George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Sim Lee, 7 October 1793

From Thomas Sim Lee

Annapolis Octr 7. 1793


Your Excellency will probably before this letter reaches you, have received from the Secy of War a communication which I made to him on the 18th September last respecting the case of the Ship Roehampton, captured and sent into the Port of Baltimore by the french armed schooner Industry, and which the British Vice Consul alledges to have been illegally taken by reason of the sd schooner’s having made some equipments of a military nature in that Port.1 Not doubting Sir that your determination on the subject of this vessel would in due time reach me through the ordinary channel, I should not have taken this freedom, had not another case occurred which requires me to form an immediate Judgement, how far partial equipments and alterations to vessels originally armed in french Ports, are admissible under the description of reparations, conveniences &c. as mentioned in the 19th article of our treaty with france, which is expressly admitted in extenuation of the prohibitory part of the 7th article of your Excellency’s instructions.2 The papers which I do myself the honour to enclose will explain the case in question—I have requested the Collector of the district of Baltimore to observe the motions of the Privateer mentioned by Mr Thornton, and to acquaint me immediately with any addition of guns or material alteration that he may perceive her to be making 3—but as by addressing myself as usual to the Secy of State or of War who have both left the seat of government, I should not in all probability obtain your Excellency’s ideas in a reasonable time, I trust that you will excuse my taking this method to procure more precise instructions on this point than I can discover in the regulations already issued—As the cases of this kind that may still occur may be various, and some of them may seem such slight infractions as scarcely to require notice, I beg that your Excellency will favour me with the most explicit directions on the subject. I have the honour to be &c.

Tho. S. Lee.

DfS, MdAA; LB, MdAA: Council Letterbook, 1787–1793. Thomas Sim Lee (1745–1819), who served as governor of Maryland from 1779 to 1782 and as a Maryland delegate to the Continental Congress in 1783, was again elected governor in 1792, serving until November 1794. He was also elected governor in 1798, but declined the office.

1Lee had written Henry Knox on 18 Sept.: “I think it proper to transmit herewith the copy of a Letter just received from the British vice-Consul at Baltimore, as also copies, of two Depositions therein enclosed.

“The circumstances under which this case has been presented to me, do not appear to be such as to justify my interference, and I have accordingly declined interposing until the President shall have had an opportunity of deciding on it and forwarding his Instructions.

“I beg leave to refer you to the Letter of the Council of this State of the 23d of last Month for further information respecting the Privateer by which the Roehampton was captured—I also enclose a copy of my Answer to the British vice-Consul” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

Edward Thornton’s letter to Lee of 15 Sept. had submitted the depositions of Benjamin Baker, 12 [Sept.], and Warren Lisle Nicoll, 15 Sept., to demonstrate that while at Baltimore, L’Industrie “received a very considerable force, and was Completely armed and equipped for successful depredations.” Arguing that the ship could not have captured the Roehampton without those improvements, Thornton requested that the captured ship be returned to her captain and owners. Lee responded in his letter to Thornton of 18 Sept. that as a previous investigation had failed “to procure Satisfactory information” that L’Industrie “had made any material military equipments in Baltimore,” the case would be submitted to the secretary of war for GW’s decision (all documents, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). For the letter from Council president James Brice to Knox of 23 Aug., see Knox to GW, 27 Aug. (first letter), n.2.

Edward Thornton (1766–1852) became the British vice-consul in Maryland in June 1793 and remained in that post until 1796. Thereafter, he served variously as secretary of the legation at Washington and as chargé d’affaires until he left the United States in 1804. He remained in the British diplomatic service until 1824.

2The 19th article of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France, 6 Feb. 1778, provided that when ships of either party were forced by any “urgent necessity” to seek shelter in the other’s ports, they would be permitted “all things needful for the sustenance of their Persons or reparation of their Ships and conveniency of their Voyage; and they shall no Ways be detained or hindred from returning out of the said Ports” (Miller, Treaties description begins Hunter Miller, ed. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Vol. 2, 1776-1818. Washington, D.C., 1931. description ends , 17–18). The “instructions” were the eight rules of neutrality approved by the cabinet opinion of 3 Aug. 1793. The seventh prohibited “Equipments of vessels in the Ports of the United States, which are of a nature solely adopted to war,” except in certain cases, including “those mentioned in the nineteenth Article of our Treaty with France.”

3Lee presumably enclosed Thornton’s letter to him of 3 Oct., which enclosed an extract from a letter from the vice-consul at Norfolk, Va., about the privateer schooner Republic, which, Thornton stated, had since arrived at Baltimore with her gunports “covered with a canvass, that their number might not be discovered, these circumstances of concealment (which would be unnecessary if no further equipment were intended) form a strong presumption that her people will endeavor to augment her force in the harbour” (MdAA: Brown Books).

Lee also may have enclosed his reply to Thornton of 7 October. Lee informed Thornton that he had instructed the collector of the district to investigate, and that he would take action according to “the circumstances of the case coupled with the Instructions of the President” (MdAA: Council Letterbook, 1787–1793).

Lee’s letter to the collector (Otho Holland Williams) of 5 Oct. stated that Lee had been “informed” that when the Republic “came her ports were covered with canvas—this circumstance of concealment lead to a presumption that endeavours will be made to augment her force.” The collector, therefore, “should look with any Eye of great circumspection into the conduct of the people on board this vessel,” so that if she attempted “to encrease her force by the addition of any sort of Military Equipments . . . measures may be taken to prevent such contravention of the regulations of the Government of the United States” (MdAA: Council Letterbook, 1787–1793).

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