From Michael Lacassagne
Louisville, October 26th 1789. (Rapids of Ohio)
An affair has lately happened on the North West side of the Ohio, within the federal territory, which has, in a very great degree, excited my indignation, and which, in the opinion of all friends to liberty, in this quarter, calls aloud for the interposition of the supreme authority. You need not be informed that the legislature of Virginia granted to the officers and soldiers of the regiment distinguished by the name of the Illinois regiment, 150,000 acres of land, on the North West side of the Ohio, as a compensation for their extraordinary services in the late war;1 in this grant I possess a very considerable interest, and being anxious, both on my own and the public accounts to encrease the value of land on that side of the river, I have, at great trouble and expence, effected a settlement in the vicinity of Fort Steuben, a continental post, a small distance above the rapids, at present commanded by Capt. Joseph Ashton.2 This settlement, tho’ unprotected, and consequently exposed to the incursions and depredations of the Savages, whereby it has actually Suffered, yet, from the encouragement given to settlers, promised, in opposition to every obstruction, a rapid increase. But the prospect, however flattering, from the idea of its being productive of both public and private advantage has been blasted by the imprudent (to say no worse of it) conduct of Capt. Ashton.
One of the settlers owed another a small debt, which he was either unable or unwilling to pay; the creditor having no tribunal to which he could apply for the recovery of his debt, seized in a public manner upon an ax, the property of the debtor, which he declared he would keep as a security until his debt should be satisfied. The debtor applied to Capt. Ashton for redress, who heard his complaint, deputed the complainant a Constable, and ordered him to bring the creditor before him. The complainant being thus cloathed with power, set out on the execution of his new office, and seeing the creditor, who, from a suspicion of the complainant’s design in going to the garrison, had followed to know the event. They both appeared before the captain. The charge of having taken the complainants axe was then exhibited against him, and being asked what defence he had to make, he repeated the circumstances respecting the taking of the axe, as before stated, upon which the captain, without any proof of a felonious intention in the defendant, without consulting an officer of the garrison on the occasion; in short, without any thing to justify his judgement, pronounced the defendant guilty of Theft, and sentenced him to receive forty lashes at the public whipping post, which was accordingly executed.
To a man who has any degree of sensibility—To a man who has ever tasted the sweets of liberty—To a Citizen of America, who feels himself secure in the consideration that he cannot be deprived of his liberty, or subject to punishment, but by the laws of his country—such a sentence executed in such a manner, must be worse than death itself. I love liberty—I reverence the laws of my country—but I detest and abhor the lawless hand of tyranny and oppression—To you, Sir, as the founder, the protector of American Liberty, I have ventured in this case to appeal; and tho’ this information is by a private individual, who has no other claim to your confidence than what arises from a consciousness of the rectitude of his intentions, I hope it will not, on that account, pass unnoticed, but that an examination into this case may be directed, on which Every thing herein asserted, will by the testimony of men of character be proven incontestibly. I wou’d not be understood to mean, that I wish this enquiry to gratify any personal resentment against Capt. Ashton. No, Sir, I have lived on rather an intimate footing with that gentleman since his residence at the rapids, and never but in one instance similar to the present, have I, or I believe any person, had reason to censure his conduct—He is generally esteemed a good officer, but in the present case, and the one just alluded to, he has certainly acted subversive of those principles established by the American revolution. The public good is my object—I wish it to be universally known, and acknowledged throughout America, that the military must be subordinate to the civil power, and that in no government which boasts the honor and happiness of having you Sir, at its head, shall the military, on any pretence whatever, assume any authority or Jurisdiction in civil affairs—The reverse of this, particularly in the federal territory, must be pregnant with the worst of consequences—a man who Settles on the North West side of the Ohio, must do it under the persuasion, that he is amenable only to the known—the written laws of the government under which he lives—was it otherwise—was he to be subjected to the capricious will of some petty tyrant who may happen to command at some federal post, whose uninformed judgment shou’d be the Standard of distributive justice, the federal territory would continue a wilderness, and the fertility of the soil in vain court the hand of the husbandman.
Nothing, Sir, I assure you, but a sense of the importance of the subject of this address cou’d have induced me to trouble you, and when I reflect (as I often do with pleasure) on the sacred regard you have always manifested to the rights of mankind in general, I flatter myself you will not suffer a citizen of America however obscure, to be unlawfully deprived of the benefit of those blessings which have been obtained at the expence of so much blood and treasure.3 With great respect, I am Sir Your most obedient & very humble servant
Copy, MiU-C: Josiah Harmar Papers; copy, WHi: Draper Manuscripts, Harmar Papers.
Michael Lacassagne (d. 1797) immigrated to the United States from France and established a mercantile business in Louisville, Ky., where he also became active in politics. In 1788 he served as a member of the Kentucky convention for statehood and in 1794 was postmaster of Louisville.
1. One of the reservations in Virginia’s 1781 cession of lands northwest of the Ohio River to the United States was the grant of 150,000 acres for the officers and men of George Rogers Clark’s Illinois regiment. The grant was to be “laid off in one tract. . . in such place on the north west side of the Ohio as the majority of the officers shall choose, and to be afterwards divided among the said officers and soldiers in due proportion according to the laws of Virginia.” See 10 Hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 565.
2. Fort Steuben, constructed in 1786 by troops under the command of Capt. John Hamtramck, was on the right bank of the Ohio River opposite Louisville. Capt. Joseph Asheton had served in the Revolution and remained with the United States Army’s meager forces after the war, serving until 1792. Asheton was in command at Fort Steuben during the absence of Maj. John Wyllys. See Henry Knox to GW, 22 Oct. 1789, n.1.
3. Upon receiving Lacassagne’s letter in December 1789 GW instructed Tobias Lear to request that the secretary of war investigate the matter (Lear to Knox, 17 Dec. 1789, DLC:GW). Knox in turn wrote Josiah Harmar, 19 Dec., directing Harmar to launch an inquiry “& report thereon, & you will also confer with the Governor and take his opinion thereon. If the case be truly stated, Capt. Ashton must have proceeded in an unjustifiable manner, which will require the interposition of Government” (WHi: Draper Manuscripts, Harmar Papers). Asheton had received all of the pertinent correspondence by the end of January 1790 when he wrote Harmar that he had requested Maj. John Doughty to hold a court to inquire into his conduct. “Part of the Evidence has been gone through this morning—the rest is to be finished next Monday. I flatter myself that Michl Lacassagne’s mountain will then appear no more than a mole-hill” (Asheton to Harmar, 28 Jan. 1790, WHi: Draper Manuscripts, Harmar Papers). The issue apparently was resolved in Asheton’s favor, since he wrote Harmar in August 1790 that “I am under the strongest obligations to you for the very favorable paragraph in your letter to the Secretary at War, respecting Lacassagns complt” (Asheton to Harmar, 22 Aug. 1790, WHi: Draper Manuscripts, Harmar Papers).