Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from LeRoy Peachey, 23 March 1781

From LeRoy Peachey

Richmd County March the 23d. 1781


The Militia of this County were Drafted on the 12th. of this Instant and this day the Drafts were Ordered to Rendezvous at my Ferry properly prepared to begin their March to Chesterfield CtHouse To morrow, but being Inform’d by the Collectors, and the two Commissioners who have the Receiving of the Bounty Money that the Collection had been and would be chiefly made in Tobacco, which consequently rendered it necessary to send to the Treasury for money for the Bounty aforesaid I have Furlough’d the Drafts untill Thursday the 5th. of next month, and this I did, because I judg’d it to be the intention of the Legislative that they should receive their Bounty before they March’d from their County. If I have done wrong, be pleas’d to give your Orders and they shall be Obeyed. And now I am writing to your Excellency on this Subject I will give you the State of a Case that happened in this County, and beg for your directions how I am to proceed in it.

Mr. Thomas Beale one of the Commissioners of the Money tax, a Gentleman who hath been afflicted with the Rheumatism for Several years, one Evening at his own House in conversation with several Gentlemen and myself express’d much uneasiness at the Acts of Assembly for Drafting the Militia, mention’d Several times his Inability to Serve as a Soldier in the Continental Army and his having a Year or two before apply’d to a Court Martial held in the County to be excus’d from Militia duty. Upon his renewing the Subject Several times that Evening and appearing to be uneasy I told him he certainly cou’d not be deem’d an able body’d Man and I thought I could venture to insure him for a small consideration from all Drafts while he remaind under his then Infirmity being well acquainted with the kind of Men that were received as Soldiers at the places of Rendezvous. This I said at the time purely to quiet him and thought no more of it untill next morning when he resum’d the Subject and insisted so much upon being made quite easy with his Family, as he express’d it, that I told him I would comply with my last nights engagement. Upon which he requested Mr. R. Parker (one of the Company) to Committ it to writing, the Substance of which was That I should for the Consideration of one Thousand pounds of Tobacco and Ten Barrels of Corn paid Annually for five years (He being at that time 45 Years of Age) Insure him from all Drafts. This happened soon after the Draft made in the Year 1780 and before the Law made for this last Draft.

When the Gentlemen appointed to divide the Militia Assembled at the place I had appointed according to Law, the whole of this Matter was related to them by me, and that part of the Law read which directs that none shall be put on a Division but Such as were thought to be able Body’d and fit for Service. Two of the Gentlemen thought, as I had insured Mr. Beale for a Consideration, altho’ a very small one and altho’ he was clearly unfitt for a Soldier and did not by any means come under the Description of a Recruit he ought to be put into a Division and if Drafted be oblig’d to go or furnish a substitute. The first Justice gave no opinion in it neither did Mr. Beale or myself being the parties concern’d. After he was fix’d upon a Division in this Irregular manner I apply’d to the Gentlemen to say whether they thought he came under the Description of a Recruit and whether there had not been many men in the County Excused who were better able to Serve than Mr. Beale. This they agreed to but insisted that the private Contract he had made with me Oblig’d him to take a Chance in the present and future Drafts untill the Contract expired, whatever state he might be in if life remain’d, but if the Contract was annul’d they should not think Mr. Beale a fit person to take a Draft. Upon which I offered to burn it. This However Mr. Beale refused to have done, was left upon the 9th. division and drew Service; moreover the Captain in whose Company he Served as a Militia Man, declared it afterwards (not being present at the time of the dispute) as his Opinion that Mr. Beale by no means fell under the Description of an Able bodied Man and that he had on account of his Infirmness frequently excused him from standing in the Ranks on Muster days. I would further Inform Your Excellency that altho’ the whole of the Gentlemen were of Opinion that I was not an able Body’d Man, Yet in order to keep the People quiet (who murmur’d greatly at the number excus’d) I had myself put into one of the Divisions and took a Chance as the Rest.

Now Sir if upon this true Representation of the Matter you should be of Opinion that Mr. Beale is Lawfully Drafted and ought to Serve or find a Substitute I must look out and provide one for him at any price for I am certain I should not be received were I inclin’d to take his place. This transaction may be thought a piece of Inadvertancey in me being commanding Officer of the Militia, but when the different Circumstances are taken into View, I have no Doubt of being acquitted. We had but Eleven Men in each Division the Adjacent Countys 18, 15 and 13.

I am Your Excellencys Most Obdt Servt.,

Leroy Peachey

RC (Vi); endorsed: “Colo Peachey 23rd March 1781.”

