Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from DeWitt Clinton, 12 April 1803

From DeWitt Clinton

New York 12 April 1803.

Dear Sir

I take the liberty of communicating to you a transaction—for which communication I am sure no apology is necessary, when I assure you that my object is to prevent any injury to the republican interest or at least to one of its most worthy advocates in this State. I will state the circumstances as briefly as possible.—

Genl. Lamb Collector of this Port was a defaulter upwards of 120.000 Dollars—His securities are responsible for 50.000.—The two who were prosecuted by the Govt. were Col. Henry Rutgers one of the most respectable opulent and meritorious republicans in the State—The other Mr. Alexander Robertson a federalist1—Lamb in addition to the conveyance of a large tract of land to his sureties acknowledged a judgment to them for their further indemnification—The sureties were prosecuted—Robertson repaired to Philadelphia and made an agreement to the following effect with the Treasury Department, Mr Oliver Wolcott being then Secry.—The sureties would give up their judgment against Lamb and permit all the property not conveyed to them to be sold and applied to the satisfaction of the debt due to the U.S. over & above the 50.000 Dollars.—if there was any residuum it should be applied as far it went to extinguish it and the sureties should be liable for the remainder—A sale accordingly took place—The amount unknown—as Giles the Marshal has not accounted. The sureties have paid 25.000 Dollars to the U.S. and they now wish to have the amount of the sales by Giles ascertained and the surplus if any allowed to them or they will be content to waive this and pay the whole at a certain period if time is given. In the mean time Mr. Livingston the District Atty. says that he has positive instructions from the Govt. to proceed against them—and they threaten if the Govt. abandons their agreement to have recourse to their Judgment vs. Lamb & resell the lands. In this situation Col. Rutgers would go on immediately to Washington and settle the business with the Treasury—but his presence at this juncture is indispensable in this place. He will either assume to pay the balance in four years without interest & give approved security or will go on to Washington in June and come to some final understanding. The claim of the U.S. is perfectly secure—The pressuring Rutgers totally inexpedient—as no man has purer views & more means.

My object in writing is to get a direction to the District Atty. to arrest the proceedings until June when Rutgers will proceed to Washington if necessary—I know that in making this application I call your attention to a subject foreign in some measure from the business of your office—but it is really important in more senses than one, as time will satisfactorily evince. If you express a wish merely to the Comptroller (as I presume Mr. Gallatin is absent) without assigning any other than a general reason or referring to my application, it will be sufficient—and if you favor me with a line in immediate reply, it will be deemed a favor.—

Great efforts are made to divide the republicans at the approaching election—but they cannot Succeed—

With great respect I am your obedt servt.

DeWitt Clinton

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “The President of the U.S.”; endorsed by TJ as received 14 Apr. and so recorded in SJL.

Governor George Clinton appointed John lamb collector of customs at New York in 1784 and he continued in office under the Federal government in 1789. He was dismissed in April 1797 after the discovery of a large shortfall in his accounts, reportedly due to embezzlement by his deputy, who fled to Europe. The government charged that Lamb owed $150,000, while Lamb estimated his debt at $127,952.99. his securities: Henry Rutgers, Alexander Robertson, Melancton Smith, and Marinus Willett served as Lamb’s sureties for up to $50,000, the amount prescribed by law. In 1799, U.S. District Attorney Richard Harison brought suit against Lamb, Rutgers, and Robertson to recover the money. Smith died in 1798 and there is no evidence that Willett was included in the suit. Lamb died in 1800. Rutgers, Robertson, and Willett unsuccessfully petitioned Congress in 1801 to release them from their obligation “in consideration of their having delivered up all the property of the said Collector to, and for the use and benefit of, the United States.”

sureties have paid: on 16 Dec. 1802, Rutgers paid $25,000 to the U.S. Treasury on his and Robertson’s behalf. He requested a delay in the final discharge of the bond, noting an agreement between Robertson and Comptroller John Steele in April 1800 that linked the final payment to the sale of Lamb’s land. Until all of the land was sold, it was not clear what they owed. In his 16 Dec. letter to Gallatin, Rutgers guaranteed the rest of the payment as soon as the balance was ascertained. Gallatin referred the letter to Gabriel Duvall, the comptroller. positive instructions: on 15 Mch. 1803, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found in favor of the U.S. in the Lamb suit, resulting in an effort by Edward Livingston to settle the account. In 1807, Rutgers was again writing the Treasury Department seeking a record of the sales from Lamb’s estate. Rutgers and Robertson settled with the government the next year (Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , 24:390–1; Kline, Burr description begins Mary-Jo Kline, ed., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Princeton, 1983, 2 vols. description ends , 1:291, 296–7; 2:696n; Gallatin, Papers description begins Carl E. Prince and Helene E. Fineman, eds., The Papers of Albert Gallatin, microfilm edition in 46 reels, Philadelphia, 1969, and Supplement, Barbara B. Oberg, ed., reels 47–51, Wilmington, Del., 1985 description ends , 7:820; 14:418; ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends , s.v. “Lamb, John”).

his presence at this juncture is indispensable: Rutgers, toasted as “a firm republican—the poor man’s friend,” was endorsed as a Republican candidate for the state assembly in the upcoming 24 Apr. election. He had served in the New York assembly in 1802 but not in 1803. On the day Clinton wrote this letter, Rutgers chaired a party meeting of the Seventh Ward. All nine Republican candidates from New York City won seats in the assembly (New York American Citizen, 15, 21 Apr. 1803; New York Chronicle Express, 2 May; Newark, N.J., Centinel of Freedom, 3 May 1803; Republican Watch-Tower, 9 July 1803; Journal of the Assembly of the State of New-York: At Their Twenty-Fifth Session [Albany, 1802], 3; Journal of the Assembly of the State of New-York: At Their Twenty-Sixth Session [Albany, 1803], 3).

1Preceding two words interlined.

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