Thomas Jefferson Papers

Memorial from George Hammond, 11 June 1793

Memorial from George Hammond

The Undersigned, his Britannic Majesty’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States, has the honor of submitting to the Secretary of State the annexed deposition; from which it appears that the British brigantine Catharine, James Drysdale Master bound from Jamaica to the Port of Philadelphia, was on Saturday last the 8th. Curt. captured by the French frigate the Embuscade off Hereford at the distance of not more than two miles, or at the utmost two miles and a half from the state of New Jersey.

The Undersigned can entertain no doubt that the executive government of the United States will consider the circumstances of this capture as an aggression on the territory and jurisdiction of the United States, and will consequently pursue such measures as to its wisdom may appear the most efficacious for procuring the immediate restitution of this vessel to its owners as soon as it shall arrive at New York (for which port it is understood to have been sent as prize) or within any other harbour of the United States.

The Undersigned ventures to hope that the annexed deposition will be regarded by the executive government of the United States as evidence sufficient to authenticate the fact of the capture and the circumstances by which it has been accompanied. When he is informed of the actual arrival of the brigantine Catharine, within any port of the United States, he will obtain the corroborating testimony of the master and pilot now on board of that vessel, which testimony he will not fail to transmit without delay to the Secretary of State.

The Undersigned thinks it expedient to add that he has lately received information, on which he can depend, from Charleston, that the brig, the Morning Star, which on the 9th. of last month was condemned as legal prize by Mr. Mangourit the French Consul at that place, was taken by the French frigate the Embuscade (on the 15th. of April) at the distance of not more than two miles from the bar of Charleston, and within sight of the town. The Undersigned is taking the proper measures to collect the proof of this fact, which, if substantiated will, added to the capture of the present vessel, and that of the Ship Grange within the bay of Delaware constitute the third instance of similar aggression on the territory and jurisdiction of the United States, that has been committed by the French frigate the Embuscade within the short period of two months.

Philadelphia 11th June 1793 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 11th June 1793 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in PRO: FO 116/3); misdated 10 June 1793. Tr (same, 5/1). Tr (same, 115/2); misdated 10 June 1793. Tr (Lb in DNA: RG 59, NL). Enclosure: Deposition of Allen Erskine and four others, Philadelphia, 11 June 1793, wherein four of the deponents, escaped crew members of the Catharine, stated that this brigantine of Halifax, James Drysdale master, had been on her way to Philadelphia from Jamaica when she was captured by the Embuscade, a French frigate commanded by Citizen Bompard, on 8 June at about 2 p.m., “off Hereford a little to the northward of Cape May And not more than two miles from the Shore of the State of New Jersey,” with the pilot James Skillinger on board to guide the brigantine into the Bay and River of Delaware; and wherein the fifth deponent, who had witnessed the capture from a nearby pilot boat, confirmed the testimony of the others, except that in his judgment the Catharine was about two-and-a-half miles from the shore when captured (MS in DNA: RG 59, NL, in the hand of Asheton Humphreys, notary public of Philadelphia, signed by deponents; attested by Humphreys; Tr in PRO: FO 5/1; Tr in Lb in DNA: RG 59, DL). Letter and enclosure enclosed in TJ to George Washington, 11 June 1793, Washington to TJ, 11 June 1793, and TJ to Richard Harison, 12 June 1793.

The legal maneuvers stemming from the capture in American territorial waters of the British Brigantine Catharine by the French Frigate Embuscade vividly illustrate the difficulties the Washington administration experienced in relying on the federal judiciary to enforce its neutrality policy. In accordance with a decision of the Cabinet, TJ instructed Richard Harison, the federal district attorney in New York, to institute legal proceedings to determine whether in fact the ship had been taken in waters under American jurisdiction (Cabinet Opinions on the Republican and the Catharine, 12 June 1793; TJ to Harison, 12 June 1793; Washington, Journal, description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends 168, 169). In Harison’s absence, Robert Troup, a Federalist attorney in New York, filed a libel in the United States District Court of New York on behalf of George Meade and John Dunkin—the administrators of the Catharine after the death of her owner, a British subject who had resided in Philadelphia, and his son, the owner of the ship’s cargo of Jamaica rum, pimento, and ginger—demanding restoration of the ship and cargo to them on the ground that “they were taken within the territory, and under the protection of the United States.” Although the Catharine’s captors refused to respond to the libel, Alexandre Maurice d’Hauterive, the French consul in New York, formally protested to the District Court that French consuls in the United States possessed exclusive admiralty jurisdiction over French captures of enemy prizes. District Court Judge James Duane ruled in January 1794 that the Court lacked jurisdiction over cases involving violations of American sovereignty by a foreign nation and that the libellants had to seek restitution from the executive branch, but the following August District Court Judge John Laurance, adhering to the Supreme Court’s February 1794 ruling in Glass v. the Sloop Betsey that district courts did have jurisdiction in such cases, ordered the Catharine to be restored to the libellants and awarded them costs and damages (Duane, Decree, description begins Decree on the Admiralty Side of the District Court of New-York … By Judge Duane, in the Case of the Catharine, on the 28th January, 1794, New York, 1794 description ends 3, 8, 19–35; Harison to TJ, 20 June, 24 July 1793; note to Lucas Gibbes and Alexander S. Glass to TJ, 8 July 1793; Syrett, Hamilton, description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends xv, 11–12; Edward P. Alexander, A Revolutionary Conservative: James Duane of New York [New York, 1938], 208–10).

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