George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Elkanah Watson, 25 July 1789

From Elkanah Watson

New York 25 July 1789


It is with reluctance that I venture to introduce myself to your attention for a moment in quality of an applicant for the collectors office in one of the districts of Massachusetts. In respect to my family connections—experience in business—& character—I beg leave to refer your Excellency to Messrs Gerry, Leonard & Thatcher of the said state.

I dare not arrest so much of your important time, as to dwell on the circumstance on which I have presumed to found my pretensions to this humble application. I shall therefore only observe, that during the war I supported with reputation an extensive house of trade in the City of Nantes in France under the firm of Watson & Cassoul and by a series of good fortune I was enabled and did extricate many American prisoners from the prisons in England, and at my own private expence supported & sent many others to America; which facts I presume are well known to Doctr Franklin as well as many living evidences in most of the States.1 I should have tendered my services to your Excellency, in person but I denied myself this honour from your indisposition:2 however as the gentlemen before mentioned will be so obligeing as to recommend me particularly to your Excellency, and as your Excellency may recollect my person from the circumstance of a Short visit I did myself the Honour to make at Mount Vernon in the winter of 1785 with a gentleman from Alexandria, with letters of introduction from Genl ⟨Greene⟩ & Collo. Fitzgerald as well as being bearer of sundry books from Granville Sharp Esqr. of London.3 Under these circumstances I am induced to hope my not applying personally may not melitate against any appointment your Excellency may think proper to honour me with. I am with profound veneration Yr Excellencys Most devoted Servant.

Elkanah Watson Junr


Elkanah Watson (1758–1842) was born in Massachusetts but served his apprenticeship with the merchant firm of John and Moses Brown in Providence before the Revolution. In 1779 the Browns sent Watson to France to oversee their business interests in that country. He soon opened his own mercantile establishment in Nantes in partnership with Jonathan Williams, later joining a French merchant in the firm of Watson & Cossoul (Cassoul). In August 1784 the firm’s financial difficulties and Watson’s own ill health led to his return to the United States. When visiting Mount Vernon in January 1785, Watson had lengthy conversations with GW on the Potowmack Company and the subject of inland navigation, of which he left a detailed account (Men and Times of the Revolution, 243–46). Watson renewed his partnership with Cossoul who visited the United States in the summer of 1785 on his way to open a branch of the firm in Saint-Domingue. The firm enjoyed some success in the mid–1780s but by 1789 was in a state of collapse. Watson, who had settled in Edenton, N.C., moved to Albany early in that year where he was involved in banking and in various canal enterprises. He did not receive a federal appointment.

1For Watson’s efforts on behalf of American seamen confined in Mill Prison near Plymouth, England, see ibid., 136–37.

3See Nathanael Greene to GW, 2 Dec. 1784. No letter of introduction from John Fitzgerald has been found. The gentleman accompanying Watson to Mount Vernon was the Alexandria merchant Jonathan Swift (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:78). Watson later recalled that “the last evening I spent in England was in the capacious library of Surgeon Sharp, a man of eminence, and brother of the philanthropist Granville Sharp, who was a bachelor and an inmate of his brother’s house.” During this visit Granville Sharp (1735–1813), the English pamphleteer and the founder of Sierra Leone, entrusted to Watson two parcels of books “embracing his entire publications on emancipation and other congenial topics, directed to Washington, which I subsequently delivered to him at Mount Vernon” (Men and Times of the Revolution, description begins Winslow C. Watson, ed. Men and Times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkanah Watson, Including His Journals of Travels in Europe and America, from the year 1777 to 1842, and His Correspondence with Public Men, and Reminiscences and Incidents of the American Revolution. New York, 1856. description ends 232–33). For a listing of Sharp’s publications owned by GW, see Griffin, Boston Athenaeum Collection, description begins Appleton P.C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 179–82.

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