Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Philip Turpin, 29 July 1783

To Philip Turpin

Monticello July 29. 1783

Dear Sir

I have considered the circumstances of your present situation as stated in the papers you have been pleased to communicate to me and will proceed to give you my thoughts on them as clearly as I am able.1 I shall take the following facts as the ground of my opinion. That previous to the present revolution you had gone to Gr. Britain to qualify yourself for the exercise of the medical profession in your own country: that before you had compleated your course of studies, hostilities were commenced between the two nations: that having visited and attended the medical institutions at Paris2 you returned to London in the spring of 1776 in order to procure a passage to Virga.: that in the mean time all remittances from hence having been cut off, you retired into the country and lived on the charity of your friends 15 months in daily hopes of receiving some supply which might enable you to pay your debts and to defray your passage to your own country: that this hope failing you went again to London in the fall of 1777. to sollicit some merchants there acquainted with yourself and your connections for as much money as would bring you over: that such were their doubts of American affairs that they would give you no assistance: that in this situation, destitute of every resource but that of your profession from the known difficulties which a young hand and a stranger encounters in getting into Medical business on shore, you were constrained to take a birth in one of the enemy’s ships, not only for the purpose of present subsistence but that also of saving something to pay your passage home: that to render this act as innocent as possible, you took your stand on board a stationed ship: that having continued in the exercise of your profession there till you thought you had saved money enough to bring you home, you resigned your employment and repaired to London to procure your passage: that having waited there six months,3 and being prevented getting a passage by the embargoes which took place on the rupture with Spain, your savings being nearly expended you found it necessary to return again to your birth on board ship, where you continued till the ensuing spring: that you then went to London again and got a passage to N. York on board a transport on condition of serving to that port as surgeon of the ship: that the ship deviated from her course and went to Chas. T. [Charleston] where as soon as you were landed you endeavored by advertisement in the public papers and otherwise to procure a surgeon as a substitute to perform your engagements to the port of N.Y. meaning to ask permission to come on directly to your own country: that being unable to procure a substitute you attended your ship to N.Y. and took the 1st opportunity that occured of coming from thence to Virga.:4 that this was in July 1781 on board of a store ship and immediately on your arrival in Virga. by yourself and your friends you sollicited of Ld. Cornwallis leave to pass his lines, he being with his army then in this state, and American affairs in a more desperate condition than they had been since the winter of 1776: that you were refused such leave and being unable otherwise to get quarters or to draw subsistence you undertook to assist in the hospital department, in which situation you were when that army surrendered: that you immediately communicated your case to Govr. Nelson, who satisfied with what you had done, and that you were not to be considered as a subject of exchange, gave you a passport to return to your friends: that during the whole course of these transactions you manifested repeatedly and uniformly your firm attachment to the cause of your country, your desire to rejoin it and that it was solely to effect this that you took the preceding measures. These are the facts which are either proved by your papers or rendered probable by your known situation, and to my mind certain by your own assertions. I find in the whole train of them but a single one capable of bearing a hostile construction, that is your undertaking to act in the military hospitals of the enemy. As it is the intention alone which constitutes the criminality of any act, the question is simplified into this form by the Law, viz. Quo animo did you undertake that office? Forster 202. 208. Was it with a criminal purpose, with hostile views of subjugating your own country, or only under the urgency of absolute necessity, when you had no other resource to procure present subsistence, no other means of paving the way for regaining your own country? This question is answered by the facts previously stated, every one of which was bottomed on a desire to get home again. Many are the circumstances of necessity, moral as well as physical, which excuse in law an act otherwise criminal. Force or fear will justify the furnishing an enemy with provisions, with money, with arms, ammunition &c. This has been the predicament of a great part of the citizens of America. They will in like manner justify the joining an enemy and bearing arms against one’s country. Forster 216. This was the case of our citizens taken captive on the high seas. The peculiarities in the late war have produced many new and trying cases which cannot possibly be solved by reference to others exactly similar, nor otherwise than by a liberal extension of former principles and of the reasons on which these principles were founded. Thus the law having decided the foregoing exculpations expressly on the principle that the will must be criminal as well as the act, that the act is culpable only so far as it is a means to effectuate some wicked purpose of the heart (Forster 203) we are safe in bringing under the protection of this principle every case where the act and the purpose did not concur. We may then consistently with the reason of the law lay down another rule that it is justifiable to deceive an enemy by appearing to take sides with him in order to obtain an opportunity of escaping to our friends. It is only necessary in this case that the first safe opportunity be embraced and every demonstration given of our real5 purpose which circumstances will admit. This was the predicament of our soldiers taken in Ft. Washington, on Long isld., in Chastown &c. They enlisted very generally with the enemy purposing it as a means of procuring their escape. They actually bore arms against us on many occasions before an opportunity of escape occurred. Many of those taken at