Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John F. Mercer, 7 October 1792

From John F. Mercer

Annapolis Oct. 7th. 1792.

Dear Sir

Colo. Elijah Robesson of Ann Arundel County, a worthy freind of mine, is obliged to Philadelphia in order to recover a Slave there. As our Citizens have experienced great difficulties in similar cases, he requests to be made known to some characters, whose influence may secure that Justice the Laws entitle him to. I have therefore writen to Governor Mifflin and yourself persuaded that he will find any such that may prove requisite, and that you will excuse the liberty I have taken. Colo. Robesson who has been an active character in the late Election here can state to you a scene of infamy that I fondly hoped would not have disgraced American Government for1 a Century to come. With the sincerest respect & esteem I am Dr Sir Yr. freind & hb Sert.

John F Mercer

RC (ViW); endorsed by TJ as received 11 Oct. 1792 and so recorded in SJL, which indicates that it was delivered by “Colo. Robisson.”

Mercer seems to have exaggerated the great difficulties encountered by Maryland slaveholders in recovering fugitive slaves from Pennsylvania. The state’s gradual emancipation acts of 1780 and 1788 carefully safeguarded the property rights of slaveholders from other states, and the only known Pennsylvania court case prior to this time involving a Maryland owner seeking to recover a fugitive slave had resulted in a verdict in favor of the master (Paul Finkelman, The Law of Freedom and Bondage: A Casebook [New York, 1986], 41–8, 55–6; Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780–1861 [Baltimore, 1974], 5–7; Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases concerning American Slavery and the Negro, 5 vols. [Washington, D.C., 1926–37], iv, 256). The scene of infamy may be a reference to the recent controversy in Maryland generated by Mercer’s charges that Alexander Hamilton had actively opposed his successful bid for reelection to the House of Representatives because of Mercer’s sharp criticism of his administration as Secretary of the Treasury (Syrett, Hamilton, description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends xii, 481–6).

1At this point “years” is canceled.

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