George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 24 September 1790

From Gouverneur Morris


SirLondon 24 September 1790

Just about to leave this City I have been detained for some Hours by an Object which appears to me important.1 I have already had Occasion to mention the Impress of American Seamen to serve on board of british Ships of War.2 The Ministers seemed desirous of doing what was Right, and of avoiding just Ground of Complaint, but the Orders for an Impress being of Necessity entrusted to Agents neither scrupulous nor delicate, it becomes as barbarous in the Execution as in the Principle it is violent and despotic. Allowances are to be made in judging such Cases, but I had been given to understand that the Principles adopted by Administration were such as ought not (by us) to be admitted. I must own to you Sir that my Position was in this Respect disagreable. I did not wish to assume the Management of Affairs not committed to me, nor put on the Appearance of a Character to which I had no Pretension, and yet I could not be an indifferent Witness to the Injuries sustained by my Fellow Citizens. Liable to Censure for Neglect, and to the Imputation of hunting Employment, but feeling alike guiltless of the one and incapable of the other, I determined neither to seek for Causes of Complaint nor yet to avoid them, but submit my Conduct to the Dictate of Occasion. Pardon me Sir for making myself my Subject. To you an Explanation of Actions and Motives is due and as for the World, I shall never take Pains to conceal the one nor communicate the other.

On the seventeenth Instant Mr Cutting called to mention the Case of an American who had been impressed and after an Order obtained for his Release had been ill used confined and was then in Fetters expecting severe and ignominious Punishment3—I immediately went to Whitehall and waited some Time for the Duke of Leeds or Mr Burgess to arrive. Mr Burgess at length came, and upon my shewing him the Papers, and explaining the Business, he immediately took Measures to procure the needful Redress. He exprest at the same Time, in very proper Terms, the Regret he felt for such Abuses of Authority. Next Morning Captain Makins applied to me (as being acquainted with the Owners of his Ship) to assist in procuring the Release of his Mate and Seamen.4 He told me that previous to his leaving New York a Part of his Crew had made Oath that they were Citizens of America. Arrived at the Mouth of the Channel he was stopped by a British Frigate which took away some of them, but at length returned all except one who was an Irishman. After this he passed several Vessels of War without receiving either Insult or Molestation, but in the River so many of his Men were taken out that he was obliged to hire others for the Security of his Ship. Some of the Men so taken were induced to enter into the british Service; And, as he informed me, by Ill Usage Threats and particularly by the Assurance that having no Body here to speak for them their Case was desperate, and therefore they might as well take the Bounty as let it alone, for go they must. Many aggravating Circumstances were related, but as these are generally foreign to the Merits of a question I desired him to write me a Letter simply stating the Facts. Among these were a Refusal to deliver the Men who had entered, a Rejection of all Evidence other than his Oath, and the insisting that this Evidence should prove the Men to have been born in America. I immediately transmitted that Letter with the Papers accompanying it to Mr Burgess who sent them to Mr Stephens the Secretary of the Admiralty. Yesterday Captain Makins called again complaining that he could get no Satisfaction from the Admiralty Board nor from the regulating Captain, but on the contrary was treated by the latter with Insult. I immediately wrote a Note to Mr Burgess who assigned the Death of Mr Stephens Son in a Duel as the Cause why the Affair had been neglected, and gave me the Assurance that he would pay every Attention to it.5 An Event so distressing would certainly call from all other Cares the Mind of a Father, I could not therefore insist on the decisive Answer which I wished. But having been repeatedly told that the Practise was such as is above mentioned, I wrote to the Duke of Leeds the Letter of which the enclosed is a Copy.6 You will perceive Sir that I have sought rather to bring forward the particular Objects for Consideration than to dilate those Observations to which they give Rise. I will not trouble you with any Comment on this Transaction, but only entreat that you will excuse my Interference. Having acted without Authority, there is at least this Advantage to the public, that my Conduct may be avowed or disavowed as Circumstances shall render most proper.7

LB, DLC: Gouverneur Morris Papers.

