Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Knox, 19 April 1791

From William Knox

Dublin, 19 Apr. 1791. As stated in his of 26 Nov. last, he intended writing only half-yearly, but recent circumstances cause him to make earlier communication.

Impressment of seamen from American ships generally practised in England during late preparations against Spain: “commonly all the men were taken, and it was left to be proved afterwards that they were Americans born. If the proofs were such as a regulating captain approved of they were discharged, provided by sufferings … and want of provisions they had not been forced to enter for his Brittanick Majestys service. … no other circumstance than birth was admitted as constituting an American subject in England.” He learned on 11th from Belfast that all sailors on five American vessels were taken by Captain Mackay of Inspector, sloop of war. He applied at once to Mr. Hobart, secretary to Lord Lieutenant who acts as principal secretary of state and who informed him that only the Lords of the Admiralty could afford relief. On his advice he applied to Mr. Stephens, secretary, and also wrote to Belfast urging every means to prevent sailors from being sent to Plymouth or Portsmouth. Yesterday in reply from thence he learned all save five had been returned, and these had been sent to Plymouth as British subjects, although some of them had been married and settled at Philadelphia 22 years.—He immediately warned American vessels at Limerick, Londonderry, Cork, and Newry but knew of no impressments at those ports. Three American vessels were in Dublin when news came from Belfast, but their departure was hastened, and before the press on the evening of the 14th they had cleared.—It is an object of great consequence to American commerce for regulation between U.S. and England determining American citizenship exclusive of birth. It is also important that all American sailors coming to British dominions should have their names in manifests as part of ship’s attested papers, giving birth, size, age, and particular proofs. Under existing circumstances a captain may be induced to swear they are American born when they are not. A consul requesting release of impressed men on oath of a captain may thereby make himself liable to very unfavorable imputations to himself and his country.

He recommends a Mr. Pearce of Manchester, “an artist of extraordinary merit” about to sail for Boston who had been induced to visit Ireland “by a Mr. McCabe an eminent watchmaker of Belfast a man of considerable property, and of great mechanical genius. They have lately been associated in an application to the Parliament of this Country for encouragement to a loom of Mr. Pearce’s construction, which is simple, cheap, and calculated to turn out more work with the labor of one person than … by two in some articles and three in others. This man will be a great acquisition to our Country where the high price of labor operates as a bar to the establishing of manufactories.” He encloses a paper showing capabilities of the invention and also the report of a committee of the House of Commons on their petition. McCabe and Pearce are not satisfied with terms offered and latter goes to America. Knox did not think proper to give him a letter but promised to inform TJ of his plan: he “will … wait on you in Philadelphia, when I do not Doubt, he will give such proofs of his being an highly valuable acquisition to the United States, as to insure your protection and support.”—Heavy storms during winter have very much injured American trade with Ireland, six vessels, chiefly from Philadelphia, have been lost, but no lives. The Clara, a large ship from New York, was wrecked on 23d. Feb. 2 or 3 miles from Dublin. “In disasters of this kind it too frequently happens both on the Irish and English coasts, that the people endeavor to plunder all they can.” In this case when the captain asked him for protection, he applied to the Lord Mayor, who provided a civil officer and army guard, so that enough was recovered to pay expenses and wages of the men, who have all had passages provided for them to their own country.

RC (DNA: RG 59, CD); at head of text: “(No.2)”; endorsed by TJ as received 16 July 1791 and so recorded in SJL. Dupl (same); with the following postscript not in RC: “The only two printed papers I had were enclosed in the original letter via Liverpool. —I take the liberty of enclosing the copy of a Letter to Mr. Stephens Secretary to the British Admiralty, and his answer, by which it seems pretty clearly Demonstrated that the English Government is Determined for the present not to relinquish the Idea, that no seaman born in his Brittanick Majestys Dominions can transfer his allegiance. Dublin May 7th. 1791”; endorsed by TJ as received 15 Aug. 1791 and so recorded in SJL.