Ft. Washington and on other occasions early in the war having been kept either on board ships or in Long Isld. or Staten isld. could not get from the enemy till they came to Virginia with Genl. Arnold. Upwards of 200 of these then deserted. They told their cases honestly,6 were received into the bosom of their country and are enjoying in tranquillity the advantages of the revolution in common with their fellow citizens. But must the garrisons of Ft. Washington, of Chas. t. &c. be now driven from their country? I consider your case as more nearly parallel with theirs than with any other which has come within my knolege. You like them were a captive; that is you were within the power of the enemy and effectually imprisoned by not having the means of crossing that barrier which nature had placed between them and us, and if you could have crossed that, then without the power of getting out of the lines of their armies here. Thus we know that Mr. Griffin who had money to bring him across the sea, was detained in N. York 4. months before he could get leave to come out and yourself, after having got across the sea were absolutely refused that leave altogether.5 It is true you were not confined to particular limits within the island of Grt. Britain as the souldiers were in those places where they were held in captivity; but then you had not like them the advantage of a present subsistence from the enemy, and a right to call on your country for an exchange in your turn. You were to get back as you could, or never to get back. They received from the enemy bounty money, pay, clothing and subsistence, bore arms, did guard duty, and often were in action against us; whereas your office was only that of administering medecine to sick and wounded individuals; an office as inoffensive as any one you could have exercised with them, and of much less hostile appearance than that of arraying yourself in arms with the enemies of your country. If therefore the necessities which drove you to this measure should appear less pungent to some than those which operated on the poor souldiers, it should be taken into account also that the measure you adopted was less injurious, less hostile, more innocent: that your plan of escape was by saving the lives of enemies while theirs was that of taking away the lives of their countrymen. The office of surgeon has been considered as on a footing with that of chaplain, and the administering of medecine to be as inoffensive as giving religious instruction to those with whom we are contending. Had any of our surgeons in Chs. town dressed the wounds of those of our enemies who were carried from the Cowpens or the Utaws no liberal mind would have censured them. Instances are not wanting of medical relief and refreshments for the sick sent to an enemy’s camp. Yet this was never considered, in the officer who sent it, as an act of infidelity to his country: but rather of magnanimity. In the MSS. records of Congress is a letter from Sr. G. Carlton to Genl. Washington stating that the practice which had prevailed in the American war of considering Chaplains and Surgeons as prisoners of war was against the modern usage of nations and proposing it should be discontinued. To which proposition Genl. Washington answered that the matter had been remedied as to chaplains at a former conference and that as to Surgeons it should be treated of at the interview they were then proposing. What was the result I did not learn. But I mention it to shew the inoffensive light in which the office of a surgeon is viewed, and that his duties like those of the chaplain are rather religious than military, rather of humanity than hostility. On the principles of general law then I think your conduct was justifiable: nor do I find any act of assembly previous to Oct. 1782 which has changed the law as to this point. It is suggested that an act which passed then may perhaps have affected your case. I have not seen the act, as those laws have never yet reached this part of the country. But as the Governor’s proclamation of the 2d. inst. is probably founded on that act I will venture to suppose it has adopted its descriptions precisely. Now these descriptions are 1. of Voluntary refugees since Apr. 1775. 2. Exiles since the same period. 3. Natives who have at any time borne arms with the enemy against this Commonwealth. The latter7 description, if any can, must be applied to you. But I apprehend that cannot, because it must certainly mean a criminal and not an innocent bearing of arms. It must mean to describe the case of those natives who, preferring the cause of the enemy to that of their country, took arms on the other side with the nefarious purpose of subjugating it, those in other words in whom as the law expresses it both the overt act and the purpose concurred, for the purpose must concur to render the act criminal. Neither the law nor the proclamation could wish to comprehend and banish the souldiers already mentioned because tho’ they bore arms it was not with the wicked purpose of subduing their country, but with the justifiable one of procuring an opportunity to rejoin it. Still less can it be intended for you, because while your purpose was equally with theirs to rejoin your country, you did not like them actually bear arms against it. Should the expression ‘bearing arms’ be extended not only to those who literally bore arms tho’ with an innocent intention as was the case of those souldiers but by construction to those also who with equal innocence rendered any other service, it must sweep off a number of our very good citizens who under the operation of their fears furnished the enemy while here with provisions, transported their baggage, their ammunition, their sick &c., served them as guides, and did many other acts of service to them. I must conclude then that it cannot involve you. I have the more confidence in my opinion because it is not recently formed but was the result of enquiry and consultation on a former occasion when the parties concerned were merely indifferent and no principles of private friendship were operating to warp my judgment. It was formed at a time when I could not possibly foresee that I should have occasion to apply it to the case of one whose talents and merit I respect and who standing acquitted in my mind of ever having entertained an unfriendly wish to a cause which I have loved and fostered from it’s earliest to it’s latest day I feel myself justified in unreserved professions of that sincere esteem with which I have the honour to be Dr. Sir your affte frd & servt.

