George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Howells, 14 July 1789

From Thomas Howells

Hay Breconshire So[ut]h Wales—July 14th 1789


I flatter myself you’ll readily excuse the Liberty I take in addressing you, when you understand that the following thoughts are the result of a strong attachment to the freedom of America, and a desire of transplanting a manufactory which in time will be found of the greatest consequence—Last year I visited the Continent of America, with a full determination to become a Settler, but finding the Government not in so settled a State as I expected obliged me to abandon the enterprize for the1 present and wait to see the result of the New Government that was then forming, with a full determination, when permanently fixed, to make an offer of my service to the State of Virginia, to introduce the Woolen Manufactory on the present most approved plans now working in England and in my own manufactory—The great objections made by some that Manufactorys can not at present be introduced with advantage into America, are the Country being thinly settled & labour at present too high—The great improvements which have been made in England in the Woolen and Cotton business by Water-Engines is an amazing saving in labour as much as three fourths through the whole process & in some departments as much as nine tenths.

But supposing the number of young white people, that will be requisite for a large Manufactory can not be easily obtain’d I would propose that those Gentlemen who are disposed to emancipate their Negroes would appoint some of their younger ones for that business and give them their freedom after a service of seven years as an Apprentice, then there will be little doubt but they will remain in the business and become useful Members of Society—this I only propose Sr if there should be a scarcity of hands—but from the population I observed when in America, there will be little to be fear’d from that—As this is a business that will require a large Capital to proceed on a scale that would be likely to turn out to profit, I shall propose to sink of my own real property one thousand pounds in the Trade and with me shall import Engines for cording & machines for slubing and spinning with every other apparatus necessary for the business, with a sufficient number of my best Workmen to take under their care those young people who might be willing to be instructed in the several departments of the business.

From the State I shall expect as a reward for so great a Risk and to make good the Losses that will arise while the Manufactory is in its infant State, a certain Stipend for a given time and a right to a certain quantity of Land a part of which I shall give to my Men as an Encouragement for them to embark in the Undertaking, under certain restrictions that they shall remain in the Manufactory at least 7 years—A House & building necessary for the work must be found—&c. &c.

These Sir are the outlines of my thoughts and should they meet with your approbation I doubt not I shall be able (if I am spar’d) to bring the woolen manufactory to a degree of perfection in a much shorter time than could be expected—But if the present proposed plan should not meet with acceptance [I] shall be happy to learn on what terms the State will give encouragement and if any ways advantageous, tho’ not on my own plan will readily embark.

My reasons for giving the preference to Virginia are the western part seems natural to grass and the wool which I have seen growing in that part was good and might be greatly improved, provided there was proper encouragement given to the Farm they might grow wool of the first quality and in a short time be able to furnish the other States with Woolens—Should these rude proposals so far prevail on your Excellency as to obtain an answer, make no doubt but I shall be able to remove any scruple in my next respecting the possibility of bringing it to answer the most sanguine expectations—As the nature of this business in its present stage will not suffer me to appear publick in it so as to refer you to any House in America (tho’ known) to be inform’d who I am, but if I shall have any occasion to write on this subject again, shall take care to send such a proof that will remove every scruple respecting my abilities and such testimonies of my conduct that I flatter myself thro’ such a channel I can not fail in obtaining your patronage, (which with God’s blessing) I doubt not of success. I have the honor to be Your Excellencys Most obedient Servant

T. Howell

Copy, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; copy, Vi: General Assembly. Executive Communications.

Thomas Howells (1749–1819) was a native of Radnorshire, Wales. After studying watchmaking in London as a young man, he returned to Wales and opened a watchmaking establishment in Hay. By the 1790s Howells owned and operated three woolen and flannel mills in Hay, including a large establishment on Castle Street, employing seventy to eighty hands, that specialized in carding and spinning wool and producing shirts for miners in South Wales. Although small and lacking capital, the mill endured until the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1808 Howells’s son Joseph went to America, hoping to fulfill his father’s ambition of establishing a woolen manufactory in the United States, and he settled eventually in Ohio. The American authors William Cooper Howells (1807–1894) and William Dean Howells (1837–1920) were his grandson and great-grandson. According to family tradition, Thomas Howells himself visited the United States during GW’s second administration, landing at Philadelphia “where he made the acquaintance of the President, who recommended him to settle in Virginia, near the new City of Washington then just founded. He fell in with this project, so far as to bargain for a large tract of land near the Potomac, for which he was to pay an English shilling per acre. But after returning to England he gave it up” (Howells, Recollections of Life in Ohio, description begins William Cooper Howells. Recollections of Life in Ohio from 1813 to 1840. 1895. Reprint. Gainesville, Fla., 1963. description ends 5).

