Thomas Jefferson Papers

Bill for Sequestering British Property, [13 January 1778]

Bill for Sequestering British Property

[13 January 1778]

Whereas divers persons, subjects of Great Britain, had, during our connection with that Kingdom, acquired estates real and personal within this Commonwealth and had also become entitled to debts to a considerable amount, and some of them had commenced suits for the recovery of such debts before the present troubles had interrupted the administration of Justice, which suits were at that time depending and undetermined; and such estates being acquired and debts incurred under the Sanction of the laws and of the connection then subsisting, and, it not being known that their sovereign hath as yet set the example of confiscating debts and estates under the like circumstances, the public faith and the law and usages of Nations require that they should not be confiscated on our part, but the safety of the United States demands, and the same law and usages of Nations will justify, that we should not strengthen the hands of our enemies during the continuance of the present war, by remitting to them the profits or proceeds of such estates or the interest or principal of such debts: Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly that the lands, slaves, stocks, and implements thereto belonging within this Commonwealth, together with the crops now on hand or hereafter to accrue and all other estate of whatever nature not herein otherwise provided for of the property of any British subject, shall be sequestered into the hands of Commissioners to be appointed from time to time by the Governor and Council for each particular estate, which Commissioners shall have power, by suits or actions to be brought in the names of the proprietors, to receive and recover all sums of money hereafter to become due to the said proprietors of such estates; to direct by agents, stewards or overseers the management of the said estates to the best advantage; to provide out of the monies so received and recovered, and the crops and profits, now on hand, or hereafter accruing, for the maintenance, charges, taxes and other current expences of such estates, in the first place, and the residue to carry into the continental loan-office within1 this Commonwealth, and to take out certificates for the same from the said Office, in the name of the proprietor of such estate; which certificates shall be delivered in to the Governor and Council, before whom also a fair account on oath of the receipts and disbursements for the said estate shall be annually laid; and, if wrong, shall be subject, at their instance, to be revised and adjusted in the name of the proprietors, and all balances due thereon from the said Commissioners to be recovered in a Court of Justice according to the ordinary forms of the law, and such balances, so recovered, to be placed in like manner in the said continental2 loan-office. And the Governor and Council shall once in every year lay before the General Assembly an account of the said certificates, put into their hands specifying the names of the owners; and shall see to the safe keeping of the same, subject to the future direction of the Legislature. And where any such estate is holden in jointenancy, tenancy in common, or of any other undivided interest with any citizen of this Commonwealth, it shall be lawful for such citizen to proceed to obtain partition by such action, suit or process to be instituted in the General Court or high Court of Chancery as is allowed to be had against a citizen in the like case and service of process in any such suit on the Commissioners appointed for such estate, and orders, judgments, and decrees thereon to be rendered shall be, to all intents and purposes, as valid and effectual, as if the party himself had appeared in defence. Saving nevertheless to such defendant, if the partition be unequal, such redress as shall be hereafter allowed him by the legislature against the party Plaintiff, his heirs, executors or administrators, and against the lands themselves allotted to the Plaintiff on such unequal partition and not sold to any person for valuable consideration actually and bona fide paid or agreed to be paid: but all lands so sold after partition shall be absolutely confirmed to the Purchaser and all claiming under him, according to the terms of his purchase in like manner as if the vendor had held an indefeasible estate therein. And the said Commissioners shall use their best skill and endeavors to obtain a fair and equal partition for their principal, for which purpose they may employ necessary agents and counsel at his expence. And for this and all other their trouble and expences such allowance shall be made them out of the profits of the estate as to the Governor and Council shall seem reasonable.

And be it further enacted that it shall and may be lawful for any Citizen of this Commonwealth owing money to a subject of Great Britain, to pay the same, or any part thereof, from time to time, as he shall think fit, into the said continental2 loan-Office taking thereout a certificate for the same in the name of the Creditor, with an endorsement under the hand of the Commissioner of the said Office, expressing the name of the payer, and shall deliver such certificate to the Governor and Council, whose receipt shall discharge him from so much of the debt. And the Governor and Council shall in like manner lay before the General Assembly once in every year an account of these certificates, specifying the names of the persons by and for whom they were paid, and shall see to the safe-keeping of the same, subject to the future direction of the legislature.3

