James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Philip Mazzei, 18 June 1779

From Philip Mazzei

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Although the address sheet is missing and the letter is unsigned, it was written beyond any doubt by Mazzei, and almost as certainly to Madison.

Urbana,1 June 18th. 1779.

Dear Sir,

With a disturbed mind I am now going to write to you on topics not very agreable. Mr. Penet2 told me, that although the Capn.3 was a scotchman, all the crew were Americans. Perhaps it was so at that time, but at present we have no more than 2. Americans on board, one of which is the cabbin-boy. We have an Italian4 & a Spaniard (who came on board on my account) & a frenchman; all the rest are british. The Capn. has been left by 2. mates since he came in the river, the last of whom with another young fellow (both americans) went away since I came on board, & I heared him tell the Capn. that no other will do for him but a scotchman. He has no mate now, & says he wants none. I think he will go without, which you know how imprudent it will be. In time of the invasion5 he sent away 4. saylors. Mr. Penet did not like so strange an economy when saylors are so difficult to be replaced, & while they rise dayley in their demands. Probably they were Americans. The Capn. told me at Port-Royal,6 that he wanted only 2. men; I knew he wanted 4, or 5; he lost 2. since, as I said above; & now Giovanni tells me that he refused to take a Genoese good saylor, saying that he had men enough, when he had just in my presence done his utmost, but without purpose, to get a scotchman. The prospect is really gloomy. I assure you, that I do not like my present situation. I am however obliged to appear satisfied, & trust to chance, as thare is no other vessel for me to go.7 The fellow knows it too well, & has made his terms accordingly. He has obliged me to put on board a prodigious quantity of provisions, besides other very costly conveniencies, & to give him a bill for 60 ghineas payable in France for 2 square yards room. Since I came up, besides the currancy I brought with me, which I thought would have sufficed, I have been obliged to part with many ghineas, & to draw at last on Mr. Blair for £.615.8 In comparison to this neighburhood every thing is for nothing in Williamsburg. To give you a specimen of the expences in this part of the world I need only to tell you, that for 6 small hams I have been obliged to pay £.60:15. If we should stay here 8, or 10 days longer the Capn. will buy more provisions, & probably charge £.300. more for my share. These heavy expences, joined to what I already observed to you, induce me to wish, that as a lover of justice you would propose what you think right as soon as you have a majority capable of deciding on disinterested principles. I did, & do now, agree with you, that it was better to say nothing of this when I was in Williamsburg, but I don’t think it would be prudent to delay too long.9 I will be extremely obliged to you, my dear Sir, if you will contrive to spare me the unpleasant business. It is noble to offer, & very disagreable to ask. I was appointed the 8th. of January.10 My expences from that time to April deserve some consideration, as I was at your orders, sometimes going about to look for a passage, & other times waiting after having prejudiced my interest in hurrying the settlement of my affairs to get in readiness;11 but since that time I find that I am above £3000. out of pocket already, exclusive of the £615. drawn on Mr. Blair, & the hard money. I abhor the very idea of venality, but the other extreme is not always a merit. I did, you know, refuse the Governor’s offer of paying me for my services; I confined my own salary myself to what will hardly bear my expences, considering the travels; & I wish for nothing more; but on the other hand I would be treated as a gentleman, & cannot bear advantages to be taken of me by people endowed with jewish principles. I wish you may not consider my expressions as complaints of an old woman. I only mean to open my bosom to you, & hope you will make use of my hints in proper time as a sensible unprejudiced friend. If my salary is to begin at the time of my appointment I am satisfied with discharging all expenses without making an Apothecary’s account.12 But let it be as it will, I must beg the favour of you to let me know as soon as possible what I am to depend upon. I will likewise observe to you, that Mr. Jameson13 seemed to hint that the £7000. currency were left in my hands in lieu of the 700. st;14 to which I could not decently object, because he did not express himself fully. I proposed to accept of currency to facilitate matters. It would be really strange that I should take it at an exchange different from what I could have for the stirling I can command in Europe, & with which I must now maintain myself. I have been offered 15 at Port-Royal & Fredericksburg; but 12. was the exchange at the time I recd. the money I had left in Richmond, & that ought to be the exchange in equity for both parties. The gold I have expended here, & what I am to pay the Capn. in France, will oblige me to borrow money of Penet & Co; which I know I can have on my own credit, but I shall be obliged to return it as soon as I arrive in Tuscany, where perhaps I am not now worth a penny, if all my effects were put on board Woodford’s vessel,15 as I had directed. It is true, that my Friends will not let me in want, but would it not be prudent [and] more honorable, that I should be supplied from hence? Abt. or rather above the half of my first year’s salary will be gone by the time I get to France, & the ballance due me for the year is £.116:13:6 St. Whether you pay me my expences till then, or my year begins at the time of my appointment, there can be no objection to give me credit immediately for £5, or 600. St. on Penet & Co: And I can tell you that there is no doubt of a refusal, if I can get there, & acquaint Da Costa16 with what Penet thought proper to confide to me, & would not trust to writing. I hope you will not neglect to remit tobacco as often as you can, which you must continue to do for the credit of our Country even after having obtained the loan.

