James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Thomas Ewell, 20 January 1813

From Thomas Ewell

20th Jany. 1813


The unnoticed note I addressed to you a few days since1—was intended in the highest feelings of respect; altho its fate suggests the fear that it was otherwise considered. It is in the same feeling & with the same motive, of securing reparation to the good Mr. Hamilton & to myself, that again I entreat a moment of your consideration. Assuredly the greatest man in the country would not be offended—if it were the meanest who entreated for Justice. I am correctly told, that a representation has been made to you, that I attempted to convert the nitre received in Phila. from the Navy Dept. into money.2 This is indeed untrue: as you will credit—from the certificate of Dr. Ott & Geo. Harrison of Phila. which yesterday I shewed to Mr. Coles. Since then Mr. Todd has written on the same subject—& in a day or two I shall have another letter from Phila. all shewing the truth of the statement of Dr. Ott & Mr. Harrison. The first certifies that he had pressed me to take 15,000 lbs. nitre in this place—& Mr. Harrison declares that at the time I stated to him that I wished to dispose of the same quantity which Dr. Ott offered me in Washington—so as to save the enormous insurance from british capture which is 15 pr. cent. The originals of these I will deposit in the navy. Dept. on the arrival of the new Secretary: or leave with yourself.

Indeed so cautious was I—that when offered a sum for a part of the nitre by Mr. Lehman—as will be proved—I refused it—un⟨til I c⟩ould ascertain at what Ott’s could be obtaine⟨d.⟩3 This exchange is of immense importance to me; and if I am prevented from making it with the 15,000 lbs. proposed—the loss will be to the public.

My powder mills were built upon solemn assurances of the Heads of the navy & war Depts. to give extensive employment.4 They would have cruelly ruined me—if they had not have complied. The Secy. of the navy fulfilling a prior engagement—on a formal contract—orders the navy agent of Phila. to deliver me 60,000 lbs nitre. This agent orders the storekeeper—who delivers officially the article—takes my receipts—& then gives me his receipt—declaring that he holds the article in his private capacity subject to my order. Now when a most judicious exchange is in my power—it is ordered to be suspended!—which besides an injury to me equal to ten cts pr. pound—clearly reflects on the conduct of Mr. Hamilton—whom I would not for a limb—have to suffer so unjustly.

To me it is no object—to have in hand more raw materials than will keep the mills in regular work. As more than this is rather an incumbrance—I cannot hesitate agreeing to have the article deposited in this navy yard—subject to my control for manufacture, or if required—I would give double security! One of these modes is assuredly the proper mode of securing safety to the public propert⟨y⟩, and as it is consistent wi⟨th⟩ th⟨e⟩ Law—I hope you will be pleased not to delay suspending the violent method resorted to in the first instance, of undoing what had been done. Respectfully I have the honor to be yr. ob. St.

Thomas Ewell


2Goldsborough had evidently made this charge in his meeting with JM on 7 Jan. 1813, and he was to repeat it, along with several other charges that accused Ewell of trying to fix prices in his contracts, in his pamphlet To the Public (Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols.; New York, 1958–66). description ends 51307; see pp. 24–26). The explanation Ewell gave to JM in this letter is a condensed version of a more detailed response that he was to provide on two later occasions. The first was in a four-page, undated letter to incoming navy secretary William Jones, a copy of which Ewell forwarded to Edward Coles on 27 Jan. 1813 with a one-page note requesting that Coles “lay the enclosed before the President” (DLC). The other was in his pamphlet Conclusion of the Evidence of the Corruption of the Chief Clerk of the Navy Department (DLC: Rare Book and Special Collections Division). On each occasion Ewell explained that after receiving the 31 Dec. 1812 order that permitted him to obtain saltpeter and sulfur in Philadelphia, he went to that city to complete the transaction. He took delivery of the barrels from navy agent Harrison, of whom he inquired about the costs of their insurance and transportation. Upon hearing Harrison’s estimate that he should add 15 percent to his costs for insurance, Ewell consulted him on “the propriety of disposing of so much in Philadelphia as I could at once secure in this place [Washington] of Dr. Ott, namely 15,000 pounds.” David Ott and Company, druggists in Georgetown, furnished a certificate stating that they had pressed Ewell “to take the nitre,” which Ewell said he had “promised to do, if practicable.” Ewell also claimed that both Harrison and navy purser Samuel P. Todd (nephew of Dolley Payne Madison) had been informed of the transaction and that there had been no intent “to speculate in public property” (Ewell, Conclusion of the Evidence, 12).

3William Lehman was a Philadelphia druggist in the firm of William Lehman and W. Smith and Son. In his Conclusion of the Evidence, Ewell reproduced an extract from a letter he received from Lehman, dated 28 Jan. 1813, confirming that Ewell had been prepared to sell saltpeter, “substituting some which you bought or could buy in Washington or Baltimore—15,000 lbs we offered to buy—at 45 cts. which price you declined accepting” (ibid., 12, 14).

4For Ewell’s earlier dealings with the Navy and War Departments, see PJM-PS description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (5 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984–). description ends , 4:440 n. 2. Throughout his Conclusion of the Evidence, Ewell sought to justify his understanding of the bases on which his contracts rested. Driven into contracting because neither his surgeon’s salary nor an income from private practice could support his growing family, Ewell had explained his circumstances to Paul Hamilton, adding that his gunpowder mill could not succeed unless the Navy Department made “advances towards the completion” of the business. Ewell also argued that he had to undertake the capitalization of his business alone and that it was essential that he receive the same price for his gunpowder from both the Navy and War Departments, and he evidently thought that this arrangement should be on a permanent footing, regardless of the prices that prevailed for gunpowder on the open market. While Hamilton seemed reluctant to sign contracts that did not allow for prices to be varied “according to the price of the best manufactories,” he gave Ewell assurances of “extensive employment” and agreed to the “customary and liberal allowances,” notwithstanding the prospect of “other manufactures combining to underwork and ruin [his] enterprize.” It was on that basis that Ewell approached Hamilton again in late December 1812, seeking to obtain from Philadelphia the order for saltpeter and sulfur that provoked the ire of Goldsborough (Ewell, Conclusion of the Evidence, 4, 5, 11, 12).

Index Entries