George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Mercer, 20 February 1792

From James Mercer

[Fredericksburg] Virginia Feby 20th 1792.


The Necessity of the Case will I hope be a sufficient appollogy for my addressing your Excellency on the following Subject.

You Sir may recollect that Ld Dunmore in Novr 1774 purchased of you & Colo. Tayloe Trustees for the Creditors of George Mercer, under a decretal order of the General Court, certain Slaves to the value of 436£ Va. Currency on twelve months Credit—for which (circumstanced as his Lordship then was) you & myself concurred in opinion he might be allowed to give Bond & Secy at a future Day when he shou’d be returned to his acquaintances.1

Perhaps tho’, I must ask your Excellency to take my word, that no steps have yet been taken to endeavour to recover this Debt and that now it is but a desperate one.

as I conceive Mr Gravett & Miss wroughton who were allowed the just payments are paid off and as I am sure my Brother John is fully paid all his Demand, it follows that myself only either as a Creditor of my Bror George or as his Admr am only interested in this Little Surplus of an immense Fortune which when it was his, he divised to me—But now the only Legacy I have, is his Dau[ghte]r whom I must provide for.2

Under these impressions I have lately been examining after Lord Dunmores Effects in this State & upon enquiry am not witht hopes I may yet undue the depredations that have been committed by ex parte actings & decisions.

I need not say, that this can only be done in a Ct of Chancery—but I must add that it can not be done in any Court but in your Excellency’s Name in whom the whole Right at Law is vested as Surviving Trustee.

It is for this reason I must request leave to use your Excellencys Name for recovery of the debt—and I mention it at this time because Dispatch is important and a completion of it during my Life is more so; for I have no friend to leave behind that will be willing to hazard this chance at their expence.3 I have the honour to be with the greatest respect and all due deference Yr Excellency’s most obedt & very humble Servant

Jas Mercer

P.S. the following is subjoined solely as an endeavour to shorten yr answer as much I can—It will suffice at Law! but is wholly left to yr approbation, amendment or rejection.4


1For the background to this document, see Statement concerning George Mercer’s Estate, 1 Feb. 1789. In November 1774 GW oversaw the sale of most of Mercer’s property in Virginia at auctions conducted on both sides of the Blue Ridge. His stock, tools, and ninety slaves were collected and sold at Mercer’s main plantation in Frederick County (see GW to John Tayloe, 30 Nov. 1774; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 3:292–93). One of the purchasers was Virginia governor John Murray, earl of Dunmore.

2Richard Gravatt (d. 1778) was one of the London bankers to whom George Mercer had mortgaged a part of his Virginia property in the early 1770s. Mary Wroughton of Bath, England, was another of Mercer’s creditors. John Francis Mercer, a congressman from Maryland, was the younger brother of James and George Mercer. Martha (Patty) Mercer (b. 1768) was the crippled daughter of George Mercer and his wife Mary Neville Mercer (James, George Mercer of the Ohio Company, description begins Alfred Procter James. George Mercer of the Ohio Company: A Study in Frustration. Pittsburgh, 1963. description ends 67, 69, 70, 82).

3GW referred this letter to Edmund Randolph, who wrote him on 27 Feb.: “If I saw no reason, why I should dissuade you from permitting Mr James Mercer to use your name, as he requests; it seems prudent at least to suspend such a licence, until he shall state to you the precise manner, in which he means to use it. But I conceive, that you have good grounds for refusing to gratify him. You have expected, that you were discharged from the business. To return into it voluntarily may jeopardize you with respect to [Edward] Montagu &c. Mr Mercer indeed offers to indemnify you, and I doubt not his ability to do so. But it is very bad policy to go professedly into danger, in order to get out of it at length, with much vexation and expence. Mr Mercer’s right to receive the money is not incontestibly clear, even according to his own account. For ought I know the money may be due to Gravatt and Wroughton. When Mr John Mercer arrives, it may perhaps appear, that he was entitled by the decree in chancery to use the names of the trustees, without their express permission. This would render an express permission unnecessary; and also shews, that you may interfere with his right of recovering the debts, especially if he has given the bond, which the Court is supposed to have directed. Besides I fear that Mr Mercer is more visionary in his law—ideas and projects than formerly; and I am not sure, that in spite of the goodness of his heart, his head may not mislead him. Lord Dunmore’s Affairs in the lower Country were put into the hands [of] Mr [Alexander] Blair and myself; and I will venture to pronounce that no body who plundered his property there, can now be drawn into question for it. It is within my own knowledge, that several of his creditors, prompted by hopes similar to those which Mr Mercer entertains, abandoned suits actually instituted, because they could not support their pretensions. But they afterwards resorted to the Assembly, who were possessed of his Estate, and obtained liberty to apply to the Chancery for a decree against the State. This was effected in many instances; and warrants were granted for the principal of the debts on the aggregate fund. I am uncertain, how far this may now be Practicable. It is possible, that when the whole of this matter is before us, it may be found expedient to do something for preventing the consequence of not taking Lord Dunmore’s bond at the time of the purchases. But the probability is against the propriety of your agency in any measure for that purpose. If therefore you should choose to write to Mr James Mercer at present, no harm can proceed from either of these two things: to inform him in general terms, that you will give him a definitive answer, when Mr John Mercer shall arrive; or to desire him to specify the kind of suit, in which, and against whom your name is to be drawn forth; and also, what steps can now be taken, so as to place this debt upon the same footing with those which have been paid out of the aggregate fund” (DLC:GW).

4James Mercer attached a draft authorization permitting him to use GW’s name in any suit to recover the debt, to be filled up and signed by GW. GW ignored this draft when he replied to Mercer on 29 February.

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