After the British ministry received a threatening letter from the Spanish court concerning the Nootka Sound affair, it recommended on 1 May 1790 that the king instruct the British minister to Spain to demand immediate and adequate satisfaction for the insult offered to the British flag “and that it would be proper, in order to support that demand and to be prepared for such events as may arise, that Your Majesty should give orders for fitting out a squadron of ships of the line.” The next day the British cabinet also recommended that a press be made the night of 4 May 1790 to man that squadron. The following day the king’s declaration of the necessity of augmenting the British armed forces in response to a Spanish armament was read in both houses of Parliament. After Parliament approved the warlike measures, the navy vigorously carried out impressments in all British ports, and it was inevitable that the controversial practice would once again create difficulties for American seamen and diplomats (Manning, “Nootka Sound Controversy,” description begins William Ray Manning. The Nootka Sound Controversy. Washington, D.C., 1905. In Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1904, pages 279–478. description ends 374–77, 380–83; see also Morris, Diary of the French Revolution, description begins Beatrix Cary Davenport, ed. A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris. 2 vols. Boston, 1939. description ends 1:504–5, and Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 18:310–13).

1At five o’clock p.m. on 24 Sept. 1790, after writing this letter to GW and packing his papers, Morris departed London for the Continent on a trip to recruit Flemish and German immigrants to settle in upstate New York. After spending the night at the George and Bull Inn at Dartford, he reached Dover the next afternoon. His packet got under way by 10:30 that evening and landed at Calais harbor at 1:45 a.m. on 26 Sept. (Morris, Diary of the French Revolution, description begins Beatrix Cary Davenport, ed. A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris. 2 vols. Boston, 1939. description ends 1:608; 2:1–2).

3Morris wrote in his diary: “Friday 17.—This Morning Mr. Parker calls on me. . . . While Mr. Parker is here Mr. Cutting calls with a Relation of the Case of an American who has been impressed, and after an Order for his Release, has been ill used and insulted, and is now liable to severe Punishment. I immediately dress and go to Whitehall. Write a Note to the Duke of Leeds who is not yet come to the Office, for an Interview, and desire to see him or Mr. Burgess, which ever shall first arrive. Mr. Burgess comes in in about Half an Hour. I state the Case shortly to him and leave the Papers. He promises to go immediately to the Admiralty and that he will write to me the final Event. Call on Mr. Cutting and inform him of this. He presses me again to lend him Money, observing that I shall certainly be appointed Consul or Resident here & can then liquidate his Acct.. I tell him that I believe not and hope not, but that be that as it may I will not lend him any Money” (Morris, Diary of the French Revolution, description begins Beatrix Cary Davenport, ed. A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris. 2 vols. Boston, 1939. description ends 1:605).

John Brown Cutting (c.1755–1836) informed Morris of the predicament of Virginia native Hugh Purdie, who, according to Purdie’s own affidavit of 1 Oct. 1790, had been impressed into the British navy on 5 June 1790 and managed to contact Cutting for help the following month. Upon the return to Spithead on 14 Sept. 1790 of Purdie’s ship, the frigate Crescent, from a fortnight’s cruise, Purdie was caught in an attempt to pass another message to Cutting and was abused by the gunner: “He began to upbraid me immediately in the most furious manner, calling me ‘a damned rebellious American son of a bitch, and to hell with me and my Mr. Washingtons.’ I replied that if we were on shore we would be more upon an equality. He then told me all my Mr. Washingtons would not save me now, and that [‘]if I said another word he would run his fist down my throat.’” In presenting his account of the quarrel to his captain, William Young, Purdie observed, “I could not bear to hear that name [GW’s] spoken of contemptuously, otherwise I should not have answered the Gunner as I did.” Captain Young, who had already received orders to discharge the American, then ordered Purdie to be scourged with twelve lashes, which sentence was carried out before the ship’s assembled crew on 15 Sept. 1790, in order, as Young wrote to the Admiralty secretary four days later, to maintain discipline aboard the frigate. Captain Young released Purdie according to Admiralty orders on 17 Sept. 1790, the same day Cutting called on Morris (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 18:337–41; see also n.4 below).

For the administration’s response to the Purdie affair, see the editorial note and documents in “The Impressment of Hugh Purdie and Others,” in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 18:310–42; for Cutting’s claim for federal compensation for his expenses, see Jefferson to GW, 7 Feb. 1790, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, and Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 23:104–6.

