Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Theodorick Bland, 8 June 1779

To Theodorick Bland

Williamsburg June 8th. 1779.


Your letter to Governor Henry of the 1st. instant came safe to hand yesterday and I immediately laid it before the Council. It gave them pain to hesitate on my request from General Phillips whose polite conduct has disposed them to every indulgence consistent with the duties of their appointment. The indiscriminate murther of men, Women and children with the usual circumstances of barbarity practised by the Indian savages, was the particular task of Governor Hamilton’s employment, and if any thing could have aggravated the acceptance of such an office and have made him personally answerable in a high degree it was that eager Spirit with which he is said to have executed it and which if the representations before the Council are to be credited seems to have shewn that his own feelings and disposition were in union with his employment. The truth of these representations will be the subject of their inquiry shortly, and the treatment of Governor Hamilton will be mild or otherwise as his conduct shall appear to merit. On a dispasionate examination we trust it must furnish a contemplation rather pleasing to the generous Soldier to see his honourable bravery respected even by those against whom it happens to be inlisted, and discriminated from the cruel and cowardly warfare of the savage, whose object in war is to extinguish human nature. I am Sir, &c,

Th: Jefferson

Tr, including the signature, transmitted to Congress (DLC: PCC, No. 57). RC (sold at Anderson Galleries, Sale of 20–1 Jan. 1916, lot 304, and now not located) was transmitted by Bland to Gen. Phillips in a letter dated 28 June 1779 (Dft owned by Lloyd W. Smith, Madison, N.J., 1946; clerk’s copy transmitted to Congress, DLC: PCC, No. 57).

Bland’s letter to Governor Henry of 1 June 1779 has not been found. It resulted from an appeal to Phillips by Henry Hamilton, formerly lieutenant-governor of Detroit and commander of the British force at Vincennes that had surrendered to George Rogers Clark, 25 Feb. 1779. Hamilton had been sent back to Virginia with other captured officers, and his case was to prove troublesome to TJ throughout nearly the whole of his governorship. For Hamilton represented to the Virginians the bloody and merciless savagery of frontier warfare; his repute is epitomized in George Rogers Clark’s phrase for him: “the Famous Hair Buyer General” (Clark to Patrick Henry, 3 Feb. 1779; Clark Papers, 1771–1781, p. 97). Hamilton has since found defenders among both American and Canadian historians, but once he had been apprehended, the Virginia government took no chances on his possible escape and responded without enthusiasm to proposals for his exchange. He was regarded as a captive of the State of Virginia, and his status as such was firmly supported by both Congress and the Commander in Chief. Hamilton’s own narrative of his captivity (same, p. 196) states that he was marched from Chesterfield Courthouse on 15 June, “an Officer having a written order under the hand of the Governor of the Province Thomas Jefferson for taking me in Irons to Williamsburgh.” (The original of this order has not been found.) Hamilton had earlier written to Phillips to intercede in his behalf; Phillips’ answer, dated 29 May 1779, was enclosed in a letter to Bland of the same date, and both were forwarded to Gov. Henry in Bland’s missing letter of 1 June; copies of Phillips’ two letters are in DLC: PCC, No. 57; that to Bland is printed in Bland Papers description begins The Bland Papers: Being a Selection from the Manuscripts of Colonel Theodorick Bland, Jr. description ends , i, 130–1. On 15 June Hamilton wrote Phillips to thank him for his efforts and to say that he was on his way to Williamsburg, handcuffed to another prisoner and therefore unable to write in detail (copy in DLC: PCC, No. 57). By the time Hamilton arrived in the capital, the representations before the council and their inquiry, mentioned by TJ in the present letter, had been completed, and the results were shortly published; see the Council’s Order of 16 June 1779, below. Hamilton’s Report on his expedition from Detroit, his captivity in Virginia, and exchange in Mch. 1781 is printed in Clark Papers, 1771–1781, p. 174–207; it was written in London and bears the date 6 July 1781. Hamilton’s conduct as commander of British-allied Indian forces on the northwest frontier has been discussed frequently; the official Virginia view is set forth in Burk-Girardin, Hist. of Va., iv, 353ff.; for modern opinions see especially Prof. James’ Introduction to the Clark Papers, 1771–1781, p. xxxvi ff. (unfavorable); N. V. Russell, “The Indian Policy of Henry Hamilton,” Canadian Hist. Rev., xi (1930), 20–37 (favorable); and Milo M. Quaife, ed., The Capture of Old Vincennes, Indianapolis, 1927, in the Introduction to which Quaife declares Hamilton “a brave and high-minded soldier” and his principal accuser, John Dodge, a conscienceless rascal (p. xix, xxi). Copies of Gen. Phillips’ correspondence relating to the Hamilton case are in the Continental Congress Papers, No. 57 (“Convention Troops”), p. 349–418. Photostats and originals of important papers of Henry Hamilton are in the Clements Library; see Peckham, Guide to Manuscript Collections in the Clements Library, p. 127–8.

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