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Report by Albert Gallatin, with Jefferson’s Opinion, 9 July 1801

Report by Albert Gallatin, with
Jefferson’s Opinion

Treasury Department July 9th. 1801

The Secretary of the Treasury has the honor to enclose the answer of William Watson Collector of Plymouth to the charges against him transmitted in Mr King’s letter of the 1st. of December last.

From the several documents it appears that Anton Powell then resident of Havana having purchased in 1799. 1800. from James Byays of Baltimore a new built Maryland vessel registered in the name of said Byays, came in her from Havana to Plymouth, Massachusetts in March 1800 with a Cargo of West India produce

That having there disposed of part of his cargo, shipped Reuben Beetle of Edgar Town Massachusetts as master, & altered his Vessel from a schooner to a Brigantine, he produced the bill of sale of the vessel from Byays to himself and one from himself to sd. Beetle. Whereupon a new Register was granted in the name of said Beetle—That this last bill of Sale was a colourable paper executed only with intention of obtaining an American Register, which he as resident at Havana even if he was a Citizen could not have obtained.—

That Benjn. M Watson, Weigher, Inspector &c a. of the Port of Plymouth, and who is understood to have acted as Deputy under Mr. W. Watson the Collector, did also lend his name to said Powell, so as to cover the whole cargo.—

That the Vessel having been taken by the British, the real owner Powell & said Beetle acknowledged the above mentioned facts; but that said Beetle swore that the Register had been granted to him by the Collector of Plymouth without his taking the Oath of ownership required by Law.

The two charges against the Collector are 1st. his granting the Register. 2d. his employing B M. Watson—In regard to the first, as bills of sale were produced, the only irregularity, if any was committed, consists in not having administered the Oath to Beetle.

That he did not administer it, rests on Beetles evidence in great Britain and seems corroborated by the Collectors state of health on the 24th. May 1800. when the transaction took place & by his not being able to find Beetles subscription to the declaration. The verbal declarations of Beetle to Davis form the only evidence tending to shew that the oath was administered.

There is no appearance of fraud on the part of the Collector, if the oath was not administered it was only neglect probably Owing to the infirmity of age, and from concurrent circumstances there can be little doubt of Beetle being ready at the time to take an oath if it had been required.

Under all circumstances & considering the character and respectability of Mr. Watson, it seeems that there is not in this transaction Sufficient cause of removal, unless its effect on foreign Courts of Justice and the foreign Commerce of the United States should in the opinion of the President render that measure absolutely necessary.

But it will at all events be requisite that B. M. Watson should be dismissed from any employment he may still have in the Custom House, either in the public capacity of inspector &c a. or as Deputy of Mr. W. Watson—

Respectfully submitted by

(signed) Albert Gallatin

I concur in the above opinion in—both its points. but I think a statement of the case, as it results from the enquiry, should be made, mentioning the age, infirmity & sickness of the Collector at the moment of this transaction, his poverty, and his being clear of the fraud, as circumstances which have influenced the Executive against his removal; and on the other hand that the fraud having rested entirely with the Deputy he has been dismissed and will be forbidden to be employed in any office. this statement being furnished to the Secretary of State, to be forwarded to Mr. King will be communicated by him to the British Minister and the Judge of the Court before whom this transaction had come to light. it will satisfy them that we have no disposition to connive at the frauds of our officers

Signed   Th: Jefferson

Tr (CSmH); in clerk’s hand. Enclosures: (1) William Watson to Albert Gallatin, Plymouth, Massachusetts, 22 June 1801, noting that although “greatly distressed” by the charge of misconduct brought against him at this period of life, it was “a great consolation that the President” wished to hear what he had to say in his own defense and explaining that he had no reason to suspect “any fraudulent or covert design” on 24 May when Anthony Powell and Reuben Beetle came to the collector’s office seeking a register for the brigantine Sally, along with a bill of sale indicating the ship belonged to Beetle, a resident of Edgar-town and United States citizen, and therefore qualified to receive the register; that he had no knowledge of a bill of lading being issued; and that for many years he had “discharged the duties of a public office with reputation” to himself and satisfaction to the government and to the people he served. (2) Affidavit of Benjamin Marston Watson, 23 June 1801, sworn before Justice of the Peace Ephraim Spooner, indicating that about 27 May 1800, at the urgent application of Powell and Beetle, he issued an invoice of the cargo for the brig Sally, a letter of advice to a mercantile firm at Amsterdam, and a bill of lading, all papers being in his own name “stating the property as shipped” by him to Amsterdam and done to accommodate Powell and Beetle, without any pecuniary consideration or fraudulent intention on his part. (3) Affidavit of William Davis, 23 June 1801, also sworn before Spooner, testifying that as a Plymouth merchant he had observed the activities of Powell from his arrival in the port on 27 Mch. 1800, when he deposited cargo at his store, until his departure in May; that Powell informed him of the sale of the vessel at Boston to Captain Beetle; that Beetle, just before he departed, informed the Plymouth merchant that he had got his papers, that he had taken the oath administered by the collector, and “that he did swear, could do it safely and freely, the vessel being wholly and compleatly his own, and at his own risque and hazard” (all Trs in same). Enclosed in Albert Gallatin to James Madison, 12 July 1801 (same; Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser. description begins J. C. A. Stagg, ed., The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, Charlottesville, 1986–, 8 vols. description ends , 1:407).

