Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to the District Attorneys, 10 November 1793

To the District Attorneys

Germantown Nov: 10. 1793.


The war at present prevailing among the European Powers producing sometimes captures of vessels in the neighbourhood of our sea coast, and the law of nations admitting as a common convenience, that every nation inhabiting the sea coast may extend its jurisdiction and protection some distance into the sea, the President has been frequently appealed to by the subjects of the belligerent Powers for the benefit of that protection. To what distance from the coast this may be extended, is not precisely ascertained, either by the practice or consent of nations, or the opinions of the jurists who have written on the subject. The greatest distance to which any respectable assent seems to have been given, is the extent of the human sight, estimated at something more than 20. miles. The least claimed by any nation is the utmost range of cannon shot, usually stated at one sea league, or 3 sea-miles, which is a very small fraction less than 3½ statute or american miles. Several intermediate distances have been insisted on under different circumstances, and that particularly of 3 sea leagues, has the support of some authorities which are recent. However as the nations which practice navigation on our coasts are interested in this question, it is thought prudent not to assume the whole distance which we may reasonably claim until some opportunity shall occur of entering into friendly explanations and arrangements with them on the subject. But as in the mean time it is necessary to exercise the right to some distance, the President has thought it best, so far as shall concern the exercise of the executive Powers, to take the distance of a sea league, which being settled by treaty between some of the belligerent Powers, and as little as any of them claim on their own coasts, can admit of no reasonable opposition on their part. The executive officers are therefore instructed to consider a margin of one sea league on our coast as that within which all hostilities are interdicted for the present, until it shall be otherwise signified to them. The rivers and bays as being landlocked are of course by the law of nations and I presume by the laws of most of the states, within the body of the United States, and under the same protection from hostilities.

As the question whether a capture has been made within these limits is a question of fact, to be decided by witnesses, it becomes necessary to take measures for the examination of these witnesses in the different states where captures may happen: and the laws of the Union having as yet made no provision for this purpose, the President considers the Attornies of the several Districts as the persons the most capable of discharging the office with knowledge, with impartiality and with that extreme discretion which is essential in all matters wherein foreign nations are concerned. I have the honor therefore, Sir, to inclose you a paper expressing the desire of the President on this subject. You will see by that, that whenever a capture is suggested to have been made within the limits above mentioned, so far as they are within your state, the Governor, to whom the first application will be made, is desired to give you notice thereof, whereupon it is hoped you will proceed as the paper points out. The representatives here of the different Powers are informed of this arrangement and desired to instruct their Consuls to facilitate the proceedings as far as shall depend on them; and it is unnecessary for me to suggest what your own judgment and disposition would dictate, that the same object will be promoted by a certain degree of respect to which the Consuls are entitled, and a just and friendly attention to their convenience. I have the honor to be with sentiments of respect Sir, Your most obedt. servt.

Th: Jefferson

RC (PHi: Rawle Papers); in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ; at foot of first page: “William Rawle Esqr. Attorney for the District of Pennsylvania.” RC (DeHi); in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ; at foot of first page: “George Read Junr. Attorney for the District of Delaware.” PrC (Gilder Lehrman Collection: Henry Knox Papers, on deposit NNP); with TJ’s signature added in ink. PrC (same); in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ in ink; at foot of first page: “Pierpoint Edwards Esqr. Attorney for the District of Connecticut.” PrC (same); in Benjamin Bankson’s hand; lacks last page; at foot of first page: “Ricd. Harrison Esqr. Attorney for the District of New York.” PrC (same); in Bankson’s hand, signed by TJ in ink; at foot of first page: “Abraham Ogden Esqr. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.” PrC (DNA: RG 59, MD); in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ in ink; at foot of first page: “Zebulon Hollingsworth, Attorney for the District of Maryland.” PrC (DLC); in a clerk’s hand, unsigned; at foot of first page: “<William Lithgow Esqr Attorney for the District of Maine>”; added in ink beneath it: “<William Channing Esqr. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island>”; inserted in ink by TJ in the margin at head of text: “Samuel Sherburne N.H. Christopher Gore M. Pierpoint Edwards C. Richard Harrison N.Y. Abraham Ogden N.J. Wm. Rawle Pensylva. George Reade jr. Del. Zebulon Hollingsworth Maryld. Alexander Campbell Virga. Wm. Hill N. Cara. Thomas Parker S. Carola. Matthew McAlister Georgia.” FC (Lb in DNA: RG 59, DL); with list of addressees beneath enclosure. Letter and enclosure enclosed in TJ to George Washington, [16 Nov. 1793]; texts addressed to William Rawle and George Read, Jr., enclosed in TJ to Henry Knox, 15 Nov. 1793 (second letter).

After obtaining Cabinet approval of a draft of this letter, and presumably its enclosure, TJ submitted copies of the final versions to the President on 16 Nov. 1793, and Washington returned them the same day (Cabinet Opinions on Various Letters, [23 Nov. 1793]; Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 251, 252).

A letter from Abraham Ogden of 19 Nov. 1793, possibly a reply to TJ’s letter, is recorded in SJL as received from Newark, New Jersey, on 21 Nov. 1793, but has not been found.

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