Thomas Jefferson Papers

Nathaniel G. Ingraham, Alexander Phoenix, William Nexsen, and John Redfield to Thomas Jefferson, 13 February 1812

From Nathaniel G. Ingraham, Alexander Phoenix, William Nexsen, and John Redfield

New York Debtors Prison 13 feby 1812


Four of your fellow Citizens overwhelmed by the calamities of the times, with large families totally destitute of the means of Subsistence, are incarcerated by the government of their Country for—debt. Attached to the Republican Administration of that government by every tie which can direct & controul the affections of man, they have thro’ a series of misfortunes & sacrifices supported & maintained all the measures of its policy for the last three Years. The same events which have arrested the prosperity of the nation, have deprived us of our liberty & our families of every comfort. We surrendered ourselves under the Insolvent laws of this State. We gave under them to our Creditors, the whole of our property & were legally discharged. We were content to begin the world anew, & labor with our hands for the support of the dear relatives entitled to our protection; (& with every wish to pay, as we could, our debt to the Government; who will also receive the shattered remains of our fortunes from the hands of our Assignees.) When we had stript them & ourselves of every Dollar we were thrown into this Prison to eat the bread of dependance or starve on the scanty allowance of charity—

It is true our debt to the government is large. We owe them one hundred & forty thousand Dollars; but we have heretofore paid into the Treasury upwards of three hundred & sixteen thousand dollars—We have not therefore been idle or unprofitable servants; & had it not been for circumstances which have baffled the wisdom & power of the nation and almost destroyed its resources, we should now have been surrounded by the comforts of wealth & looking forward to a prosperous futurity—

For the last nine months, suits have been going on against us, & none are yet matured into judgments. We have now been seperated from our families nearly four months, during which time we have made every exertion by offering to give confessions of Judgment,—to release all errors,—to sign & seal whatever might be demanded of us, that we might bring our case before the Secretary of the Treasury—we were willing to submit to any exaction, to make any sacrifice of present feeling or future interest to restore to our suffering families the benefit of our industry & care—

But the Judge of this District is sick & gone to Charleston. The District Attorney for the same reason is absent at New Orleans & his Agent here refuses to remove one step from the ordinary track—Driven thus by necessity & almost by despair we have carried before the National Legislature our appeal to the humanity, if not to the justice of our country. The feelings of Husbands & Fathers compel us to seek thro every channel, the means of making that appeal with success. And to whom Sir can the wretched victims of foreign injustice & rapacity, suffering under all the horrors of imprisonment, apply for assistance with greater freedom, than to the Man of the People, to the author of the declaration of American Independance—

We make the application Sir without fear & beseech you to interest yourself in the behalf of your fellow Citizens who, for their misfortunes alone, have been cut off from Society, deprived of the enjoyment of pure air & the use of their own limbs. Suffer us not to be compelled to a life of uselesse inactivity & sloth—a burden to humanity!

To You Sir it must be well known that the Judicial system established within this State, approximates more closely than in any other part of the United States, to that of Great Britain. Indeed in many respects its Legislature have neglected to adopt the amelioration of the antient system, introduced into that Kingdom within the last twenty years, & to which in all probability the American revolution gave birth by the diffusion of political light & knowledge. The State of New York is I believe the only State in the Union which suffers the incarceration of a Citizen, without providing for him the means of subsistence; which leaves him in this situation for years, charged with no crime, at the mercy of private revenge. The Charity of good men is severely taxed to gratify the malice of the bad—In no other state in the Union could the confinement of a Citizen, reduced to utter penury have continued thro five long years for a debt of fifty Dollars! of which there is now in this Prison a living instance!

But Sir we are intruding too long upon your patience—We must be allowed to hope that You will not be an indifferent spectator of oppression upon the liberty of the Citizen, committed even under the imposing form of law. We implore your aid with the Government & your friends in Congress to effect our deliverance from this monument of the Shameful neglect of those rights on which are bottomed all the political institutions of our Country—We only1 ask for the liberty of relieving society from the burden of supporting us & our families—Accept Sir, the prayers of the unfortunate for your happiness—

Nathl G. Ingraham
A: Phoenix
Wm Nexsen Jr
John Redfield Junior

RC (MHi); in Phoenix’s hand, signed by Ingraham, Phoenix, Nexsen, and Redfield; addressed: “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson Monticello Virginia”; franked; postmarked New York, 15 Feb.; endorsed by TJ as received 23 Feb. 1812 and so recorded in SJL.

The four signatories were all insolvent New York City merchants. Nathaniel G. Ingraham (ca. 1761–1827) moved from Connecticut to New York City by 1795. He went bankrupt in 1801, successfully resumed trade before the troubles described above, and made his last appearance in city directories as an auctioneer in 1827 (DNA: RG 29, CS, Conn., Middletown, 1790; William Duncan, The New-York Directory, and Register, for the year 1795 [New York, 1795], 109; New York Daily Advertiser, 16 Apr. 1801; MiU-C: Phoenix Family Papers; Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, John C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, 1962– , 29 vols.: Congress. Ser., 17 vols.; Pres. Ser., 5 vols.; Sec. of State Ser., 7 vols description ends , Pres. Ser., 3:169–70; Longworth’s New York Directory description begins Longworth’s American Almanac, New-York Register, and City Directory. New York, 1796–1842 (title varies; cited by year of publication) description ends [1827], 269; New-York Evening Post, 25 Aug. 1827).