P.S. I have closed my letter a little too hastily having omitted to apply the treaty of peace to this case. By the 6th. article of the treaty we have stipulated ‘that no prosecutions should be commenced against any person for the part they have taken in the present war and that no person shall on that account suffer any future loss or damage either in his person liberty or property’ &c. But loss or damage in every one of these points must ensue this proclamation if applied to you. To your property if you obey it, and to your person and liberty if you disobey it. This treaty is made in pursuance of powers given to our Commissioners by Congress; these powers were given by Congress in pursuance of authorities vested in them by the Confederation; the Confederation is a convention between all the states, not liable to be altered or repealed by any one of them but by such act as would in itself be a declaration of war, and of course it is of superior authority to any act of assembly. If it be objected that the treaty is only provisional, and not yet obligatory, it may be answered that the obligatory instrument may be expected every hour, that it would be beneath the dignity of a state to order out persons who may the next day return in defiance of it; and that when the articles of a compact are settled and ratified between two nations and nothing but the ceremonial of signature wanting, to be proceeding in direct contradiction to them, is neither consistent with the faith of an honest individual nor favourable to the character of a nation which has that character to establish, or (I wish I were not obliged to say) to retrieve.

Dft (DLC); written on four sheets of paper of varying size, some of which contain other writing; much corrected and interlined. Tr (photostat furnished by the late Dr. Maude Woodfin of Richmond, from an original whose location is unknown); this was evidently a contemporary copy and must have been made from the now missing RC. Tr has been useful in confirming illegible and semi-legible readings in Dft; it varies only slightly from Dft as corrected except that it lacks the postscript. A few of the deleted passages in Dft are recorded in the notes below.