There being a probability of going out, & the pilot leaving us here at the mouth of Rapahanack, I must seal. Adieu.

Mr. Joseph Warwick of Hob’s Hole is the Pilot,17 who has promised me to send this in a parcel to the Governor by a safe hand. Please to let me know the receit by first opportunity.


2Late in December 1775 the Continental Congress encouraged J. Pierre Penet in his plan to collect munitions in France for shipment to the United States. In October 1776 Congress, at Washington’s suggestion, appointed Penet “aide de camp” by brevet to Washington’s staff. On 2 January 1779 Congress agreed to Penet’s proposal to bring over European master workmen and establish an arms manufactory in the United States. During these years Penet had a series of associates in his merchant and shipping firm at Nantes, France. Thus his firm was, at one time, Penet and de Plearne (Emanuel de Plearne); at another, Penet, de Wendel (Windel) et Cie; at still another, Penet et Couloux (Coulaux la Vigne); and, by June 1779, Penet, d’Acosta Frères et Cie. As late as April 1781, Vigne was its agent in the United States (NA: PCC, No. 41, VIII, 60–63; Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1931–44). description ends , IV, 159; VI, 174; Journals of the Continental Congress, III, 466; IV, 16; VI, 869–70; XIII, 16–17, 82, 170–72, 303–5; XIV, 776; XVIII, 890; XIX, 401; XX, 719). Penet’s company owned the “Johnston Smith” on which Mazzei was sailing. In 1780–1781 Penet’s “Le Comité,” bringing military supplies from France to Virginia, was to cause JM and Governor Jefferson much concern (Nightingale to Virginia Delegates, 6 December 1780, n. 4; Jefferson to Virginia Delegates, 18 December 1780).

3Andrew Paton (Peyton). He may have been secretly in the pay of the British (Howard R. Marraro, ed., Philip Mazzei, pp. 67, 70, 87).

4In view of his reference to “Giovanni” later in this letter, Mazzei probably did not mean his valet, Francesco del Maglio. The “Italian” must have been a member of the crew. Mazzei’s stepdaughter and wife also accompanied him.

5Between 8 and 28 May 1779 the British raided the Hampton Roads neighborhood, capturing Portsmouth and Norfolk, burning Suffolk, and destroying shipping and military stores (above, Henry to Jay, 11 May 1779 and notes).

6In Caroline County on the Rappahannock.

7Mazzei had originally planned to go “in a large and strong French vessell,” loading at Portsmouth, but this ship was burned by the British in May (Howard R. Marraro, ed., Philip Mazzei, p. 86).

8Archibald Blair.

9When Mazzei left Williamsburg, Governor Henry gave him £7,000 in Virginia currency, and a letter of credit for 300 louis d’ors on the Penet company in Nantes (ibid., pp. 85–86).

11Through Jefferson’s influence, Mazzei’s home, Colle, had been rented in February 1779 to the captured British Major General Friedrich Adolph, Baron von Riedesel, his wife, and three daughters (William Leete Stone, trans., Memoirs, and Letters and Journals, of Major General Riedesel, during his Residence in America [2 vols.; Albany, 1868], II, 69–70, 239–40).

12Probable meaning: a detailed and accurate record of expenses.

13David Jameson, a member of the Council of State with JM.

14Although in February 1779 the official depreciation rate of Virginia currency in relation to specie had been 10 for 1, by June it was 20 for 1 (Henry Phillips, Historical Sketches of the Paper Currency of the American Colonies, Prior to the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 1st ser. [Roxbury, Mass., 1865], p. 202).

15Thomas Woodford.

16His given name is not known but he was one of two or more brothers. In the primary sources their surname is variously de la Costa, de Costa, du Costa, d’Acosta, or with the “d” capitalized in each instance. He and at least one brother were Penet’s partners in the trading company at Nantes. Mazzei’s faith in Costa was destined to be rudely shaken (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , III, 299–301).

17Warwick of Hobb’s Hole (Tappahannock) on the Rappahannock had been pilot’s mate on the Virginia State brig “Mosquito” in 1779. Little more is known of him than that he apparently became a deserter in 1781, was captured, and later escaped (Calendar of Virginia State Papers, II, 430).

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