To Timothy Pickering
New York, Dec. 26th, 1795.
Mr. Cutting has given to me a perusal of his papers, respecting his agency in revealing our seamen from British impress.1 He wished my opinion professionally respecting the validity of his claim, which I declined to give, because it would contradict certain maxims I have prescribed to myself with regard to public questions pending while I was part of the administration.
But there are reasons which induce me to convey to you privately my view of the subject.
It appears to me clearly established that Mr. Cutting rendered a very meritorious and an important service to the United States. Its value is not to be estimated merely by the number of persons relieved, but by the influence of the exertion upon other cases—indeed upon our trade generally with the English ports at the juncture. It is also a service very interesting to the feelings of all our citizens—and there was certainly much good zeal and address displayed upon the occasion. It sufficiently appears, too, that the nature of the case must have involved considerable expense, and in ways which frequently would not admit of after authentication.
Under these circumstances I feel a strong impression that it is of the policy as well as of the justice of the government to go lengths in giving satisfaction to Mr. Cutting. ’Tis a case which calls for liberality, not scrupulous or prying investigation. Mr. Cutting’s own testimony from necessity ought to be received as to expenditures. This observation, to be sure, has reasonable limits. But still the case demands that the testimony should be received with influential effect.
Mr. Dorhman2 is an example of similar compensation in circumstances not unlike. Our own citizen has not an inferior claim.
What has been hitherto done for Mr. Cutting appears to be manifestly inadequate. If it could be supposed that there was risk of doing too much, it is of the reputation of the government that the error should be on that side. Care ought to be taken that a zealous citizen, who has rendered real service, should not be out of pocket, and out of reputation, too, by his bargain. I include a reasonable compensation for service as well as reimbursement of expenses.
These ideas will, I am sure, be received as they are intended.
Copy, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; copy, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.
1. During the American Revolution John Browne Cutting was Apothecary General of Hospitals in the Eastern Department from 1777 to 1779 and in the Middle Department from 1779 to 1780.
Cutting’s “agency” is explained in the following letter which Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington on February 7, 1792: “An account presented to me by Mr. John B. Cutting, for expenditures incurred by him in liberating the seamen of the United States in British ports during the impressments which took place under that Government in the year 1790, obliges me to recall some former transaction to your mind.
“You will be pleased to recollect the numerous instances of complaint or information to us, about that time, of the violences committed on our seafaring citizens in British ports by their press gangs and officers; and that not having even a Consul there at that time, it was thought fortunate that a private citizen, who happened to be on the spot, step forward for their protection; that it was obvious that these exertions on his part must be attended with expense, and that a particular demand of £50 sterling for this purpose coming incidentally to my knowledge, it was immediately remitted to Mr. Cutting, with a request to account for it in convenient time. He now presents an account of all his expenditures in his business, which I have the honor to communicate therewith.” (LC, RG 59, Domestic Letters of the Department of State, Vol. 5, February 4, 1792–December 31, 1793, National Archives.) See also Jefferson to H, January 26, 1792, note 1.
Cutting petitioned Congress for compensation for his expenses in 1792, and on May 4, 1792, the House resolved: “That, in consideration of certain expenditures on behalf of the United States, made by John Brown Cutting, in the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety, there be advanced and paid to the said John Brown Cutting, the sum of two thousand dollars, out of any money not otherwise appropriated: and that the Secretary of State be authorized to inquire into the entire claim of the said John Brown Cutting against the United States; and upon receipt of the proofs and exhibits in support thereof, to ascertain what sum shall thereupon appear to be due to or from him …” (Journal of the House description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States (Washington, 1826), I, II, III, IV description ends , I, 597). In accordance with this resolution, on May 8, 1792, Congress enacted “An Act concerning the Claim of John Brown Cutting against the United States” (6 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America [Private Statutes] (Boston, 1846). description ends . 10). On February 27, 1799, the report of Secretary of State Timothy Pickering on Cutting’s claim was ordered to lie on the table (Journal of the House description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States (Washington, 1826), I, II, III, IV description ends , III, 497).
2. On June 21, 1780, the Continental Congress appointed “Arnold Henry Dohrman, of the city of Lisbon, merchant,… agent for the United States, in the kingdom of Portugal, for the transaction of such affairs of the said States as may be committed to his direction” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XVII, 541). In subsequent years his principal task was to aid American seaman who had been brought to Lisbon as prisoners. For Dohrman’s compensation, see JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, 1904–1937). description ends , XXXIII, 586–88.