Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from George Hammond, 5 June 1793

From George Hammond

Philadelphia 5th June 1793


I have received your letter of this date, upon which as well as on your former communication of the 15th. ulto., I shall have the honor of submitting to you some few observations in the course of two or three days. In the mean time I think it my duty to state to you a circumstance (connected with the subject of your letters) to the particulars of which I presume to request your immediate attention. The Ship William of Glasgow, Captain Leggett, was some time ago captured by a privateer Schooner named Le Citoyen Genêt fitted out at charleston, and was sent as prize to this port, but some doubts having been entertained with respect to the validity of the commission of the Schooner which made the capture (and which is now also in this harbour) a suit was instituted by the agent for the Owners of the Ship William in the district federal Court of this state, for the purpose of obtaining its opinion on this subject. Another point will also I understand be submitted to the court viz. that the Ship William was captured within the jurisdiction of the United States. Of the truth of this last mentioned fact of which I had prior information, I have now obtained such corroborating testimony as I am persuaded will be satisfactory to the general government of the United States, should the district Court deem itself incompetent either to the requisition or enforcement of the restitution of the vessel captured. In consequence of this suit the Ship William and the property on board are now under attachment by the Marshall of the district Court. The Court will give judgment on this question on Friday next. But if its decision be unfavorable to the restoration of the ship, I am apprehensive lest the attachment being taken off, the vessel may be sent to sea so speedily as to preclude the effect of any application relative to it which I may deem it expedient to make. I therefore venture to hope that the general government of the United States will either direct the attachment now subsisting to be continued or will adopt any other measures that may tend to prevent the vessel from departing, until it shall have investigated and formed some determination on the evidence, which I shall lay before it without delay, in order to substantiate the fact of the Ship William having been captured within the jurisdiction of the United States.

As I expect at the same time to be enabled to offer testimony establishing a similar state of facts relative to the brig Fanny Captain Pyle now lying in this harbour, as a prize to another privateer fitted out at Charleston named the Sans culottes, and also under an attachment from the Marshall of the district Court, I hope that the general government will prevent that vessel also from sailing until that point can be ascertained. I have the honor to be with great respect, Sir, Your most obedient humble servant,

Geo. Hammond

RC (DNA: RG 59, NL); in the hand of Edward Thornton, signed by Hammond; at foot of first page: “Mr Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 6 June 1793 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in PRO: FO 116/3). Tr (same, 5/1). Tr (same, 115/2).

The capture of the British merchant vessels William and Fanny, allegedly in American territorial waters, by French privateers commissioned in Charleston by Edmond Charles Genet, and the arrival of these prizes in Philadelphia, was another link in the chain of events that led to a historic definition of the maritime limits of the United States (see Memorial from Hammond, 2 May 1793, and note). In anticipation of TJ’s announcement this day that the United States government would not restore British prizes captured by French privateers commissioned in America (TJ to Hammond, 5 June 1793), Hammond had prevailed upon the agents of the owners of the William and the Fanny to file separate libels for their restitution in the United States District Court of Pennsylvania, a tribunal presided over by Judge Richard Peters which, in common with other federal district courts, had “cognizance of all crimes and offences … committed … upon the high seas … and … exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction” (Hammond to Lord Grenville, 10 June 1793, PRO: FO 5/1; Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United StatesCompiled from Authentic Materials, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. The first two volumes of the set cited here have “Compiled … by Joseph Gales, Senior” on the title page and bear the caption “Gales & Seatons History” on verso and “of Debates in Congress” on recto pages. The remaining volumes bear the caption “History of Congress” on both recto and verso pages. Those using the first two volumes with the latter caption will need to employ the date of the debate or the indexes of debates and speakers. description ends , ii, 2242). The libellants demanded restitution on the grounds that the Citoyen Genet and the Sans Culottes had been commissioned invalidly and that they had captured the two British vessels “within the territorial jurisdiction, and under the protection of the United States” (Federal Cases description begins The Federal Cases; Comprising Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit and District Courts of the United States …, St. Paul, Minn., 1894–97, 30 vols. description ends , ix, 57, xvii, 942). Although Hammond doubted that the court would accept the first plea, he was more confident about its receptivity to the second, and even if it did not accept cognizance of the cases he was sure that this would not compromise a subsequent claim for restitution to the federal executive. Such a claim became necessary when Judge Peters ordered the William to be released from federal custody as part of his ruling on 21 June 1793 that the District Court lacked jurisdiction in the case because as the tribunal of a neutral nation it was not authorized “to decide in a matter growing out of the contests between belligerent powers.” Later in the year, moreover, Peters issued the same ruling in the case of the Fanny (Federal Cases, ix, 57–62, xvii, 943–8; Hammond to Grenville, 10 June, 7 July 1793, PRO: FO 5/1).

Immediately after Judge Peters issued the first of these decisions, Hammond turned to the federal executive for redress (Memorials from Hammond, 21, 26 June 1793). During the summer of 1793 the Washington administration sought unsuccessfully to enlist the assistance of the United States Supreme Court in determining the federal government’s obligation in regard to restoring belligerent prizes captured in American territorial waters and waited in vain for the United States District Court in Philadelphia to take up this issue again (Editorial Note and documents on the referral of neutrality questions to the Supreme Court, at 18 July 1793; Cabinet Opinions on Privateers and Prizes, 5 Aug. 1793). Ultimately, Hammond’s persistence and Genet’s incisive rejoinders forced the Washington administration in November 1793 provisionally to proclaim a three-mile limit for the nation’s maritime jurisdiction, a landmark development in international law (TJ to Genet, 8 Nov. 1793; Philip C. Jessup, The Law of Territorial Waters and Maritime Jurisdiction [New York, 1927], 3–7, 49–54).

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