Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Edward Church, 13 March 1792

To Edward Church

Philadelphia Mar. 13. 1792.


Your several letters of July 27. Aug. 12. and Sep. 8. have been duly recieved, and your disappointment produced a strong desire in the President to nominate you Consul for the port of Cadiz. But on speaking of the matter it was found that there would not only be an opposition to it in the Senate but perhaps a rejection which it was conceived would be injurious to you. The ground of opposition would have been some transaction of yours at New Orleans, in seising a Spanish vessel and sending her round here, while you were under certain circumstances of favor and protection in that country, and such as that the vessel was liberated in a court of admiralty. You know that there is no salary annexed to our Consulships, nor any fees worth attention; consequently that they avail only as they may bring business and respect to the holder. If you think the object worth a further pursuit, it would be necessary to enable some friend here to set the transaction beforementioned to rights, by sufficient evidence, in which case it is probable the President might still name you to the Consulship beforementioned, or some other, there being, as I can assure you, a real commiseration of your case, and a desire to relieve you as far as propriety will admit. I am with great regard Sir your most obedt. humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); at foot of text: “Mr. Church. Bordeaux.”

The controversial transaction involved Church’s role in the capture of the Spanish brigantine San Antonio by the Massachusetts privateer Patty in November 1782. While in New Orleans on mercantile business earlier that year Church set in motion a train of events which led to this incident by reporting to the Boston merchants Leonard Jarvis and John Russell, Jr. that the San Antonio was actually owned by a West Florida Loyalist named Thomas Wilkins who was planning to send her to England under a flag of truce and bring back a cargo of British goods for the purpose of engaging in illicit trade with Spanish Louisiana. On the basis of this information Church, Jarvis, Russell and several other Boston merchants dispatched the Patty to the Gulf of Mexico to intercept the San Antonio on her return voyage from London to New Orleans. After her capture the San Antonio was adjudged to be British property and condemned as a lawful prize by the Maritime Court of the Middle District of Massachusetts, which awarded the vessel and cargo to Church and his associates. Spanish officials in Louisiana and Philadelphia thereupon denounced the seizure of the San Antonio as an act of piracy and criticized Church for abusing Spanish hospitality in New Orleans by misrepresenting the facts respecting this ship. Consequently, in May 1783, the Federal Court of Appeals reversed the Maritime Court’s decision on the ground that the San Antonio was in reality a Spanish ship belonging to Antonio Argote of New Orleans and ordered that it be restored to Argote along with the cargo. Church and his partners refused to abide by this decision, claiming that Wilkins and not Argote was the real owner of the San Antonio, and unsuccessfully appealed to the Continental Congress for a new hearing before the Court of Appeals. But even after Congress rejected this plea in September 1783 the captors continued to balk at returning the ship and cargo to Argote, and it is entirely possible that they never returned them (Pierre Debade v. William Hayden and others, DNA: RG 267, Revolutionary War Prize Cases, No. 95; Edward Church and others to Continental Congress, 30 June 1783, DNA: RG 360, PCC No. 42; Antonio Argote to Continental Congress, [ante 14 Aug. 1783], DNA: RG 360, PCC, No. 78; JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, 1904-1937, 34 vols. description ends , xxv, 546–8; Henry J. Bourguignon, The First Federal Court: The Federal Appellate Prize Court of the American Revolution, 1775–1787 [Philadelphia, 1977], p. 231–5).

Church denied that he had been guilty of misconduct in the San Antonio affair in a letter to TJ that did not reach Philadelphia until September 1792. Yet well before the arrival of this letter, which still maintained that the San Antonio had actually been a British vessel under nominal Spanish ownership, Washington decided to give Church a consular appointment. The President nominated Church as consul to Lisbon on 3 May 1792 and the Senate confirmed the nomination two days later by a vote of 16 to 3. George Read of Delaware, one of the three opponents of Church’s nomination, was also one of the judges on the Court of Appeals who had ruled against Church and the other owners of the Patty a decade before (TJ to Church, 5 May 1792; Church to TJ, 16 May 1792; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States … to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress, Washington, 1828 description ends , i, 121, 122).

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