On Philip Turpin see note to TJ to Thomas Turpin, 5 Feb. 1769, where it is erroneously stated that Philip Turpin went to Edinburgh to study law; as the present letter shows, his object was to study medicine (Turpin’s petition, referred to below, states “that when your petitioner was of a tender age and previous to the revolution he was sent by his father to Great Britain to finish his education and qualify himself for the exercise of the medical profession in his native country”). He is included as M.D., 1774, in Lewis’ “List of the American Graduates in Medicine in the University of Edinburgh,” New Engl. Hist. & Geneal. Reg., xlii (1888), 160. The act of … Oct. 1782 was “to prohibit intercourse with, and the admission of British subjects into this state” (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 136–8); the governor’s proclamation was issued as a result of the suspension of hostilities and “an abuse of … indulgences … [by] many evil disposed persons still obnoxious to the laws of this Commonwealth” (MS Va. Council Jour., 2 July 1783, Vi; a copy is in DLC: TJ Papers, 9: 1499–1503). At the surrender of Yorktown some thirty-six individuals were taken, “there being just cause to suspect that all … are disaffected to the Independence of the American states and attached to their enemies”; among these were such well-known Loyalists as William Skinner and Joseph Shoemaker. They were turned over to the public jailer at Yorktown by Gov. Nelson; Turpin was not among them (for the list of names of those taken and proceedings against them, see MS Va. Council Jour., 4 and 17 Dec. 1781; 11 Jan. 1782; 1 Mch. 1782).

The papers that Turpin showed TJ may have included testimonials that were prepared for presentation to the Governor and Council. These included: (1) a letter to Turpin from John Harris, London, 8 May 1783, who had been with Turpin at the surrender of Yorktown and who was “uneasy on Account of the Singular Predicament You was in when we were taken Prisoners”; Harris assured Turpin that he himself had taken every opportunity in Virginia to inform men of rank that “You came to Virginia a warm Friend to Your Country and with an Anxious Expectation of immediately returning to your Friends, and that you accepted of a Place in the Hospital only till such time as you should be able to get up the Country”; (2) a letter from Charles Scott to Gov. Harrison, Powhatan, 11 July 1783; as one taken prisoner at the fall of Charleston on 12 May 1780, Scott was there when Turpin, “some time in the Spring 81 … Came a Shore to my Quarters with Every Mark of Joy and Satisfaction that he had once more Put his foot on the American Shore”; Scott testified that Turpin was extremely anxious to accompany him to Virginia but that he could “by no means get Discharged from the Ship that he had come over in … untill he had procured a person to fill his office”; that one of the reasons actuating Turpin was his disinclination to part with his medical books which he felt he could never replace, though he said that he would give them up rather than lose the opportunity to return to Virginia; and that he had carried several letters from Turpin to friends in Virginia in which he had so warmly expressed his loyalty to America that Scott felt it necessary to advise him to be more discreet; (3) a letter from Peterfield Trent to Gov. Harrison, dated at Weir Hall, 12 July 1783, in which Trent affirmed that he had been asked by Turpin to appear at the Council meeting on 14 July 1783 since Turpin had stated that the Governor regarded him as being comprehended under the proclamation of 2 July; that he had received some “15 or 20 Letters” written by Turpin from England throughout the war in which he had urged “Americans not to give up their Rights and not to have any Divisions in their Councills”; that he knew Turpin had remained in England because of debts contracted there; that Turpin had written him from Charleston (presumably one of the letters carried back by Gen. Scott) saying “he was detained by the Enemy, but would leave them when in his power”; and that when Trent was “detained in York” before the surrender he had roomed with Turpin and heard him “enter into Arguments in favor of America with such warmth that some other Doctors said he was as great a Rebel as myself, or any other American” (this letter was sworn to before George Woodson, justice of the peace for Chesterfield, 13 July 1783); and (4) an undated letter from Alexander Trent, Jr., to Gov. Harrison stating that he had parted from Turpin in England in 1778; that Turpin had assured him he was “acting as Surgeon on board a ship for present subsistence, and with a view of acquiring by this means wherewith to support him to America”; and that his “situation on board appear’d very distressing as he was considered as a Reble and frequently call’d by that Epithet” (all of the foregoing are in Vi; the Trents are thought to have been related to the Turpins and Jeffersons, VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893- description ends , xxxiv [1926], p. 367.

