Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Richard Harison and other District Attorneys, 12 August 1790

To Richard Harison and other District Attorneys

New York August 12th. 1790


It is desirable that Government should be informed what proceedings have taken place in the several States since the Treaty with Great Britain, which may be considered by that Nation as infractions of the Treaty, and consequently that we should be furnished with copies of all acts, orders, proclamations, and decisions, legislative, executive, or judiciary, which may have affected the debts or other property, or the persons, of british subjects or american refugees. The proceedings subsequent to the Treaty will sometimes call for those also which took place during the war. No person is more able than yourself, Sir, to furnish us with a list of the proceedings of this kind which have taken place within your State, nor is there any one on whom we may with more propriety rely for it, as well as to take the trouble of furnishing us with exact copies of them. Should you be so kind as to state any facts or circumstances which may enter into the justification or explanation of any of these proceedings, they will be thankfully received; and it is wished the whole may come to hand between this and the last of October.

While I am troubling you with this Commission, I am obliged to add a second, which, being undertaken at this time, will abridge the labour of the first. It is found indispensable that we be possessed here of a complete collection of all the printed Laws and Ordinances, ancient and modern of every State of the union. I must ask the favour of you, Sir, to have such a collection made for us, so far as relates to your State. The volumes of this collection which, being more modern, may be more readily found, I will ask the favour of you to send immediately by whatever conveyance you think safest and best; those more rarely to be had, you will be so good as to forward from time to time, as you can get them. For your reimbursement, be pleased to draw on me, only expressing in your draught that it is for ‘the laws of your State purchased and forwarded for the United States.’ Or if it should be more convenient to you, I will at any time send you an order from the Treasury for your reimbursement on the Collector most convenient to you. This shall be as you please.

Your zeal for the general service needs not to be excited by information that it is with the special approbation of the President of the United States that I address you on this occasion.—I have the honor to be with great regard Sir Your most obedient & Most humble Servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (Miss Elizabeth Harison, New York, 1950); at head of text: “(Circular)”; at foot of text: “Richard Harrison esquire”; in hand of George Taylor, signed by TJ. Recorded in SJL as to “Attorneys of districts. Circular.” This text is accompanied by the following memorandum in the hand of Henry Remsen, Jr.: “Note. There are already in the Office two Vols. of the Laws of New-York, Containing those passed from the first to the twelfth session inclusive, and published by Hugh Gaine under the superintendence of Samuel Jones and Richard Varick; those therefore are only wanted which will be requisite to complete this Set.” FC (DNA: RG 59, PCC No. 120); at head of text: “To the Attornies for the several Districts of the United States, Maine and Kentucky excepted.” Recipients’ copies of the circular addressed to William Channing, attorney for the Massachusetts district, and to George Read, Jr., attorney for the Delaware district, were sold in 1957 at the Forest G. Sweet Sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., Catalogue No. 1756. The above text is actually a signed press copy, indicative of the system TJ had long employed to make the copying press serve as a duplicating machine.

TJ’s initiation of this inquiry concerning possible infractions of the Treaty of Peace was anticipated by similar action of the British ministry more than a year earlier. On 24 Feb. 1789 the Committee of Merchants Trading to North America protested against the 1788 instalment law of South Carolina as being a “violent infraction of the Treaty of Peace” and also as “contrary to the Federal Constitution.” They asked protection of government and called attention to the fact that on former representations of infractions of the Treaty Congress had recommended in “the most pressing and honorable manner a repeal of the laws” (Memorial to Carmarthen, 24 Feb. 1789; Carmarthen to Bond, 4 Mch. 1789, PRO: FO 4/7; on Jay’s report and Congress’ appeal to the states, see Vol. 14: 79). On 18 June 1789 the Lords of the Committee for Trade directed Leeds to instruct consuls and other agents in America to report on duties imposed on tonnage by Congress or the states; on discrimination in port or tonnage duties; on the increase or diminution of grain, rice, tobacco, and other production and the natural, commercial, or political causes thereof; on the state of manufactures and bounties, premiums, or other encouragement for their increase; on the number of ships and their tonnage belonging to citizens of each state; on the number of ships and their tonnage that belonged to European nationals and entered American ports after 1783; on the number of indentured servants or redemptioners brought into the states from British dominions; on the emigrants from the states to other regions under American jurisdiction, whether for the purpose of establishing colonies or new governments or in order to settle in British-American colonies; on the increase or diminution of population; and on the proceedings of those who had gone from the states to settle on “the banks of the Great Lakes, the Ohio, the Missouri, and the Mississippi, with a view to establish themselves in those parts, to provide subsistence, to form governments, or to carry on any branch of commerce.” The fourth article of this comprehensive inquiry directed the consular and other agents to report on “what Laws have been made, and are now in force and what Rules or Regulations have been adopted by the Courts of Justice in the Countries belonging to the said United States, for obstructing the Recovery of debts owed by the subjects of the United States to British subjects or to the subjects of other Foreign Countries, or to deprive them of lawful Interest … or to oblige them to receive in payment depreciated Paper Currency or other Effects not equal in value to Sterling Money” (Lords of the Committee for Trade to Leeds, 18 June 1789; Leeds to Bond and other consuls, 30 June 1789, PRO: FO 4/7). The most comprehensive reports in response to this inquiry came from Bond (“Letters of Phineas Bond,” Ann. Rept. Am. Hist. Assn. for 1896, i, 513–659; same for 1897, p. 454–568; many of Bond’s important enclosures are only listed and should be consulted in PRO: FO 4). British merchants calculated the total debt at £4,764,364 11s as of 1 Jan. 1790, a figure that included a rough estimate of £2,000,000 in interest for the fourteen years after 1775. A year later the total was set at £4,930,656 13s 1d, including interest at “two million and upwards.” Of this total £2,305,408 19s 2d was of Virginia origin. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that, as George Hammond later conceded, the amounts were grossly exaggerated (PRO: FO 4/8, filed under the date given; the latter figure was presented 5 Feb. 1791 and the subtotals are to be found in S. F. Bemis, Jay’s Treaty description begins Samuel Flagg Bemis, Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy, New Haven, 1962, revised edn. description ends , p. 140). The merchants were more accurate and more useful to the ministry in compiling a record of legislative and judicial proceedings tending to impede recovery of debts. The resultant pamphlet, Abstract of the laws of the American states, now in force, relative to debts due to Loyalists, subjects of Great Britain, was printed in London in 1789 and enclosed in a memorial of Jan. 1790 (John Hamilton, Cumberland Wilson, and Robert Gilmore to Evan Nepean, Jan. 1790, PRO: FO 4/8).

all the printed laws: The resolution proposed by Vining on 23 July 1789 calling for the establishment of a home department required the secretary to procure copies of the printed laws of the several states (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials by Joseph Gales, Senior, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. The edition employed here is that which contains the running heads on verso and recto pages respectively: “Gales & Seatons History” and “of Debates in Congress.” Another printing, with the same title-page but with running heads on both recto and verso pages reading “History of Congress,” has a different pagination, so that pages cited in the edition employed here should be converted by subtracting approximately fifty-two from the number given in the citation. All editions are undependable. description ends , i, 692). The supplemental act creating the Department of State failed to make such a provision and the oversight was remedied by a joint resolution adopted immediately thereafter: “That it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to procure from time to time such of the statutes of the several states as may not be in his office” (18 Sep. 1789; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826– description ends , i, 114, 119, 120).

Index Entries