Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Abishai Thomas, 15 December 1801

From Abishai Thomas

Navy Office 15th Decemr. 1801


John Thompson Mason Esquire having applied for an official copy of the instructions to the commanders of armed Vessels in the Service of the United States of the 10th July 1798, as being necessary to be exhibited as testimony in a trial now pending in the Supreme Court in relation to the French Schooner Peggy

I have the honor to transmit the copy herewith, and in the absence of the Secretary of the Navy to submit to your approbation the propriety of furnishing the same to Mr. Mason—

With the utmost consideration & respect, I have the honor to be Sir yr. mo. obt Ser

Ab. Thomas

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “President U.S.”; endorsed by TJ as received from the Navy Department on 16 Dec. FC (Lb in DNA: RG 45, LSP). Enclosure not found, but see below.

In accordance with acts of Congress passed 28 May, 28 June, and 9 July 1798, John Adams and Benjamin Stoddert issued instructions to the commanders of armed vessels on 10 July, authorizing them to capture “any armed French Vessel” found “within the Jurisdictional Limits of the United States, or elsewhere on the high seas,” and to recapture any U.S. vessels taken by the French. Such captures were to be carried into U.S. ports “in Order that Proceedings may be had concerning such Capture or Recapture in due Form of Law, and as to right shall appertain” (NDQW description begins Dudley W. Knox, ed., Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War between the United States and France, Naval Operations, Washington, D.C., 1935–38, 7 vols. (cited by years) description ends , Feb. 1797–Oct. 1798, 187).

The French schooner Peggy was captured by the U.S. frigate Trumbull off Saint-Domingue in April 1800, after being forced aground near Port-au-Prince. The vessel was taken to New London, where the U.S. District Court of Connecticut declared that the Peggy was not a lawful prize since it was not taken on the high seas and was armed for defensive purposes only. The federal circuit court at Hartford reversed the decision, however, and on 23 Sep. 1800 the court ordered the vessel and its cargo sold and the proceeds divided evenly between the captors and the United States. On 2 Oct. 1800, the ship’s master, Joseph Buisson, filed a writ of error with the U.S. Supreme Court, appealing the circuit court’s decision. The Supreme Court heard arguments during its December 1801 term, with John Thomson Mason representing Buisson. Delivering the opinion of the court on 21 Dec., Chief Justice John Marshall declared that the Peggy ought to be restored under the terms of the Convention of 1800 because it had not been “definitively condemned” before the treaty went into effect (Cranch, Reports description begins William Cranch, Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Supreme Court of the United States, 1801–1815, Washington, D.C., 1804–17, 9 vols. description ends , 1:103–10; Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , 25:429–31; Marshall, Papers description begins Herbert A. Johnson, Charles T. Cullen, Charles F. Hobson, and others, eds., The Papers of John Marshall, Chapel Hill, 1974–2006, 12 vols. description ends , 6:99–102).

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