Alexander Phoenix (1778–1863), Ingraham’s brother-in-law, was a New Jersey native who graduated from Columbia College in 1795, became an attorney by 1803, and later replaced his brother Sidney Phoenix as a member of Ingraham, Phoenix & Nexsen. After the firm went bankrupt, he became a Congregational minister, moved to Massachusetts, and accepted a call in 1824 from a church in Chicopee. Phoenix moved to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1835, and finally to Harlem, New York, about 1841 (MiU-C: Phoenix Family Papers, including letters written from debtors’ prison late in 1811, his 6 Nov. 1811 insolvency certificate from the New York City courts, and the 12 Jan. 1824 offer from a committee of the Church of Christ at Chicopee; Milton Halsey Thomas, Columbia University Officers and Alumni 1754–1857 [1936], 116; Longworth’s New York Directory description begins Longworth’s American Almanac, New-York Register, and City Directory. New York, 1796–1842 (title varies; cited by year of publication) description ends [1803], 236; S. Bourne Jr., A Sermon occasioned by the death of Rev. Alexander Phoenix [1864]; New York Independent, 3 Sept. 1863).

William Nexsen, one of several contemporary New Yorkers of that name, was active as an auctioneer by 1803 (Longworth’s New York Directory description begins Longworth’s American Almanac, New-York Register, and City Directory. New York, 1796–1842 (title varies; cited by year of publication) description ends [1803], 225). John Redfield was a grocer in New York City in 1810 and filed an insolvency petition in the state courts the following year (Longworth’s New York Directory description begins Longworth’s American Almanac, New-York Register, and City Directory. New York, 1796–1842 (title varies; cited by year of publication) description ends [1810], 309; Albany Balance, and State Journal, 3 Sept. 1811).

The firm of Ingraham, Phoenix & Nexsen, auction and commission merchants and traders, was established in 1803. It declared bankruptcy in 1811 with losses totaling $467,547.61. All three principals were then committed to debtors’ prison along with Redfield, who had become liable as surety for the company’s customhouse bonds (MiU-C: Phoenix Family Papers, esp. Articles of Agreement establishing Ingraham, Phoenix & Nexsen, 15 Feb. 1803, and Full Account and List of Losses sustained, 11 Oct. 1811; New York Columbian, 10 Sept. 1811). They had their case brought before the national legislature in a petition noting that the firm had prospered until the “present unfavorable state of the relations between this country and commercial nations of Europe” had caused them to lose “the whole of their private estates, and become corporately and individually insolvent” (JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States description ends , 5:57 [14 Feb. 1812]). The matter was referred to Albert Gallatin, whose report stated that the United States was owed $141,000 for “duties on merchandise imported, from the month of May, 1810, to the month of March, 1811”; that the firm had diverted this sum to other creditors; and that its principals along with their surety Redfield had accordingly “been imprisoned for want of bail at the suit of the United States.” He concluded that his legal authority as treasury secretary to release prisoners indebted to the United States did not extend to Ingraham, Phoenix, and Nexsen, because they had not yet been formally arrested after the issuance of judgments on their revenue bonds, and that their failure to accord the United States its legal priority as a creditor also acted against them. Redfield not being subject to the latter concern, Gallatin suggested that he was a stronger candidate for legislative relief (Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, on the Petition of Nathaniel G. Ingraham, and others, of New York. April 9th, 1812 [Washington, 1812]). An act releasing Redfield while reserving all government claims on his property passed on 24 Feb. 1813, and Ingraham, Phoenix, and Nexsen secured their release after a similar bill became law on 3 Mar. 1813 (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States . . . 1789 to March 3, 1845, 1855–56, 8 vols. description ends , 6:117, 119).

1Word interlined.

Index Entries

  • charity; requests to TJ for search
  • debt, private; imprisonment for search
  • Declaration of Independence; TJ as author of search
  • Gallatin, Albert; and bankruptcy of N.Y. firm search
  • Great Britain; judicial system in search
  • Ingraham, Nathaniel G.; identified search
  • Ingraham, Nathaniel G.; letters from search
  • Ingraham, Nathaniel G.; seeks TJ’s aid search
  • Ingraham, Phoenix & Nexsen (N.Y. firm); bankruptcy search
  • Ingraham, Phoenix & Nexsen (N.Y. firm); identified search
  • New York (city); and imprisonment for debt search
  • New York (state); insolvency laws of search
  • New York (state); judicial system in search
  • Nexsen, William; identified search
  • Nexsen, William; letters from search
  • Nexsen, William; seeks TJ’s aid search
  • Phoenix, Alexander; identified search
  • Phoenix, Alexander; letters from search
  • Phoenix, Alexander; seeks TJ’s aid search
  • Redfield, John; identified search
  • Redfield, John; letters from search
  • Redfield, John; seeks TJ’s aid search