Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 7 February 1792

To George Washington

Philadelphia February 7th. 1792


An account presented to me by Mr. John B. Cutting, for expenditures incurred by him in liberating the seamen of the United States in British ports during the impressments which took place under that government in the year 1790, obliges me to recall some former transactions to your mind.

You will be pleased to recollect the numerous instances of complaint or information to us, about that time, of the violences committed on our seafaring citizens in British ports by their press-gangs and officers; and that not having even a Consul there at that time, it was thought fortunate that a private citizen, who happened to be on the spot, stept forward for their protection; that it was obvious that these exertions on his part must be attended with expence, and that a particular demand of £50 sterling for this purpose coming incidentally to my knowledge, it was immediately remitted to Mr. Cutting, with a request to account for it in convenient time. He now presents an account of all his expenditures in this business, which I have the honor to communicate herewith.

According to this the oppression extends to a much greater number of our citizens, and their relief is more costly than had been contemplated. It will be necessary to lay the account before the legislature; because the expenditures being of a description which had not occurred before, no appropriation heretofore made would authorize payment at the Treasury; because too the nature of the transactions may in some instances require justly, that the ordinary rules of evidence which the Auditor is bound to apply to ordinary cases, should suffer relaxations, which he probably will not think himself authorized to admit, without the orders of the legislature.

The practice in Great Britain of impressing seamen whenever War is apprehended, will fall more heavily on ours, than on those of any other foreign nation, on account of the sameness of language. Our minister at that court therefore will on those occasions, be under the necessity of interfering for their protection, in a way which will call for expence. It is desireable that these expences should be reduced to certain rules, as far as the nature of the case will admit, and the sooner they are so reduced the better. This may be done however on surer grounds after the government of Great Britain shall have entered with us into those arrangements on this particular subject, which the seriousness of the case calls for on our part, and it’s difficulty may admit on theirs. This done, it will be desireable that legislative rules be framed which may equally guide and justify the proceedings of our Minister, or other agent, at that court, and at the same time extend to our seafaring citizens, the protection of which they have so much need.

Mr. Cutting, being on the spot, will himself furnish the explanations and documents of his case, either to the legislature, or a committee of it, or to the Auditor, as he shall be required.—I have the honor to be with sentiments of the most perfect esteem & respect, Sir, Your most obedient & most humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); in Remsen’s hand, except for complimentary close and signature in TJ’s hand; endorsed by Lear. Enclosure: “The United States in account with John Brown Cutting,” 30 Jan. 1792, in which Cutting claimed that he had expended $6,786.41 “in behalf of impressed american seamen” and paid $555.78 in interest for the same purpose between 19 June and 22 Oct. 1790; that he had received $226.67 from TJ on 12 Feb. 1791 and earned $13.11 in interest on it; and that in sum the United States government owed him $7,102.41. PrC (DLC). FC (DNA: RG 360, DL). Tr (DNA: RG 59, SDC); lacks statement of accounts. Entry in SJPL reads: “[Feb. 7.] Th: J. to G. W. Letter on J. B. Cutting’s accounts.” TJ also enclosed a letter of transmittal for Washington to the House of Representatives dated 7 Feb. 1792, entirely in Remsen’s hand (Dft in DNA: RG 59, MLR; PrC in DLC); Washington submitted an almost identical letter the next day to the Senate and House of Representatives (Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, 1931-44, 39 vols. description ends , xxxi, 477).

Despite TJ’s support, Cutting failed to obtain the compensation to which he felt entitled. His assistance to over 700 American seamen who were either impressed or threatened with impressment by the British had occurred during the Nootka Sound crisis in 1790 when he was in London. Yet his efforts to obtain full reimbursement for his expenditures on their behalf suffered from two serious defects, the most serious of which was his inability to produce ordinary rules of evidence in support of his claims. He lacked the necessary vouchers because many of his actions and expenditures had been contrary to British law. “In order to extricate American seamen from the tyranny of a British impress,” as he later explained, “it was necessary, not only to exercise all the faculties of the mind, and all the strength of the body, but also, to engage Englishmen in enterprizes obnoxious to the penal laws of the kingdom; to invite the civilities of subordinate officers by pecuniary gratifications; and, in short, to insure success, for so interesting an undertaking, by the seasonable application of bribes” (John Brown Cutting, Facts and Observations, Justifying the Claims of John Browne Cutting, Citizen of the United States, against the United States; in a Letter Addressed to the Secretary of State [Philadelphia, 1795], p. 5–6). Compounding this problem was Cutting’s failure to dispel suspicions that a person in his comparatively modest financial position could not possibly have made expenditures of the magnitude he claimed. Only later did he reveal that he had relied on a commission received as an agent of a Dutch banking house and on loans from sympathetic Americans in Europe, including William Short (same, p. 50–5).

These shortcomings were primarily responsible for Congress’ reluctance to give Cutting full satisfaction for his claims. Responding to TJ’s plea, the House of Representatives passed a bill by the narrowest of margins—23 to 22—that paid $2,000 to Cutting and authorized TJ to submit another report on the remainder of Cutting’s claim. The Senate concurred in this bill and the President signed it into law on 8 May 1792. TJ, who continued to be strongly sympathetic to Cutting, thereupon instructed Thomas Pinckney to assist Cutting in finding verification for his claims. But Pinckney became too preoccupied with other more pressing business, and Cutting was finally forced to issue an ultimately unavailing appeal to Timothy Pickering, one of TJ’s successors as Secretary of State, for payment of the balance of his claim (TJ to Pinckney, 11 June 1792; Cutting, Facts and Observations, p. 1–2; JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1826, 9 vols. description ends , i, 503, 597, 601, 605, 606; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1820–21, 5 vols. description ends , i, 387, 440–4).

Cutting had written TJ on 1 Jan. 1792, recorded in SJL as received 17 Jan. 1792 and noted as being from Philadelphia without explanation of the delay in receipt. This letter has not been found.

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