Thomas Jefferson Papers

Jefferson’s Outline of Argument Concerning Insubordination of Esek Hopkins, 12 August 1776

Jefferson’s Outline of Argument Concerning Insubordination of Esek Hopkins


Aug. 12. 1783.1

The Commodore’[s] excuse for not going to Southern colonies agreeable to orders.

Before he left capes of Delaware, he heard the Liverpool was joined to Ld. Dunmore, which made enemy an overmatch, and many of his men sea sick.

He did not go to N. Carolina because [he] received intelligence the enemy’s force had gone from there and from S. Cara. to Georgia. (His men recovered as he got to the Southward)

He did not go to S. Carola for same reason and because [he] had no pilots.

He did not go to Georgia because enemy’s ships as he heard were all there and too strong.

He appointed Abaco as a rendezvous, and to wait there 15 days for each other; he chose that place because nearer to Georgia than to S. Carolina.

He got there with all his fleet except the Fly and Hornet, and as he was to wait 15 days for them he thought he might as well form [an] expedition somewhere. He heard from (a whaler I believe) that there was 200 barrels of powder cannon &c. at [New] Providence belonging to king. He therefore went there. But the night he arrived the Governor removed the powder. He took the cannon.

He did not go to Savanna because while at Providence he heard all the enemy’s fleet had assembled there and were too strong for him.

On his return Northwardly he took a bomb brig for which [he] received thanks of Congress.

He carried [the] cannon to Rhode-isld. rather than to the Carolinas because [they were] not wanting in the Carolinas, and he thot he could get more safely into Rhode isld.

He did not deliver them to Govr of Connecticut as ordered by Congress, because he had them as ballast, and found he could not get ballast at N Lond[on] without sending to N. York, a delay which he could not admit. As Gen. Washington wrote him he apprehended the enemy would attempt to block him up in N. London.

He delivered them to Govr. Cook of Rh. isld. because he offered him pig iron as ballast in lieu of them, and Govr. Cook undertook to deliver them to order of Congress.

After he returned from Providence he was not at liberty to go to the Carolinas because his instructions directed him to go to Rh. isld.

Had not pilots to carry him into inlets of N. Carolina or over Charles town bar.

Commodore did not send vessel for intelligence into Southern colonies because both Fly and Hornet parted with her within 2 days after [they] sailed, in bad weather. The hornet never joined him, the Fly not till he got to Providence.

A clause in his instructions authorized him to depart from his instructions if in his discretion he thought it for the public good. If he was mistaken then it was no crime.

Instructions are never given positively and it is right they should not be, because of change of circumstances.


  • The Commodore had a premeditated design not to go to the Southern colonies but to Providence
  • Because he did not send into Chesapeak for certain intelligence.
  • Because he did not send his vessel of intelligence into N. Carolina but only sais he heard enemy had left that place whereas in truth the Cruiser remained there alone and had above 50 prizes with her.
  • Because he did not send in to So Carolina for intelligence.
    • He had better [have] gone there for rendezvous than to Abaco because Gadsden had promised him on seeing signals to send out Pilot boats.
    • Because he might have crossed the bar
    • Because it was nearer to Georgia than Abaco was.
  • Because 2 days before he got to Abaco he told Major Nicholas he was to go to Providence, whereas he sais in his defence he did not intend to go there till he reached Abaco, (the rendezvous appointed) and then finding the Fly and Hornet separated he thought he might as well employ the time of 15 days which was agreed on to wait there, in some expedition.
  • The not meeting the Fly and Hornet could not prevent him from going to Savannah because they were mere vessels of intelligence, not of force. They only carried, one of them swivels, the other 3. or 4 ℔ers.
  • There was no cannon in N. Carola, so were much wanting there.
  • He was furnished with 2 vessels on purpose to procure sure intelligence to direct his motions, particularly the Fly a very swift vessel was bought and fitted out on purpose.
  • After the expedition to Providence why did not he then go to Carolinas or Southern colonies, that being not only the main object of his expedition, but in truth the object of equipping the Navy.
  • His management of engagement with Glasgow shews he wanted skill and activity.
  • Cannon not wanting for ballast because two of his officers say she had still the ballast with which she had gone to Providence and returned.
  • He ought to have obeyed Congress in delivering cannon. Tho’ he was come out of the harbor of New London with the cannon on board, he ought to have returned with them.
  • Objection that he had no pilots to carry him into inlets of N. Carolina and bar of Charles town not good, because he knew that (if true) when he set out: why did not he inform naval committee before he went that it might have be[en] provided for, or delegates [have] taken proper measures. Besides as to Charles town, Gadsden had agreed with him.
  • From Chas. town to Georgia 1 day’s sail, from Abaco to Georgia 2 days sail.
  • Fort Johnston had more king’s cannon than Providence; if cannon had been his object [he] might have gone and taken them.
  • At the time he returned from Providence there was the Cruiser and a tender with Govr. Martin waiting to join highlanders and 16 mi. below them were a number of transports with Clinton’s army.
  • He had the Wasp with him a small vessel proper to send in for intelligence
  • From Ch[arles] to[wn] bar to Savanna bar 70. miles. From Abaco is 3 times as far.
  • Besides it was in Winter season when Northerly winds prevail which prevent his coming from Abaco to Savanna and facilitate it from Charles town
  • The objection is [not] that he did not exercise an honest discretion in departing from his instructions but that he never did intend to obey them.
  • True all instructions have [a] discretionary clause. This proves they have some positive intention, otherwise there was never a positive instruction and never a disobedience of orders, which is not true.
  • Since return from Providence the fleet has merely acted in defence of trade of Eastern colonies.

