George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 23 December 1790

From Thomas Jefferson

Thurday. 3. oclock. P.M. [23 December 1790]

Th: Jefferson has the honour to inform the President that a gentleman leaves town early tomorrow morning for New-York from whence a vessel sails on Monday for Liverpool, on board which will go a passenger who may be trusted with any letters for London.

Th: J. proposes to make up his packet to-night, can the President give him previously a half hour, for the communication of the letter to Johnson in it’s final form, and for another subject? he will be at Mrs House’s till five oclock where he will recieve his orders, or as he returns from thence home.1

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW.

1In mid-December 1790 Jefferson received a letter from John Browne Cutting, dated 4 Oct. 1790, enclosing an affidavit and other documents relating to the impressment of Hugh Purdie, the son of the late Alexander Purdie of Williamsburg, Va., who until his death in 1779 had been postmaster, bookseller, and publisher of the Virginia Gazette. The younger Purdie was acquainted with William Short and other prominent Virginians and may have been personally known to Jefferson. He had sailed to England as a seaman on an American merchant vessel and there had joined the crew of a British vessel for a voyage to the West Indies. When the ship returned to England in July 1790, a press-gang seized Purdie and placed him aboard H.M.S. Crescent. Purdie immediately sought to obtain his release by writing to John Adams “or his successor” as American ambassador. This letter was mistakenly delivered to Cutting, who was acting as the representative of several American merchant captains in London seeking to recover impressed seamen. Cutting wrote separately to Adams and Jefferson to acquaint them with the case and applied to the Admiralty to obtain Purdie’s release. The Admiralty accepted the documentation of Purdie’s nationality compiled by Cutting and ordered his discharge. Before carrying out this order, however, the captain of the Crescent had Purdie flogged for disobedience.

Jefferson recognized Purdie’s treatment as a particularly flagrant example of British disregard for the rights of American seamen and sought to make the case the basis for a general protest against the British policy of indiscriminately impressing Americans. In response to Cutting’s letter and the enclosures regarding Purdie’s case, Jefferson drafted a letter, dated 17 Dec. 1790, to Joshua Johnson, U.S. consul at London, outlining the circumstances of Purdie’s case and concluding that “By the express command of the President of the U.S. you are to lay this case, and our sense of it, before his Britannic majesty’s Minister for foreign affairs . . . and to communicate to me the result” (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 18:331–32). GW and Jefferson met on 23 Dec. 1790 to discuss this draft. As a result of this meeting, Jefferson added a cover letter to Johnson, dated that day, writing: “The vexations of our seamen and their sufferings under the press-gangs of England have become so serious, as to oblige our government to take serious notice of it. The particular case has been selected where the insult to the U.S. has been the most bare faced, the most deliberately intentional, and the proof the most complete. The inclosed letter to you is on that subject.” Jefferson instructed Johnson to give a copy of the enclosed letter to the duke of Leeds, as if on his own initiative, and to press the case as much as possible (ibid., 341–42). The case is discussed in detail in the editorial note, “The Impressment of Hugh Purdie and Others,” in ibid., 310–42.

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