Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Philip Wilson, 16 July 1791

From Philip Wilson

London, 16 July 1791. On 4 Feb. he sent TJ a schedule and affidavit of the truth of papers furnished through Judge McKean and now encloses a further petition concerning those “most oppressive evasions and wrongs.”—Relying on TJ’s humane character, he hopes for his official attention to a matter of such striking injustice done to “a once prosperous Merchant, now Empoverished; not by his own Errours; but from National, or Governmental, breach of Duty, Honour, and Justice, by a breach of an agreement come under between the British and American Governments, on both of which I have a claim of Justice.”

Tr (DNA: RG 76, British Spoliations); at head of text: “Duplicate”; at foot of text: “then from No. 57 Marsham-street Westminster London.” Records in SJL show that one version of text was received 27 Oct. 1791 and another 10 Feb. 1792.

An account of Philip Wilson’s long and unsuccessful effort to obtain redress for the loss of his ship Mentor is given in the note to TJ to McKean, 23 Dec. 1790. The documents which TJ returned with that letter are to be found in Wilson’s transcripts of his various appeals in DNA: RG 76, British Spoliations. The schedule mentioned as having been transmitted in Wilson’s letter of 4 Feb. 1791 may be found in the same series, but that letter, recorded in SJL as received 2 Apr. 1791, is missing. With the above, Wilson enclosed his petition, dated at Westminster 16 July 1791, “To his Excellency the most Honourable President, Vice-President, Senators; and the Right Honourable Congress of the United States of North America.” In this Wilson referred to his three former petitions of 11 Mch. and 4 and 31 July 1790 and stated that, on “the 3d of February last,” he had sent to “the Honourable Thomas Jefferson…Secretary of Foreign and Domestick affairs” a schedule of fifteen papers with documents from the High Court of Admiralty concerning his case; that he hoped for a remonstrance from the United States against the injury done him by the British government in “this complicated Act of Wrong and breach of Treaty and Law”; and that he had left at the Treasury Office accounts proving the cost of Mentor and a manifest of her cargo showing his total damages to be £11,797–6–3½ sterling. In the course of this petition Wilson quoted the full text of his appeal to the Lords Commissioners of Appeals for Prize Causes, in which he stated that, in response to a petition to the Senate of the United States, he had been assured a claim for the destruction of Mentor would be made “by the American Ambassador that may in time be sent to the English Court,” but that in the meantime he might perish in prison and his family be destitute for food. He therefore prayed for a recommendation to the Privy Council urging immediate relief. This petition, as recorded in the one enclosed with the above letter, was dated at Westminster 19 May 1791. Two days later, as Wilson set forth in his petition to the American government, he attended the Privy Council and “went up to the head of the Board where the Lord President Earl of Camden, and Mr. Pitt the Minister sat; and begged of their Lordships, Justice and immediate relief; and told Mr. Pitt that he had delivered his papers at the Treasury Office twelve months ago agreeable to his instructions: The Earl of Camden got up and, rather warmly, said ‘We can do nothing more for you here, we have recommended your Case,’ and…(lowering his eyes and voice towards Mr. Pitt and the petitioner) said ‘It is a compassionate Case,’ and, as Mr. Pitt was going away without answering, His Lordship the Earl of Camden, stoped him and, it is supposed, told him of the petitioner’s application to the American Government, or Senate of the United States.”

Camden’s compassion drove Wilson to frame another petition to the Lords Commissioners of Appeals and the Privy Council, dated 25 May 1791, which he also quoted at length in the appeal enclosed in the above letter. In the former he declared that his was” ‘a compassionate Case’ not from want of Right by Law, but from the scanty and wrong dispensations thereof, in the High Court of Admiralty; and from the breach of the Statutes of this Country, and of hospitality to the pauper in Doctors Commons; as well as from the Delay of Duty in his Majesty’s Government.” In consequence, after reciting at length the proceedings which he regarded as a miscarriage of justice, Wilson asked a review of his case on appeal that he might not “sink in the distinction between Legal Right and Compassion; but receive some immediate relief” (quoted in Wilson’s petition to the President and Congress, 16 July 1791; DNA: RG 76, British Spoliations; endorsed by TJ).

TJ did not respond to the above appeal, nor did he submit the petition to Congress. He probably saw no need even to consult the President on the matter. While SJL shows that TJ received letters from Wilson dated 28 Nov. 1791, 28 Mch. and 3 Dec. 1792, 27 July 1797, 28 July 1798, 25 Mch. 1801, 13 and 15 Apr. 1802, 17 June 1804, and 28 Jan. and 15 July 1805—most of which are missing—there is no evidence that he ever responded to any official or private communication from the unfortunate man. He did, however, recommend his case to the attention of the new minister to Great Britain (TJ to Pinckney, 11 June 1792). Possibly Wilson’s imprudence in making statements to the British government to the effect that the Senate had assured him it would espouse his claim, together with other assertions set forth in the two petitions quoted in that to the American government, influenced TJ’s attitude of aloofness. Wilson had a far more defensible claim at law than that of William Green and his brig Rachel which Joshua Johnson prosecuted with such vigor and which TJ also handled with silence (see Editorial Note and group of documents at 31 May 1791). But the owner of Mentor, while earning the compassion of Camden and others, was not his own best advocate. In his petition to the Lords Commissioners of Appeals and the Privy Council of 25 May 1791 Wilson added this postscript: “The petitioner not having Legal Counsel nor a Proctor assigned to him, wishes to express himself as inoffensively and well as he can, so as to be Clear and Intelligible.” This he did, but without success even in a good cause and before sympathetic officials.

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