MS (DLC: TJ Papers, 9: 1525, 1525a); entirely in TJ’s hand, in his abbreviated style but here expanded, with some words being conjecturally supplied in brackets; misdated (see note 1). As now arranged in DLC, MS appears as two separate sheets, long and narrow, with f.1525 being two inches shorter than f.1525a (although no text is lost). These sheets were once conjugate (and of course the same size) as proved by the fact that “N.Lond.” appears part on one and part on other, so that the text on the verso of one belongs to the text on the recto of the other. Reconstructed as a single sheet having the text in parallel columns on both recto and verso, Commodore Hopkins’ excuse appears as the left-hand column in each case and TJ’s argument in rebuttal appears on the right. The former is designated as part i and the latter as part ii (numbers supplied).

The orders to Esek Hopkins (1718–1802), first commander of the navy, were issued to him on 5 Jan. 1776, and, although permitting him some latitude in case bad weather “or any other unforeseen accident or disaster” prevented their execution, directed him to proceed southward to the Chesapeake Bay where a flotilla under Ld. Dunmore was harassing the commerce of his former province, then to continue to the Carolina coast to oppose British naval units in those waters, and finally to return northward for similar operations off Rhode Island. Ice delayed Hopkins’ departure for a month, during which time he instructed the captains of his eight vessels, in case of separation, to proceed to Abacco, one of the Bahamas, and to wait there a fortnight for the arrival of the other vessels. Hopkins had learned of powder and military supplies on the British island of New providence, another of the Bahamas, and even sympathetic accounts concede that this base was his objective from the beginning (Edward Field, Esek Hopkins, Providence, R.I., 1898, p.94–7, 101). Leaving Philadelphia on 17 Feb. 1776, he arrived at the rendezvous on 1 Mch. with six vessels, the hornet and the fly having become separated by storms from the fleet. He then seized Forts Montague and Nassau on New Providence, employing a force of marines under Major Nicholas (Captain Samuel Nichols, who was promoted by Congress on 25 June 1776), and captured 103 cannon, a large quantity of shot and other military supplies, but only 24 barrels of gunpowder, the British governor having removed the greater part of the 200 barrels before capitulating. Hopkins then sailed directly to New England, took several prizes on the way, including the bomb brig Bolton, engaged the 20-gun Glasgow off Newport on 6 Apr.—the affair in which little skill and activity was displayed-put in at New London on 8 Apr., unloaded most of the stores, and sent some of the cannon to his old seafaring friend, Gov. Cook of Rhode Island, instead of turning all of them over to Gov. Trumbull of Connecticut as ordered by Congress (Field, Hopkins, 120–4; G. W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, New York, 1913, i, 96–100; Malcolm Lloyd, Jr., “Taking of the Bahamas by the Continental Navy in 1776,” PMHB description begins Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1877- description ends , xlix [1925], 349–66).

