James Madison Papers

To James Madison from George W. Erving, 29 January 1811

From George W. Erving


Boston Jany 29. 1811

Dear Sir

I was in hopes that I shoud have learnt in my communications with Senr Onis, on my passage thro’ Phila something of sufficient importance to have been communicated to you; but his conversation on every point of interest, was so extremely, & even more than usually Extravagant, that I coud not presume to trouble you by any mention of it, the less necessary since (as I presumed) the then actual state of affairs with regard to the Floridas, rendered whatever utility I had hoped to derive from him (in your view always questionable) of less importance: a friend there furnished me with a copy of his secret instructions to the captain of the schooner “Ramona”;1 (the vessel which was taken by the english) tho’ these do not contain any thing of political consequence, they are interesting as they shew his mode of operating, & therefore I take the liberty of inclosing them herewith: the loss of that vessel has not failed to irritate him; but the landing of Miranda,2 a proceeding so wholly unequivocal in its character, & so utterly without palliation, this has completed his disgust with his former friends, & he begins to express himself openly in this new sense.

As relates to the character of Mr Skipwith, & those late proceedings of his which have so surprized & disappointed his friends,3 I cannot refrain from taking the liberty of inclosing herewith, an extract of a letter from him to Col Skipwith4 which has fallen in my way; it seems to afford room to hope that he has been directed in his late extraordinary conduct, by causes which may be susceptible of an explanation, in some sort satisfactory.

I wrote to Mr Smith from Phila suggesting a wish that something may be added to my instructions as to the conclusion of my mission; stating that unless I shoud completely succeed in the object of it, it woud be impossible for me (according to the present form of the instructions) to quit Copenhagen without your express order, & adverting to the obvious objections to my being left on that footing: I hope Sir that he has submitted to you this matter,5 which I was the more encouraged to mention to him, knowing from himself that it had also occurred to you. Dear Sir with the most sincere Respect & attachment Your most obt & obliged Servt

George W Erving


Having accidentally heard at N. York that a person whom I have had an opportunity of becoming sufficiently acquainted with to know that he is unfit for, has hopes of obtaining the Consulate of Gibraltar, I think it a duty to mention with respect to the present occupant Mr Gavino, who personally & officially I am particularly well acquainted with, that I have not seen any thing exceptionable in his conduct, but on the contrary beleive him to be a very faithful & useful public officer.

RC (MHi: Erving Papers). Docketed by JM. Enclosures not found.

1The schooner Ramona had been fitted out by Onís with arms and munitions over the summer of 1810 in response to a request from the governor of Maracaibo for assistance and supplies. Both the vessel and its cargo were condemned and sold in Philadelphia in the first week of September for violation of the neutrality laws, and Onís was accordingly compelled to purchase the vessel and its supplies at a public auction before it could commence its voyage on 6 Oct. 1810. Onís gave the Ramona’s captain, Francisco Sanchez Crespo, instructions that he was to put into Curaçao in order to ascertain the political situation at Maracaibo before proceeding to his destination, but when the captain did so the British authorities on the island, whose suspicions seem to have been aroused by the facts that there were very few Spaniards in the Ramona’s crew and that the vessel was carrying munitions of war, also seized and detained the vessel. The episode led Onís to conclude that the British were secretly aiding the Caracan rebels. He subsequently had to appeal to his superiors in Spain to intercede with the British government in what proved to be a lengthy and protracted campaign to get the Ramona released from detention (Onís to Don Eusebio de Bardaxi y Azara, 20 Sept. 1810 and 4 Jan. 1811 [AHN: Archivo de Ministero de Estado, legajos 5636 and 5553, photocopies in DLC]). The last-cited source contains three folders of documents relating to the case of the Ramona.

2In September 1810 the Venezuelan rebel Francisco de Miranda sought permission to return to his native land on board a Royal Navy vessel in the company of the delegates who had been dispatched to London earlier in the year by the ruling junta in Caracas. Lord Wellesley would neither grant nor deny his request, with the result that Miranda departed Great Britain for Curaçao, then took passage for La Guaira on a British vessel, HMS Avon, on 4 Dec. 1810. After arriving at La Guaira one week later, Miranda proceeded in triumph to Caracas and thereafter played a prominent role in the events leading to the Venezuelan declaration of independence from Spain on 5 July 1811 (William Spence Robertson, The Life of Miranda [2 vols.; Chapel Hill, N.C., 1929], 2:71–124).

3After traveling to Baton Rouge late in 1809, Fulwar Skipwith had settled in West Florida where, on 22 Nov. 1810, he was elected governor of the republic that had just declared its independence from Spain. His term of office was interrupted one week later by the arrival of the Orleans territorial governor, William C. C. Claiborne, bearing JM’s proclamation annexing West Florida as far as the Perdido River to the U.S. In the days that followed, Skipwith seemed reluctant to accept the American annexation. He attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to negotiate conditions on which the government of West Florida might agree to enter the U.S., and he also protested what he regarded as Claiborne’s overbearing manner in carrying out JM’s orders. Skipwith even went so far as to draft two letters to JM, dated 5 and 9 Dec. 1810, on these matters. On reflection, however, he changed his mind, did not send the letters to JM, and was eventually reconciled to the new order (DLC: West Florida Miscellany).

4Henry Skipwith (1751–1815) had served as a lieutenant colonel of Virginia forces during the Revolution and in 1782 had represented Cumberland County in the Virginia House of Delegates. By virtue of his marriage to Anne Wayles in 1773, he was also Jefferson’s brother-in-law (DAR Patriot Index description begins National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Patriot Index (Washington, 1966). description ends , p. 620; Swem and Williams, Register description begins Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, eds., A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776–1918, and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond, 1918). description ends , p. 15; Malone, Jefferson and His Time description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time (6 vols.; Boston, 1948–81). description ends , 1:433).

5On 20 Dec. 1810 the Senate had confirmed Erving’s appointment as special minister to the court of Denmark. His instructions of 3 Jan. 1811 were silent about the termination of his mission beyond specifying that his salary was to cease at the time he received permission to return. On 8 Feb. 1811 Robert Smith issued a supplementary instruction allowing Erving to return to the U.S. as soon as he had accomplished the object of his mission or as soon as he had satisfactorily ascertained that further efforts to assist American merchants in Denmark would be “ineffectual” (DNA: RG 59, IM).

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