Thomas Jefferson Papers

Steuben to William Phillips, [15 April 1781]

Steuben to William Phillips

[Chesterfield, 15 Apr. 1781]


I had the honor to receive from his Excellency the Governor of this state an extract from your letter to him on the subject of a flag, which he had requested you would permit to pass to Charles Town with tobacco for the benefit of the prisoners at that place belonging to this state. I am the more willing to undertake the regulation of this matter with you from the full confidence I repose in the honor and humanity of your character; and from a persuasion, of your readiness to cooperate with me in forwarding relief to the unfortunate, I take the liberty to state to you that the pay of the prisoners for more than twelve months past has been in arrears; that not less than nine hundred hogsheads will enable them to discharge their debts, and that a single vessel as proposed by you, will be utterly insufficient for this transportation. I cannot therefore doubt your passports for two or more vessels of sufficient burthen for the purpose will readily be granted. Should you think it necessary to send an officer with the flag we shall have no objections, but after the delivery of the cargo, the object of his charge, the officer it is supposed will take such opportunity of returning, should he chuse it, as your own vessels may afford him. I agree that on the flag’s arrival at Charlestown, it shall abide by the decision of the Commandant, respecting the propriety or mode of discharging the cargo, after which the flag should have a passport for a sufficient number of days to enable her to get clear of the Carolina coast. Should the tobacco be refused, I shall expect, agreeably to your assurance, a passport will be granted for the safe return of the vessel and cargo.

As the necessities of the prisoners are urgent, I have no doubt of your paying that speedy attention to this matter, which their situation requires, and that after communicating to your naval commanding officer, whatever may be necessary for the accomplishment of this benevolent design, you will be pleased to favor me with an early answer.

I have the honor to be, Sir, with great respect and consideration, your most obedient and very humble servant,

Dft (NHi); entirely in the hand of William Davies, a fact which virtually gives this letter the status of a communication from the Executive of Virginia if not from TJ himself; also, not even TJ himself stated the terms more explicitly—he, for example, “had proposed to send from six to nine hundred Hogsheads of Tobacco” (TJ to Steuben, 10 Apr. 1781). In view of the statements made in TJ’s letter to Gerlach of 3 May 1781 and his letter to the Virginia delegates of 10 May 1781, qq.v., it is especially significant that an officer of the state government should have drawn up the letter that TJ asked Steuben to write. This does not necessarily imply a lack of confidence in Steuben’s readiness to accede to the request, but it does lend support to the assumption that TJ did not answer Phillips’ letter of 6 Apr., that Phillips in turn did not send TJ a response that arrived after 20 Apr. bearing an offensively-addressed cover (see TJ to Gerlach, 3 May 1781), and that, therefore, the letter from Phillips of 6 Apr. 1781 was the one addressed to “hos. Jefferson Esqr. American Governor of Virginia.” Phillips replied to Steuben on 18 Apr., just at the beginning of his expedition up the James: “I have received your letter dated the 15th instant this moment. I shall send you, Sir, a full answer to it and I make no doubt but that the vessels may have leave to proceed. But being so many I cannot venture on my own authority to allow them to sail without a previous permission from His Excellency General Sir Henry Clinton” (Phillips to Steuben, 18 Apr. 1781, NHi). See TJ to the Virginia delegates, 10 May 1781. TJ regarded Phillips’ referral of the matter to Sir Henry Clinton as an evasion.

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