It is apparent that the interesting transaction narrated in this letter was not looked upon by Peachey or by his contemporaries as an act of venality. On the contrary, it was regarded simply as a purchase of insurance, Peachey being the insurer and Beale the insured. It can hardly be supposed that Peachey would have disclosed the transaction to “the Gentlemen appointed to divide the militia” or to TJ if he or they had regarded the matter as unethical or illegal. This interpretation of the transaction as a legal, if unusual, purchase of insurance is supported by the fact that Peachey employs the word “insured” and the justices allude to the “private Contract” between the two parties. Moreover, the consideration was to be paid annually, a fact which gives it the aspect of an insurance premium. Peachey does not quote the terms of the written contract, but it appears from his letter that the stated obligation of the insurer was merely to protect Beale “from all Drafts while he remained under his then Infirmity”; it was not an obligation to help him evade the draft law or to procure an exemption through illegal means. Peachey merely found himself in the position of an insurer called upon to meet a claim that he felt was based upon an erroneous interpretation of the law. In the present letter, therefore, he appealed to TJ and the executive power to determine whether “Mr. Beale is Lawfully Drafted.” There was, of course, nothing in the law to cover such forms of insurance as described by Peachey. The Act in question stated that no one should be accepted as a recruit who was not “fit for present duty, between the ages of eighteen and fifty years, of able body and sound mind, who is neither a prisoner of war, a deserter from the enemy, nor engaged to serve for a longer term than eight months” and, further, that “No man shall be drafted, unless it shall appear to the … commanding officer that he comes within the above description of a recruit; neither shall any recruit or substitute be accepted of by him, unless he comes up to such description” (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends x, 333). Clearly, Beale was not qualified under these terms as a recruit or as a draftee. But, because of Peachey’s obligation under the contract, Beale was, in the opinion of “the Gentlemen who were appointed to divide the Militia,” subject to the draft law so long as the contract remained in force and, no matter how great were Beale’s infirmities, so long as “life remain’d.” This presented a nice legal question and it would be interesting to know what TJ’s answer would have been. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that he responded to Peachey’s letter or that a ruling on the question was made by the Council or by Attorney General Randolph. It is quite certain, however, that Peachey’s transaction did not have any adverse effect upon his standing in the community. On 2 Apr. the county court of Richmond recommended him to TJ for the post of county lieutenant in the place of Francis L. Lee, who had refused to qualify (CVSP description begins Calendar of Virginia State Papers … Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond description ends , ii, 3). TJ, by advice of Council, issued a commission in compliance with this recommendation, and on 6 May Peachey took the oath of office (Gwathmey, Hist. Reg. of Virginians in the Revolution; the Richmond county court’s recommendation, attested by Peachey himself as clerk, is in Vi and bears this notation: “Issd [issued]” and, in another hand, “by advice of Council”). Certainly if TJ, who was extremely sensitive to matters of propriety in official conduct, had regarded Peachey’s conduct in this case as venal, he would not have been likely to appoint him to the post of county lieutenant and thereby enlarge his opportunities for venality. It is to be noted, too, that Peachey was acting as commanding officer of the county at the time of writing the present letter, for it was the duty of such an officer to call together the “field officers of his county or corporation, the four senior magistrates, not being field officers, and the commissioners of the tax, to meet at such place as he shall appoint” (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends x, 330–1); these were the gentlemen appointed to divide the militia.

Even so, this question remains: If Peachey insured Beale only so long as he suffered under an infirmity that rendered him exempt from militia and draft laws, for what contingency did he accept the “small consideration” if not for such a circumstance as that against which he complains in the present letter? Peachey probably entered into this business in the beginning merely, as he says, to quiet Beale, who may have been either a neurotic or a shrewd bargainer. But the fact is that Peachey accepted a consideration under promise of performance and thereby rendered himself liable to action for breach of contract if he failed to meet the obligation. Beale, however infirm he may have been, realized this as clearly as did the other justices. Peachey’s letter and his offer to burn the contract prove that this form of insurance was unusual if not unique and was produced by a kind of indiscretion scarcely covered by its description as “a piece of Inadvertancey.” If Peachey entered into the contract merely to soothe a nervous man and continued to accept the annual consideration for this humane reason, one may sympathize with him in his ultimate plight when it was plain that, if Beale had been lawfully drafted, Peachey would be obligated to “Serve or find a Substitute … at any price.” For, a few months later, Peachey wrote to Governor Nelson that “a Hogshead of paper money would not get a man in this quarter” (Peachey to Nelson, 25 Aug. 1781; CVSP description begins Calendar of Virginia State Papers … Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond description ends , ii, 356). But this sympathetic interpretation may take on another color when it is recognized that Peachey had been paid in substantial amounts of tobacco and corn, not paper money. Peachey’s legal problem may have been solved in his day, but unhappily the records provide no evidence as to what that solution was.

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