The result of this enterprise brought some acclaim to Hopkins, but complaints from his seamen, reports of sickness, insubordination, and generally bad conditions in the fleet, and espe cially the commander’s continued inactivity caused an outburst of criticism. On 8 May 1776 Congress appointed a special committee of seven, headed by John Adams, to “enquire how far commodore Hopkins has complied with … instructions.” A month later the marine committee reported receiving complaints against Hopkins and two of his captains for “breaches of orders, and other mal-practices.” Congress ordered the three officers “immediately to repair to Philadelphia, to answer for their conduct.” The marine committee reported that the charges against Captain Dudley Saltonstall were not well founded and that Captain Abraham Whipple was guilty of “nothing more than a rough, indelicate mode of behaviour to his marine officers,” where upon Congress, on 11 July, ordered those officers to resume their commands. The next day the special committee was discharged and the marine committee, including one member from each state, was given the powers formerly granted the special committee, plus the task of investigating complaints received against Hopkins. On 2 Aug. the committee brought in its report, which was ordered to lie on the table, and three days later Hopkins petitioned Congress to be heard in his own defense. The hearing was granted, and on 12 Aug. Hopkins appeared, heard the record of the examination and the report of the marine committee read to him, and then, on his withdrawal, Congress began its debate. This was resumed on 15 Aug. and concluded on the following day.

There is no doubt that in this debate much sectional feeling was displayed. John Adams, who was Hopkins’ chief defender, thought that he had “done great service” and that he was being “pursued and persecuted by that anti-New-England spirit which haunted Congress in many other of their proceedings” (Adams, Works, ed. C. F. Adams, iii, 65). Edward Rutledge of South Carolina found Hopkins “totally unfit for the Department” and thought his “Excuses … trifling to the last Degree” (Rutledge to Robert R. Livingston, [19 Aug. 1776], Burnett, Letters of Members description begins Edwin C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Washington, 1921–1936, 8 vols. description ends , ii, No. 85). There was some hostility in New England, but the fact that the representative of Rhode Island in Congress and on the marine committee was Stephen Hopkins, brother of the commodore, created in some members “a tenderness or rather a weakness” on the question of censure lest he resign from Congress in “Consequence of the Thunder of the House” (same). But on 16 Aug. Congress found that “the conduct of Commodore Hopkins deserves the censure of this house.” Six states supported the motion to censure, three opposed it, and three were divided (John Adams to Abigail Adams, 18 Aug. 1776; same, ii, No.84). Three days later Congress ordered Hopkins to resume his command, and he continued in service until further charges of neglect and insubordination brought about his dismissal early in 1778 (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937, 34 vols. description ends , iv, 335–7; v, 439, 545, 628, 641, 648, 658–9, 662; Field, Hopkins, p. 154–6).

TJ’s searching brief for his argument against Hopkins is evidently the most extended record of any part of the debate that has survived. Jefferson was not a member of the special committee or of the marine committee, but he could have obtained the commodore’s answers to the marine committee at any time after that committee reported on 2 Aug. 1776 (or perhaps before, through Benjamin Harrison, representative of Virginia on the committee). With these in hand, he had some days in which to prepare the summary of Hopkins’ answers that he set down in the left-hand column of the MS as it was in its original state, opposing them with the elaborate rebuttal that he evidently delivered on the day that Hopkins appeared in his own defense. This, like the similar outline of argument in support of his resolution later in 1776 in the Virginia Assembly to discontinue the establishment of the church, provides one of the few records available of his forensic efforts as a legislator (see Vol. i: 535–9).

1Thus in MS, an error for 12 Aug. 1776. During 1783 TJ went through his papers for the early years of the Revolution, made a copy of “the debates in Congress on the subjects of Independence, Voting in Congress, and the Quotas of money to be required from the states,” and evidently rearranged the mass of papers which had got in “confusion … going to and from Baltimore” (TJ to Madison, 1 June 1783). It was probably during this rearrangement of his papers that he noticed the present MS bearing the date “Aug.12.” or perhaps not having any date at all (the latter seems more likely as all elements of the date appear to have been made at one writing). He thereupon committed one of the commonest of all errors, and the MS has been filed under 1783 ever since.

Index Entries