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To James Madison from Albert Gallatin, 12 December 1815

From Albert Gallatin

New York 12th Decer. 1815

Dear Sir

Mr Gelston, having determined to go to Washington on the subject of the damages recovered against him in the case of the “American Eagle,” has requested me to write to you in his behalf and to state the distressing situation in which he is placed. Having written to the Secretary of the Treasury, permit me to refer you to that letter.1 I do not perceive how he can, unless relieved by Government, escape imprisonment in January next: for he certainly cannot find security of the kind required, (not for appearance but for actual payment) to such an amount. He is past 70 years old, and I believe that his activity and exertions in carrying the laws into effect have made him unpopular with the mercantile class. I feel much interested in his case for those reasons, from private friendship, and because he was only an Agent in this transaction.

Mrs. Gallatin requests to be affectionately remembered to Mrs. Madison; and I remain sincerely & respectfully Ever Your’s

Albert Gallatin

RC (DLC). Docketed by JM.

1Gallatin’s 12 Dec. 1815 letter to Alexander J. Dallas stated that in order to pursue an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of the American Eagle, New York collector David Gelston would be required by state law to post a bond for more than $120,000 in damages and costs found against him. The case stemmed from JM’s order, conveyed in a 6 July 1810 letter from then Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin to Gelston, to seize the American Eagle on the basis of reports indicating that the ship was either owned by or intended for the use of Haitian president Alexandre Petion. Because the French government did not recognize Haiti’s independence, JM deemed the repair and provisioning of the ship in a U.S. port a violation of the third section of “An Act in addition to the act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,” 5 June 1794, which prohibited the “furnishing, fitting out or arming of any ship or vessel” for the use of “any foreign prince or state” against “another foreign prince or state with whom the United States are at peace.” Gelston accordingly seized the ship and libelled it in the district court. The case was not decided there until 24 Aug. 1812, when the judge found Gelston’s action illegal because Petion, in his opinion, did not qualify as a “prince or state.” He ordered the restoration of the ship and cargo to the owner, Gould Hoyt, and declined to grant Gelston a certificate of reasonable cause for the seizure. Hoyt then sued Gelston and New York surveyor Peter A. Schenck in a New York court and won a judgment for more than $100,000 in damages, which the defendants unsuccessfully appealed.

By February 1816 the case was in motion toward the U.S. Supreme Court but without acknowledged financial intervention on the part of the federal government. That was forthcoming after the Supreme Court upheld the verdict in 1818, whereupon Congress appropriated up to $130,000 to cover Gelston and Schenck’s liability. The immediate source of the funds Gallatin requested for Gelston in this letter is not evident; however, on 20 and 22 Dec. 1815, the antiadministration Federal Republican of Georgetown, D.C., published a report from New York insinuating that the recent discovery, in that port, of smuggled goods on a French ship worth $100,000 with its cargo, had been arranged to enable Gelston to seize the vessel and “extricate himself from the claws of the American Eagle” with the proceeds (U.S. Statutes at Large, description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America … (17 vols.; Boston, 1848–73). description ends 1:381–83, 3:418, 423; Report of the Committee of Ways and Means on the Petition of David Gelston and Peter A. Shenck, for Relief against Damages Recovered against Them on Account of the Seizure of the Ship American Eagle, Belonging to Gould Hoyt, and Co. [Washington, D.C., 1818; Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols.; New York, 1958–66). description ends 46507], 2, 6–12).

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