GW probably received Howells’s letter after his return from his New England tour in early November 1789. Already favorably impressed during his visit to Connecticut with the infant Hartford Woolen Manufactory and the encouragement extended to it by the state legislature (see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:468–69), he seized upon Howells’s suggestion of promoting sheep raising and woolen manufactories in his own state, and on 22 Nov. sent Howells’s “original letter” to Beverley Randolph, governor of Virginia. “In the present stage of population and agriculture,” he wrote Randolph, “I do not pretend to determine, how far that Plan may be practicable & advisable; or, in case it should be deemed so, whether any or what public encouragement ought to be given to facilitate its execution.” GW pointed out, however, the advantages of increasing sheep raising in all of the states and noted that the Hartford manufacturers preferred Virginia wool over that of the northern states. “If a greater quantity of Wool could be produced,” he added, “and if the hands (which are often in a manner idle) could be employed in the manufacturing it; a spirit of industry might be much promoted. . . . Under these impressions I have thought proper to transmit the Proposal; and will only add, that, if it should be judged expedient to submit the Subject to the Legislature, or if any private Company should engage in promoting the business, the necessity of keeping the Manufacturer’s name concealed would undoubtedly occur as a premature knowledge of it might not only frustrate the success of the Project, but also subject the Person principally concerned to the most distressing consequences” (PHi: Dreer Collection). The “distressing consequences” were, of course, the penalties levied by the British government against violators of the laws prohibiting the exportation of machinery and the emigration of skilled workers from Great Britain. See, for example, 14 Geo. III, chap. 71; 15 Geo. III, chap. 5; 21 Geo. III, chap. 37; 22 Geo. III, chap. 60; 25 Geo. III, chap. 67. As late as 1808 Howells’s son Joseph ran afoul of such regulations when, on his way to the United States, he was detained in London under suspicion of violating the statutes forbidding artisans to emigrate (Howells, Recollections of Life in Ohio, description begins William Cooper Howells. Recollections of Life in Ohio from 1813 to 1840. 1895. Reprint. Gainesville, Fla., 1963. description ends 4).

On 9 Dec. 1789 Randolph sent GW’s letter to the Virginia house of delegates, where it was identified only as a “letter from the President of the United States, on the subject of certain proposals made by a foreigner, for the establishment of a woollen manufactory within this State” (Virginia House of Delegates Journal, description begins Journal of the House of Delegates, of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Begun and Held at the Capitol in the City of Richmond, on Monday, the nineteenth of October, in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand, Seven Hundred and Eighty-Nine, and of the Commonwealth the Fourteenth. Richmond, [1789]. description ends Oct. 1789 sess., 114). The letter was referred to a committee of the house headed by Edmund Randolph which reported on 17 Dec. that the “committee esteem the patriotic communication of the President of the United States as presenting an opportunity which the circumstances of this Commonwealth forbid to be neglected.” The manufacture of “coarse clothing at least” would occupy hands not actively engaged in agriculture. “It seems to be an indispensable condition of such a work, that the raising of wool should [be] encouraged if possible, by legislative provisions.” Although the feasibility of establishing a woolen manufactory rested largely on the ability to acquire “machines which facilitate the manufacture of woollens,” the committee recommended “that the Executive open a correspondence with the President of the United States on the foregoing subject; and that it be lawful for them to bind this Commonwealth in the sum of 1,000£, and the further sum of 500£ per annum for three years, for the prosecution of a woollen manufactory, on such terms as they shall approve.” The house of delegates approved the resolution on the same day, but on 19 Dec. it was rejected by the Virginia senate (ibid., 134). Gov. Beverley Randolph sent the resolutions of both houses to GW on 11 Jan. 1790, observing that he had taken care “not to communicate the name or residence of the person from whom the proposal came.” There the matter rested until it was again revived by the Virginia legislature toward the end of 1790, and the propriety of GW’s role in enticing British manufacturers to the United States in violation of British law came under review. See Beverley Randolph to GW, 8 Nov. 1790.

1In MS this word reads “that.”

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