There is nothing in the journal of the Council to show that Turpin appeared on 14 July 1783 or subsequently. But his petition to the “Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates” was read in the House on 5 Dec. 1783 and referred to the committee on propositions and grievances (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1783, 1828 edn., p. 48). This petition is in an unidentified hand, but it is, with some exceptions, a literal copy of that part of TJ’s present letter which consists of a statement of the facts in the case. Among these exceptions were the following: (1) the statement about Turpin’s having lived off the “charity of … friends 15 months” was altered to “a considerable time”; (2) the passage about returning to London in “the fall of 1777” and soliciting merchants was omitted; (3) the assertion that he took a berth in “one of the enemy’s ships” was changed to “a ship bound for New York on condition of serving to that post as surgeon but the ship deviating from her course went to Charles Town,” this elliptical statement omitting all of the matter in the corresponding passage of the present letter; (4) the statement that, on Cornwallis’ refusing a pass, Turpin “undertook to assist in the hospital department” was changed to show that the pass “was refused and your petitioner compelled to serve in the hospital department”; and (5) that part following an account of Nelson’s issuing a passport contained the additional passage: “he remained in quiet until it was suggested to him (to his very great astonishment) that he came within the description of the Governour’s Proclamation.” The petition concluded with the hope that, since Turpin could prove a “steady attachment to the liberty and independence of his native country,” the legislature would admit him to the full enjoyment of citizenship (Vi).

There are no serious contradictions in the documents here involved, but it is equally certain that less information was presented in the petition than had been gathered for presentation to the Governor and Council. The most conspicuous difference between the petition and the other documents (including the present letter from TJ) is that the former is so vague about dates and so careful to eliminate all specific references to dates or to periods of time elapsed as to suggest that this was purposeful. The same is true of the deletions in TJ’s rough draft, though to a lesser extent (see note 3, for example). This, together with the obvious fact of TJ’s unusual care in drafting the letter to Turpin, leads to the conclusion that TJ was engaged in making a case for his kinsman that the situation may not have warranted in a strict legal sense, in spite of Turpin’s evident loyalty. For, on a reconstruction of the chronology from various documents involved, the following is apparent: Turpin finished his studies in Edinburgh, went to Paris, and returned to London by the spring of 1776. For fifteen months, until the fall of 1777, he lived in the country with friends. He then took a berth on the stationed ship and served until April 1779. Next he went to London to procure passage, remaining there for six months (or until Sep. 1779). Then he returned to the stationed ship and served until the spring of 1780. Then he returned to London again “and got a passage to N. York on board a transport” but the “ship deviated” and went to Charleston instead. The last statement, which probably explains why TJ deleted the time sequence noted below (note 3), overlooks a stay of almost a year in London, from the spring of 1780 to the spring of 1781.