Enclosures with RC: (1) Copy of approval of Knox’ appointment as consul, signed by Grenville for the King, 8 Nov. 1790, and registered by R. Hobart at Dublin Castle, 4 Dec. 1790. (2) Receipt for £1–12–6 from William Taylor, Dublin Castle, 17 Dec. 1790, for entering Knox’ commission. (3) Receipt for £2–5–0 from William Mossop, Dublin, 17 Dec. 1790, for engraving consular seal. (4) Printed sheet issued by Thomas McCabe and William Pearce announcing that “Two Artists from Belfast” had invented a superior loom for weaving linen and cotton by which a very good workman, who in 64 hours would weave 30 yards of “900 Callico on a loom of the present Construction,” would weave 59¼ yards of the same quality on the new one in 52 hours and 45 minutes; affidavits of “three intelligent Weavers” substantiating the facts with regard to the present mode of working, together with those of “the Rev. Dr. Bruce, and Mr. David Manson, Mathematician, of Belfast” with regard to the new loom; two pieces of “Callico woven on the new Construction” were stated to be in Dublin in the hands of one of the artists. The inventors further stated that in weaving linen their loom could produce more than double the quantity in the same time and of superior quality, as shown by the even and straight selvage consistently reproducible because done by machinery and not dependent on “the manual Dexterity of the Artist.” They claimed that their loom was “extremely simple in its Construction, not liable to go out of Order, and easily repaired,” and at six to six and a half guineas would cost little more than the present ones. (5) Printed “Report on the Petition of Thomas Macabe and William Pearsce,” dated 14 Feb. 1791, by a committee of the House of Commons, giving an appraisal of their loom by several dealers in linen and a professor of natural philosophy of Trinity College. The Committee reported that the loom could weave cotton and linen “with more expedition, ease and perfection” than the common loom; that it was “simple in its construction, easily kept in order,” and would not cost “double the price of a common loom”; and that it would be highly advantageous to the linen and cotton manufactures of the kingdom. Enclosures with Dupl: (1) Copy of Knox to Philip Stephens, 12 Apr. 1791, asking that instructions be given as soon as possible to prevent impressment of American seamen and to restore those already taken. (2) Copy of Stephens to Knox, 21 Apr. 1791, stating that directions had been sent by that post to Captain Drury of the Squirrel to discharge the impressed seamen provided he should have good reason to believe that they were “actually Natives of any of the provinces belonging to the United States”; and that the Lords of the Admiralty did not deem it necessary to give particular instructions to officers of the navy not to impress such persons as they were “already restrained from impressingForeigners, and the natives of those provinces must be considered in that light.” All enclosures are in DNA: RG 59, CD.

Knox did not see fit to inform TJ that a letter of recommendation to the Secretary of State on behalf of William Pearce had been solicited by Thomas Digges. But, like many others, he had some reservations about the self-appointed sponsor of Pearce and other English artisans whom he encouraged to emigrate to America—an activity which the laws of England and Ireland forbade. Knox had inquired of Joshua Johnson about the man and Johnson, who had known Digges and his family in Maryland, responded: “I am always unwilling to say any thing of a man, unless I could that which is pleasing: be cautious of T. D.” (Johnson to Knox, 18 Apr. 1791, DNA: RG 59, CD; MNP 167/1). For other comments about Digges and his letters of introduction to TJ and the President recommending Pearce, see note to Digges to TJ, 28 Apr. 1791.

Knox’ assumption that American seamen would continue to be impressed if they were native-born Britons, no matter how long they had resided in the United States as citizens, was well-founded. The doctrine of an indefeasible allegiance which could be severed only by consent of the sovereign had been imbedded in the common law for centuries (see note on impressment of Hugh Purdie and others, 17 Dec. 1790). TJ was one of the first to challenge this doctrine and to endeavor to replace it with the right of voluntary expatriation “which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them” (Summary View, 1774; see Vol. 1:121). This was a position which he never surrendered (see TJ to Gallatin, 26 June 1806).

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