue by urging that Congress afford temporary relief. His discussions with Grenville were without result (TJ to Pinckney, 11 June 1792; 16 Mch. and 4 June 1793; Pinckney to TJ, 29 Aug., 5 Oct., 9 Nov., and 13 Dec. 1792, enclosing Wilson to TJ, 3 Dec. 1792; and 27 Aug. 1793, enclosing Pinckney to Grenville, 8 June 1793; Washington to Secretary of State, 18 July 1796, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxv, 145). See also Wilson to TJ, 16 July 1791; 28 Nov. 1791; and 28 Mch. 1792.

Living in dire need in London and having legally declared himself a pauper, Wilson petitioned the King asking that the powers of the Commissioners to settle American claims be enlarged so as to admit an investigation of that of Mentor. His wife also joined in the affecting plea to the English authorities. Both appeals were unavailing (Wilson’s petitions to the King, 8 Mch. 1796, 7 Dec. 1797, and Mch. 1798; Wilson to Stephen Cottrell, Secretary to the Privy Council, 14 Dec. 1797, 26 and 28 Apr. 1798; printed Declaration and case of Philip Wilson, 8 p. [London], 1797; Cottrell to Wilson, 22 Dec. 1797; and six letters of Mrs. Eleanor Wilson, Feb.-Apr. 1798, all in unbound papers of the Privy Council, PRO: PC 1/41).

In 1797 and again in 1798 Wilson also petitioned Congress for relief and indemnification, but with similar lack of success. In 1798 he brought suit against Admiral Digby, commander of the British squadron on the American station at the time Mentor was destroyed. Scott, now judge of the High Court of Admiralty, was obviously moved by compassion for the plaintiff. But he found it unprecedented that a suit brought against one of the captors, dismissed, and not appealed should have been followed ten years later by another against “a person totally ignorant of the whole transaction.” He lamented that Wilson’s “distress of fortune prevented him for proceeding further” in the case against the captain of Centurion, but ruled that to hold Digby responsible would be contrary “to every principle of law and justice by which the proceedings of this Court have been directed, ever since it has borne the shape of an established Court of Justice” (Mentor, 165 English reports, 141–3 [5 Feb. 1799]). Wilson then returned to the United States, being again in Philadelphia early in 1801 (SJL entry for 28 Mch. 1801 shows that TJ received a letter from him [missing], dated there 25 Mch. 1801). He began a long and equally unsuccessful effort to obtain compensation from the American government for commodities seized in 1778 for the use of the army. His petition on this claim was before Congress constantly from 1805 until his death about 1811, when his widow and son took up the matter and pursued it at least until 1838. They were no more successful than he had been (see JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826- description ends for 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 23rd, and 24th Congresses; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, Gales, 1820–21, 5 vols. description ends for 4th, 5th, and 11th Congresses; Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials by Joseph Gales, Senior, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. The edition employed here is that which contains the running heads on verso and recto pages respectively: “Gales & Seatons History” and “of Debates in Congress.” Another printing, with the same title-page but with running heads on both recto and verso pages reading “History of Congress,” has a different pagination, so that pages cited in the edition employed here should be converted by subtracting approximately fifty-two from the number given in the citation. All editions are undependable. description ends , vii, 504, 508; xxii, 102–3).

From an early period of life Wilson had “made the stepping of Masts, and form of Vessels for Fast Sailing” his special study. But in 1802 when he offered the results to the United States government for naval use, his presentation was unfortunately ironic. Mentor had not been able to outrun Centurion and Vulture, but it was “the pursuit of Superior Velocity, in the Sailing of Shipping,” this hapless student of naval architecture wrote, that “caused me to build that Ship” (Wilson to TJ 13 and 15 Apr. 1802).

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