Several questions occur: (1) why, in 1776, when it was obvious that the difficulties between England and the colonies had already led to open hostilities, should Turpin have returned from Paris to London in order to obtain passage home? Remittances that were due could have reached him in Paris perhaps more readily than in London. (2) If Alexander Trent, a brother of Peterfield Trent who was obligated to send these remittances, could have left England in 1778, why could not Turpin have done so (Alexander Trent’s testimonial, cited above, begins: “Previous to my leaving England in 78 I frequently saw and convers’d with Dr. Turpin on the Affairs of America”)? (3) Why should Turpin have failed to point out in his petition that he had spent six months in London in 1779 and a whole year from 1780 to 1781 when he was not serving on the ship “bound for New York”? The conclusion is inescapable that, if Turpin had not had some other reason for remaining in London, these obviously purposeful omissions in chronology would not have been apparent in the various documents. That other reason, whatever it was, must not have touched his political views toward his native land; but it is equally apparent that if he had been as intent on returning as were Alexander Trent and others of his countrymen, he could have done so. At all events, the evidence of Turpin’s loyalty to America was persuasive and the committee reported favorably on 13 Dec. 1783. An Act granting him, John Wormeley, and Presley Thornton full citizenship was passed (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1783, 1828 edn., p. 59–60; Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 316). That part of the Act respecting Wormeley was qualified. He was born in Virginia but he had served in the British army during the war and had informed Council of his arrival in the state in May; that body, though conceding that he was “not literally a traitor,” yet thought he stood “in a higher degree of criminality than the subjects of England in general do,” and forbade his being admitted until authorized by law (MS Va. Council Jour., 17 May 1783; copy and press copy from it are in DLC: TJ Papers, 9: 1482–4). On 23 May the Council reconsidered and granted Wormeley permission to remain “’till further orders”; this permission, however, was canceled on 2 July when the Council received letters from a number of British subjects “announcing their arrival … and intention of remaining for the purpose of carrying on trade, and collecting their debts before the War” (MS Va. Council Jour., 23 May and 2 July 1783; copy and press copy of each are in DLC: TJ Papers, 9: 1485, 1496). The status of chaplains and surgeons was discussed in Sir Guy Carleton’s letter of 7 July 1782 to Washington and in Washington’s reply of 18 Aug. 1782 (Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxv, 38).

TJ’s argument on the treaty had the concurrence of Attorney General Edmund Randolph, who expressed the opinion to Madison that the proclamation of 2 July “carries the disagreeable idea, that the executive have adopted the spirit of the resolutions of the committees to the northward, who act as if the treaty were within their power of appeal” (Randolph to Madison, 12 July 1783, DLC: Madison Papers). Randolph also pointed out that the proclamation “draws forth every hour men, who seemed to have fixed themselves in all the rights of citizenship, to supplicate a little time, until they can arrange their domestic affairs. Among these is a doctor Turpin, the possessor of the most valuable lots for the purposes of government within the city. He is a native, was taken at York with a medical commission, as I am told, in his pocket, and has been suffered to remain here without interruption ever since. … But much toleration is due to those, who merely to avoid famine, to the danger of which they have been subjected by the prosecution of their studies, and to gain a fair opportunity of coming to his native country, have submitted to enter into the british service” (same to same, 18 July 1783, DLC: Madison Papers). A month later Randolph reported: “The governors proclamation expelling the obnoxious adherents to British interests, continues to give great disquiet to the friends of those, who fall within that description. Mr. Jefferson has taken Dr. Turpin by the hand, and in a long letter to him attempted to shew, that his case belongs not to the offensive class. … From these facts [as set forth in TJ’s letter respecting Turpin’s case], Tenderness is due Turpin. But I cannot admit, that the necessities of that gentleman would protect him from the operation of the law as it now stands; because they do not seem to have been incapable of being supplied thro channels which were not hostile. Mr. J. doubts whether surgeons ought to be ranked among the instruments of hostility, and refers to a proposition from Carlton to consider them as exempt from the rights of war. But I believe that he might find more examples than one of a surgeon being executed for treason in joining the king’s enemies” (same to same, 23 Aug. 1783, DLC: Madison Papers).

1The following passage is deleted in Dft: “In doing this I shall be obliged to hazard something because not being possessed of a complete collection of the acts and resolutions of assembly, some of these may escape me which should have their weight. These laws too are in a state of much confusion, the first passed on the subject having been amended from time to time and this not on a general and comprehensive view of the subject, but merely to remedy particular cases as these happened to arise.”

2Deleted in Dft: “for the same purpose of qualifying yourself as a Physician.”

3Deleted in Dft: “from April to Sep. 1779.”

4Deleted in Dft: “that you landed at Norfolk.”

5Preceding three words supplied from Tr.

6Deleted in Dft: “to the executive, who far from conceiving them as unfaithful to their country gave them.”

7Tr reads, more correctly: “last.”

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