George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Stephen Sayre, 3 January 1789

From Stephen Sayre

London 3d Jany 1789


Convinced, that your Excellency will be unanimously chosin President of the United States of America, before, or soon after, the receipt of this Letter, it is address’d to you, as such. I request it may be understood, that my continuance in this Country, is necessary for the settlement of my private affairs, and those honorable engagements, to some freinds here, which can never be alter’d by the Ties: or the disputes of Kings, or Nations. The principles of Justice, and rules of honor, are so far above all political contest, or general convulsions, as to leave me the right of observing them with my former Enemies; and yet preserve all due love for my native Country.

The Records of Congress will furnish some proposals, I made them, in 1785, for improving their Navy—the merits were, by Resolution, left to the single opinion of General Knox according to my particular Request.1

Being made to understand, soon after, that Congress were unable to give me any thing, or any situation adequate to the object: I have, till this moment, waited Events.

It is now to be supposed, that the thirteen States, will immediately make some Efforts to establish a naval Force equal to their ability, if not equal to their wants: they must therefore, have one, or more Commissioners to effect it—I am now pretty well acquainted with the business of it, but if Congress should think me worthy of this Commission, I could yet make myself more perfectly master of the Science, by attending the Dock Yards here or in France.

My advice would be to confine the present establishment to small Ships, & such a number of Frigates, as may be thought necessary, for peace only. In case of war, I can build them the only effective fighting Ships in the Universe—these shall not cost one half the money, which Ships of the Line now cost other Nations.

America may not be soon involved in war: but I should think it my duty to deposit a perfect Model, in case of death, in such manner, as may be thought most secure for if once the Idea finds its way into the world, all nations will, according to their abilities, embrace it.

Please to observe that, tho I think myself every way intitled to the high Commission before mentioned, I make no condition, but upon a decided favourable Report: as to the Invention offer’d.

If Congress should think it expedient to name a Consul General for this Country, I would endeavour to fulfill that Trust till farther orders and as I have some property here, I should require no advances with the Appointment.

Trusting your Excellency will think it your duty, to lay this Letter before the great Assembly of the States; I request the earliest Reply may be made thro the Ambassador at Paris or my Bankers here, Messrs Newenham & Co.2 I am most devotedly your Excellencys very obt Servt

Stephen Sayre

ALS, DLC:GW. copy, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

Stephen Sayre (1736–1818) of Southampton, Long Island, was educated at the College of New Jersey and for some years before the Revolution was a member of the London merchant firm of Dennys De Berdt, colonial agent for Massachusetts. In 1770 he opened the firm of Stephen Sayre & Barth-Coote-Purdon. His open support of the colonies in 1775 resulted in his arrest and brief confinement in the Tower of London. In spite of acrimonious relations with other American diplomats in Europe, Sayre performed various diplomatic services for the United States during the Revolution, most notably abortive missions to Berlin, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. After the war he devoted considerable time to securing compensation for his foreign service, and in 1807 he finally secured payment for the time he served in 1777 as secretary of legation in Berlin (6 Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends 65 [3 Mar. 1807]). Sayre returned to Europe in mid–1785 and in 1787 was imprisoned in London for some months for debt. At this time he was attempting to resume his banking career.

1Sayre is undoubtedly referring to the plans for a model ship he developed during the Revolution. He fancied himself, with considerable justification, a master seaman and naval architect and as early as 1779 he began developing plans for a vessel which he claimed would be superior to any vessel on the seas. “The plan is simple,” Sayre wrote Isaac Sears, “surprizingly different in mode as to rigging from other ships—carries double the sail before the wind—goes much nearer on a wind—sets more sail on occasion, and is safer in bad weather . . . no ball, unless by very great chance, can enter her. . . . She will cost less than ships, otherways constructed, of the same dimensions. I mean to send a model to the Congress, for I believe they would build all their ships of war nearly after it” (Sayre to Sears, 25 Aug. 1778, Sayre to Francis Lewis, 29 Sept. 1778, in the Royal Gazette [New York], 26 June 1779). Sayre failed in his attempts to have the vessel constructed in Europe and, in 1785, after his return to America, attempted unsuccessfully to have the scheme underwritten by Congress. Sayre undoubtedly enclosed a copy of his memorial to Congress in his letter to GW (see JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 28:364, 29:530–31, and Henry Knox to the president of Congress, 19 May 1785, DNA:PCC, item 151). During the 1790s Sayre continued his efforts to interest the government in his invention (see Sayre to Knox, 16 Dec. 1793, and Knox to Sayre, 18 Dec. 1793, NNGL: Knox Papers). In December 1793 Sayre again wrote to GW, reiterating his views on the necessity of a navy for the United States, presenting his qualifications as a designer and shipbuilder and enclosing another copy of his letter to GW of 3 Jan. 1789 (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

2In 1789 the firm was Newnham, Everett, Drummond, Tibbetts, and Tanner, with offices at 65 Lombard Street, London. It was in business, with various changes in partners, from 1785 to 1825 when the house failed. The ambassador at Paris was Thomas Jefferson.

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