William Watson became collector at Plymouth in August 1789. Gallatin received Rufus king’s letter containing a complaint made by the Court of Admiralty in London against Watson on 25 May 1801 and immediately instituted an investigation. He sent Benjamin Lincoln, collector at Boston, an inquiry. Lincoln responded by describing Watson as a man “of probity, information, & experience, descending from an ancient and respectable family, encircled by friends distinguished for their abilities and correct pursuits.” The Plymouth collector was a man of property who had “everything to lose by an action unrighteous and dishonorable.” Lincoln did not think the “public interest unsafe in his hands” and would not send an officer to inquire at Plymouth unless Gallatin thought it necessary. On 26 June, Lincoln informed Gallatin that he had previously overestimated Watson as a “Gentleman of property,” having learned that he was financially embarrassed and, although “not desperate,” needed the emoluments of his office (JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States … to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress, Washington, D.C., 1828, 3 vols. description ends , 1:9, 13; Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser. description begins J. C. A. Stagg, ed., The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, Charlottesville, 1986–, 8 vols. description ends , 1:484–6; Benjamin Lincoln to Gallatin, 16, 26 June 1801; Gallatin to Madison, 12 July, all Trs in CSmH). Gallatin may have included the Lincoln letters as enclosures with his report to the president.

James Byays: that is, James Biays, captain and ship joiner at Baltimore (John Mullin, The Baltimore Directory, For 1799 [Baltimore, 1799], 7).

In the letter defending his actions (Enclosure No. 1, above), the Plymouth collector noted that Benjamin M. Watson, the weigher, was not his son, as stated by Captain Beetle to the British authorities. Watson observed that he had two daughters, only. In 1786, Ellen Watson married John Davis, who was appointed judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts by John Adams in 1801, and in 1787, Elizabeth Watson married Nathaniel Niles, who as a Vermont congressman in the early 1790s aligned himself with the emerging Jeffersonian Republicans (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends , 16:441–2; Dab, 5:132–3). Watson was confident that he had administered the oath of ownership to Captain Beetle as required by Law, but he could not find the supporting papers. He noted that he was “very unwell” on the day the transaction took place, and if the oath was omitted that was the cause.

Gallatin made a statement of the case in his letter to Madison of 12 July. He requested that the secretary of state inform King that a full investigation into the charges against Watson led to the conclusion that “the collector was a man of unimpeachable integrity & general respectability, far advanced in years, & dependant on his office as his sole means of subsistance.” Gallatin noted that although Watson might not have administered the required oath, even that was doubtful “& if omitted, was the only irregularity chargeable to him, as proper bills of Sale were exhibited to him at the time.” The investigation indicated that responsibility for the fraud regarding the bill of lading rested entirely with Benjamin M. Watson, who was dismissed. Madison wrote King on 28 July and enclosed the papers pertaining to the case. King forwarded the documents to Sir William Scott, judge of the High Court of Admiralty. No disposition to connive at the frauds of our officers: the British court condemned the brig Sally, but on 22 Oct. Scott returned the papers with the endorsement: “Returning Proceedings of the Amer. Govt. respecting Coll. Watson which are highly satisfactory.” He observed to King “that the Lenity shown to the old officer seems to be as properly applied, as the Severity which has been practised upon the actual delinquents.” As far as Scott and the British government were concerned, the communication “fully answered the purpose of shewing that the American Government has no disposition to connive at the misconduct of its officers” (Madison, Papers, Sec. of State Ser. description begins J. C. A. Stagg, ed., The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, Charlottesville, 1986–, 8 vols. description ends , 1:407, 484–6; 2:195; King, Life description begins Charles R. King, ed., The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King: Comprising His Letters, Private and Official, His Public Documents and His Speeches, New York, 1894–1900, 6 vols. description ends , 3:535–6). For Lincoln’s response to the decision, see enclosure listed at Gallatin to TJ, 10 Aug.

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