And be it further enacted that all suits which were depending in any court of Law or Equity, within this Commonwealth on the twelfth day of April in the year of our lord 17744 wherein British subjects alone are Plaintiffs, and any Citizen of this Commonwealth is a defendant, shall stand continued (unless abated by the death of either party) in the same state in which they were at that time, and where Citizens and British subjects are joint Plaintiffs against a citizen, the Court may proceed to trial and judgment, but execution as to so much of any debt sued for and recovered in such action, as will accrue to such British subject, shall be suspended till further direction of the Legislature. And in all such suits wherein any Citizen of this Commonwealth is a Plaintiff and any subject of Great Britain is a defendant, the Court may proceed to trial, judgment, and execution, saving to the defendant such benefit of rehearing or new trial as shall be hereafter allowed by the legislature.

MS (Vi); in clerk’s hand, with inter-lineation by TJ (noted below). Endorsed by John Tazewell: “A Bill for sequestring British Property enabling those indebted to British Subjects to pay off such Debts & directing the Proceedings in Suits where such Subjects are Parties. 1778. Jan: 17th. Read the first Time.” Also MS (Vi) in clerk’s hand containing amendments to the foregoing Bill.

For the broad outlines of Virginia’s policy toward loyalists and debts owed British subjects, see Isaac S. Harrell, Loyalism in Virginia, Durham, 1926; the above Bill and the consequences of its enactment are discussed at p. 80ff. For a variant of the Bill for Sequestering British Property, see Report of the Committee of Revisors, Bill No. 36, 18 June 1779. The justification of the present Bill, as stated in the preamble, stands in some contrast to that stated in the Bill Concerning Escheats which TJ also drew (q.v., under 4 June 1779); the former implied that confiscation was contrary to “the public faith and the law and usages of nations”; the latter, which was an Act of confiscation, referred to the earlier Act as a measure merely undertaken to prevent waste and destruction and justified confiscation in those terms. TJ’s taking the lead in the matter of treatment of British property and debts owed British merchants was no doubt due in large part to his anxiety to stabilize the finances of the state and to halt inflation; during these years his utterances show that he thought the chief danger to the state came from the insecurity of its credit. Since Virginians were obliged by law to accept paper money as legal tender, it seemed logical that others should be required to do so also. In addition to logic and legality, members of the General Assembly were under some pressure to adopt such measures, as shown by a petition of 185 persons from Mecklenburg co. in May 1777, declaring that merchants and factors refused to receive paper money in settlement of debts. TJ and many other members of the Assembly were involved in indebtedness to British merchants. TJ estimated the debts owed by colonial planters at the opening of the Revolution to be between two and three million pounds sterling; to liquidate these debts in depreciated paper money would benefit debtors, and, by increasing the stability of the paper issued by the state, would turn private liabilities into public assets. Unfortunately, this general sequestration Bill and its clause respecting debts did not achieve the ends hoped for by TJ and others: of the enormous debt in sterling owed to British merchants, only £273,554 of paper money was paid into the loan office, having a sterling value of £15,044, and these payments were made only by about five hundred persons. Among these were TJ, Wythe, Carrington, Pendleton, and other leaders. Yet both Wythe and Pendleton, as judges, later ruled that, because of the terms of the Treaty of Paris, payments into the loan office of Virginia did not discharge debts due British subjects.

On 13 Jan. TJ was appointed chairman of a committee to bring in a Bill on this subject; he reported it on 17 Jan. On 21 Jan. it was read the second time and amended by the House; it was passed on 22 Jan., and TJ carried it to the Senate, where it was agreed to without amendment the same day (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1777, 1827 edn., p. 113, 119, 125, 126). The Act as adopted is in Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends ix, 377–80. For a fragment of a committee report that may possibly have been drawn up in connection with the proviso for liquidating British debts by payments of Virginia currency, see the next document succeeding this.

1The words “continental loan-office within” were deleted by amendment and the words “loan office of” substituted therefor.

2The word “continental” was deleted by amendment.

3The following section was added by amendment: “Provided that the Governor and Council may make such allowance as they shall think reasonable out of the said Profits and Interest arising on Money so paid into the Loan office to the Wives and Children residing in this State of such Proprietors or Creditors.”

4The words “on the twelfth … our lord 1774” are interlined in the hand of TJ.

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