Thomas Jefferson Papers

Report on Petition of William How, 14 November 1791

Report on Petition of William How

The Secretary of State, to whom was referred, by the House of Representatives, the Petition of William How, praying Satisfaction from the United States, for a Debt due to him in Nova Scotia, and whereon Judgment has been rendered against him, contrary to existing Treaties, as he supposes, with Instruction to examine the same, and report his Opinion thereupon to the House, has had the same under Consideration, and thereupon

That if the Facts be justly stated in the Petition, Indemnification is to be sought from a foreign Nation, and, therefore, that the Case is a proper one to be addressed to the President of the United States.

That, when in that Channel, if it shall be found, after advising with Counsel at Law, that the Verdict or Judgment rendered in the said Case, is Inconsistent with Treaty, it will become a proper Subject of Representation to the Court of London, and of Indemnification from them to the Party.

That to this Interposition the Petitioner will, in that Case, be entitled, but not to any Reimbursement from the United States directly.

Th: Jefferson
Nov. 14. 1791.

PrC (DLC); in clerk’s hand, except for date and signature; on verso in clerk’s hand: “Recorded and Examined.” FC (DNA: RG 59, SDR). Tr (DNA: RG 59, MLR); endorsed by Lear. Report was transmitted in TJ to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, 14 Nov. 1791 (PrC in DLC).

On 3 Nov. 1791 the House of Representatives read and referred to TJ a petition from William How of Shrewsbury Mass., “praying that, as he became an American citizen at the commencement of the late war with Great Britain, entered into the service of the United States, and has continued to be a citizen thereof since that time, he may be relieved against the operation of certain proceedings of a court of law in Nova Scotia, under the dominion of Great Britain, which has been lately had against him, contrary, as he conceives, to the provisions contained in the fourth article of the treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain” (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826, 9 vols. description ends , i, 447; attested copy by John Beckley of House resolution on How of 3 Nov. 1791, DNA: RG 59, MLR). This article of the peace treaty concerned the collection of private debts contracted by citizens of one country with those of the other.

TJ strongly opposed How’s effort to induce the House of Representatives to intercede in his case because he feared that it would set a precedent for further legislative encroachments on the President’s authority to conduct foreign affairs and encourage other citizens to seek legislative assistance in matters over which the executive branch of government properly exercised jurisdiction. TJ consulted with James Madison before he submitted his report to the House of Representatives, arguing that in order to avoid even the semblance of legislative interference with executive authority the legislators should do nothing more than permit How to withdraw his petition; if they themselves referred it to the President, they would simply inspire others seeking executive assistance “to avail themselves of the weight of so powerful a sollicitor” (TJ to Madison, 11 Nov. 1791). Madison obviously concurred with this view, because after reading the report this day the House approved his motion giving How leave to withdraw his petition (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826, 9 vols. description ends , i, 453; Gazette of the United States, 16 Nov. 1791). No evidence has been found that How subsequently submitted his petition to the President.

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