4Morris recorded that on the morning of 18 Sept. 1790 “Captt. Makins calls on me. His Seamen are all impressed and even his Mate. After hearing his Story and examining his Papers I dictate a Letter from him to me, which I send with other proper Papers by him with a Note to Mr. Burgess. He returns with an Answer, that the whole is layed before the Admiralty and that proper Attention shall be paid. Mr. Cutting comes in at the same Moment. He has been ferreting the Admiralty about Mr. Purdie and comes to tell me that Orders for his Release are gone off. I read him Mr. Burgesses Note to the same Effect, and then tell him that I expect Captn. Makins will get his Men without Difficulty or Expence, but that if Expence is incurred I mean that the Owners of the Ship should pay it. He is very certain that their Release will not be procured. We shall see.” Captain Makins again visited Morris on 23 and 24 Sept. 1790. On the latter day he informed Morris that “He has recovered his Mate but not his Seamen” (Morris, Diary of the French Revolution, description begins Beatrix Cary Davenport, ed. A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris. 2 vols. Boston, 1939. description ends 1:606, 608).

5Morris’s note to Undersecretary of State in the Foreign Department James Bland Burges (1752–1824), dated “Thursday Morning 23 Sepr 1790,” reads: “Mr Morris presents his Compliments to Mr Burgess & prays Leave to remind him of the Application of Captain Makins who has not been able to obtain the Release of his Mate and Seamen nor any Answer whatever from the Admiralty Office. Mr Morris will be much obliged if Mr Burgess will be so kind as to return the Papers transmitted to him on that Subject” (DLC: Gouverneur Morris Papers). Philip Stephens (1725–1809) served as secretary to the Lords Commissioners of the British Admiralty from 1763 until March 1795 when he resigned the office and was created a baronet and appointed one of the lords of the admiralty himself. On 22 Sept. 1790 the London Times reported that his only son, Capt. Thomas Stephens, was killed in a duel at Margate on 20 Sept. 1790 by “Mr. Anderson, Attorney of Golden square, . . . who was well known at the West End of the town—he had much practice from female disputes.” The cause of the affair “arose, from the simple circumstance ‘whether a window should be open or shut,’ and this difference of opinion was terminated by pistols.”

6Morris’s letter to the duke of Leeds of 24 Sept. 1790 reads: “An Application which has been made to me by a Mr Samuel Makins, Master of an american Ship and which I have formerly transmitted to Mr Burgess brings forward some Points on which I find myself, most reluctantly, obliged to trouble your Grace.

“It appears first that the american Ship was stopped on the high Seas and detained by a british Vessel of War which took away several of the Crew and kept one who was a british Subject. Secondly it appears that Seamen taken in this Port from an american Ship who have sworn before a Magistrate in America that they were american Citizens are nevertheless detained unless the Master of the Ship will swear that they were born in America. And thirdly it appears that american Seamen who have entered on board of a british Ship of War are detained Notwithstanding the Claims made by the Master to whom they are bound by the usual Articles.

“On the first Point I am obliged to mention, my Lord, that interrupting Vessels in their Voyages and taking away those who navigate them may have disagreable Consequences, & by reminding your Grace of that Sentiment which was excited by the Conduct of a Spanish Frigate in Nootka Sound I render I am sure all Comments unnecessary.

“On the second Point I must take the Liberty to observe that the very Circumstance of being on board an american Ship ought to raise a Presumption of Citizenship, but when that is strengthened by the Oaths of the Men taken in America Proof should be required to overturn not to corroborate it. But, my Lord, it must be impossible to obtain the Evidence required, in many Cases, unless the Master will hazard a Deposition to Facts not in his Knowledge. Another Circumstance of most delicate Nature is the insisting that none but Persons born in America shall be privileged from the Impress. I humbly conceive my Lord that previous to the Year 1775 those born in America were equally Subjects of his Majesty with those born in England, and many of them I beleive still continue so. By the Treaty of Peace the Sovereign of this Country relinquished all Rights over those then in America who chose to take the Benefit of it; and if the Compact can be set aside in the Case of a Mariner I fear that many others will no longer rely upon it. This Idea, my Lord, presses much upon my Mind.

“On the third Point I pray Leave to submit to your Grace whether it is consistent to claim british Seamen who have contracted to serve in american Vessels and yet withhold american Seamen who have contracted to serve in british Vessels. Pardon me for adding that this would justify a Practise which I hope may never take Place, of manning the Privateers of your Enemies with the Seamen of America.

“In my Regard for the Peace and Happiness of the two Countries your Grace will find (I trust) the proper Apology for bringing these Things before you. I the less regret having been detained in Town for that Purpose as it gives me an Occasion to reiterate the Assurances of that Respect with which I have the Honor to be &ca” (DLC: Gouverneur Morris Papers).

7The receiver’s copy of Morris’s 24 Sept. 1790 letter to GW with its enclosure has not been found and probably never reached its destination.

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