Adams Papers

The Commissioners to Gabriel de Sartine, 7 January 1779

The Commissioners to Gabriel de Sartine

Passy Jany 7. 177<8>9


We have the Honour to inclose to your Excellency two Memorials1 concerning a French2 Vessell retaken from an English Privateer by An American Privateer the Hampden commanded by Captain Pickering.

As there is nothing in either of the Treaties between his Majesty and the united States, respecting such Rescues and Recaptures the Laws of each State must govern the Cases of the Vessells carried into it, <and no La> untill Some new Regulation Shall take Place <and>. The Sale was made before the new Regulations took place and we apprehend that3 no Law or Ordinance can justly be made to have a Retrospect or a Retroactive Effect.

We beg the favor of your Excellency to order what appears to you just in this particular case.

LbC (Adams Papers).

1Presumably these were the petitions, of which this letter gives the substance, from D’Albert de Riou, a Brest merchant, of 23 Oct., and from Riou and Capt. Thomas Pickering of 23 Dec. 1778 (both PPAmP: Franklin Papers). The controversy centered on La Constance, a French vessel taken by a Guernsey privateer on 29 Sept. and recaptured by Pickering and the Hampden on 2 Oct. Because it had been in the enemy’s hands for more than 24 hours, La Constance was a legal prize to the American captors under the terms of the Marine Ordinance of 1681. Basing their actions on that ordinance and past practice, Pickering went before the admiralty clerk within 24 hours of his arrival at Brest on 6 Oct. and presented the circumstances of the capture. As a result, the admiralty judges determined La Constance to be a good prize. Pickering then entered into an agreement with Riou for its disposal, and made payments to the crew in anticipation of the sale. However, on 22 Oct. the regulations for the disposal of prizes and prisoners that had been issued on 27 Sept. were registered at Brest. This caused the admiralty judges to reconsider their decision in the case of La Constance and to decide that it should come under the provisions of the new regulations. This meant that the evidence in the case would have to be presented again and a new determination made of the legitimacy of the capture, but, because the prize had already been sold, such a course would have resulted in long delays and litigation. Therefore, the petitioners desired the Commissioners to obtain from the Ministry of Marine an order exempting La Constance from the provisions of the new regulations. Pickering wrote again, to Benjamin Franklin on 28 Jan., concerning the case (Cal. Franklin Papers, A.P.S. description begins I. Minis Hays, comp., Calendar of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin in the Library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1908; 5 vols. description ends , 2:16). Nothing is known of its outcome since no reply by Sartine has been found. For the French regulations concerning recaptures, see Sartine to the Commissioners, 16 Sept. 1778, above; and for the regulations of 27 Sept. 1778, see Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 2:684–687.

2This word was interlined for insertion at this point.

3The preceding fourteen words were interlined by Benjamin Franklin for insertion at this point.

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