Thomas Jefferson Papers

Jefferson’s Report on the Petition of a Hessian Deserter, 24 February 1791

Jefferson’s Report on the Petition of a Hessian Deserter

The Secretary of State having had under consideration the Petition of Nicholas Ferdinand Westphal, to him referred by the House of Representatives, and having made such inquiry into the facts alledged as the case admits, makes thereon the following


It appears by the affidavit of the Petitioner (the best evidence the nature of the case admits) that he was a Sergeant Major in the British service in the earlier part of the late war: that he was induced by certain handbills, dispersed in their Camp, to desert from Fort Edward and to bring off his whole picquet, consisting of 12 men, which he did on the 8th. of August 1777. that after great hardships and dangers he arrived on the 17th. of the same month at the American Camp at Stillwater, with only 5 of his men whom he presented with himself to the American commanding officer, by whose orders he brought the men on to Philadelphia, where they were permitted to disperse: the facts of his desertion and bringing to the American Camp a part of a picquet being confirmed by the certificate of General St. Clair.

It appears that the Petitioner afterwards retired into the Country, and married; that after the war he sent his wife and two children to Hanover, by the way of Hamburg, to endeavour to recover his property there, from whence they returned without having been able to do it: that he is, by an accident, disabled permanently from labour, and is, with his wife and three children, in a very indigent and helpless condition.

It appears by a Resolution in the printed Journals of August 27th. 1776, that Congress promised to every non commissioned officer who should leave the service of the Enemy and become a Citizen of these States one hundred acres of unappropriated lands: and moreover that where officers should bring with them a number of foreign soldiers they would (besides the lands promised to the said officers and soldiers) give “to such officers further rewards proportioned to the numbers they should bring over, and suited to the nature of their wants”; which Resolution was translated into German, printed in handbills, sent into the Enemy’s Camp and there circulated.

The Secretary of State seeking for principles whereon to estimate the further reward promised by the said Resolution of Congress, considering that a Soldier withdrawn from an Enemy saves the necessity and consequently the expences of raising one on our part: that the first expences of raising a soldier were, by the Resolution of June 26th. 1776, 10 dollars of bounty in money, and by that of September 6th. 1777, a bounty of clothes estimated in the Resolution at 47.67 dollars, and worth at the then rate of depreciation 46.14 dollars of silver, the two articles making together 56.14 dollars on each soldier: that the Petitioner having brought 5 others with him, saved these first expences on 6 men, amounting to 336.84 dollars. That in relinguishing this benefit to the officer, there will yet remain to the United States the saving of the subsequent expences of annual pay, clothing and subsistence:

Is of opinion that one hundred acres of unappropriated lands should be granted to the Petitioner free of all charges, and that there be paid to him as a further reward the sum of 336.84 dollars with interest thereon at the rate of 6 per cent per annum from the 17th. of August 1777 until paid.

Th: Jefferson
Feb. 24. 1791.

PrC (DLC); in clerk’s hand except for signature; accompanied by unsigned PrC of Tr of TJ’s letter of transmittal. FC (DNA: RG 59, Record of Reports of Thomas Jefferson, p. 286–9); with House resolution of 16 Feb. 1791 referring to Secretary of State, with instructions to examine and report upon “A petition of Nicholas Ferdinand Westfall … praying a gratuity of lands and other advantages promised by the late Congress to those who would quit the British service, in consideration of his having left that service, and joined the American Army, during the late war.” Entry in SJPL reads: “[1791. Feb.] 24. Report Th: J. on Westphal’s petition and claim.”

The House of Representatives accepted TJ’s recommendation as to the grant of lands and the sum of money but did not award interest, whereupon Westphal entered another petition at the next session of Congress asking interest as recommended in the report. That petition was referred to a committee appointed to bring in a bill for compensating widows, orphans, and invalids in certain cases (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826- description ends , i, 380, 391, 394, 446). TJ himself was author of the resolution … of August 27th. 1776 offering lands to Hessian officers who should desert, as he was almost certainly the one who drafted that of a similar purport of 14 Aug. 1776 addressed to Hessian soldiers (see Vol. 1: 509–10, note). As adopted, the resolution of 27 Aug. 1776 applied only to deserters who left the British army before recall of the offer; TJ’s draft included the additional precaution of a terminal date, but this was eliminated by Congress (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937, 34 vols. description ends , v, 708).

This highly interesting propaganda effort of 1776, aided by Franklin’s ingenious suggestions, was aimed at the Hessian troops then occupying Staten Island. Despite its initial promise, the plan was not successful. Because of this and particularly in view of the fact that Westphal’s desertion took place a year later, in another army, and on the northern frontier, some doubt is cast upon his assertion that he was induced to desert by handbills distributed among the mercenaries. It has been estimated that several thousand Hessians did desert before and after Saratoga (A. B. Faust, German element in the United States, i, 356; see also A. J. Wall, “The Story of the Convention Troops,” nyhs, Bull., xi [1927], 92, showing that 785 of the Convention Troops deserted from Oct. 1777 to Aug. 1779). If other deserters had rested claims on the ground chosen by Westphal, TJ’s report could have established a costly precedent. But the man’s indigence, St. Clair’s affidavit, and perhaps other circumstances induced him to accept the petitioner’s affidavit at face value.

A single copy of the handbill containing the German text of the resolution of 14 Aug. 1776 exists in the German State Archives at Marburg and is reproduced in L. H. Butterfield, “Psychological warfare in 1776: the Jefferson-Franklin plan to cause Hessian desertions,” Am. Phil. Soc., Procs., 94 (1950): 233–41. If Westphal’s affidavit may be relied on, the handbill that induced him to desert was a comparable German text of the resolution of 27 Aug. 1776, of which no example is known to exist.

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