Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to James Lyle, 12 May 1796

To James Lyle

Monticello May 12. 1796.

Dear Sir

The present representative of Farrell & Jones has brought a suit against the executors of Mr. Wayles as security for the late R. Randolph on the foundation of a loose and equivocal expression in a letter neither meant as an engagement by Mr. Wayles nor understood as such by F. & J. I do not believe there is the smallest danger of it’s being so understood by a court or jury, but as all things are possible and the sum so large that it would cripple my efforts to pay my real and honest debt to Henderson McCaul & Co. I inclose you a mortgage on a number of negroes sufficient to secure them effectually. I cannot pretend that the debt can be paid punctually at the instalments there provided for: on this head I shall count on the indulgence you have hitherto shewn by which both their debt and my fortune may in the long run be saved. You had better send the deed to your correspondent in Charlottesville where it may be proved by the witnesses or acknoleged by myself: and that without delaying a single post, as Mr. Hanson, if he gets his judgment will be upon us immediately. I am with great esteem Dear Sir Your affectionate friend & servt

Th: Jefferson

P.S. The sum not yet actually recieved is merely guessed at.

PrC (MHi); at foot of text: “Mr. James Lyle”; endorsed in ink by TJ on verso.

Although the enclosure printed below secured a financial obligation, TJ’s primary motivation in drawing up this and several other instruments mortgaging most of his slaves in 1796 seems to have been to shield them from pending legal action for claims against the estate of his father-in-law, John Wayles. Virginia law—which defined slaves as personal property and allowed creditors to attach them for debt—prohibited slaveholders from using verbal conveyances, or even emancipation, to prevent slaves from being seized by creditors. TJ here employed an alternative tactic, giving mortgages to friendly creditors who were not likely to take his slaves (Shepherd, Statutes, description begins Samuel Shepherd, ed., The Statutes at Large of Virginia, from October Session 1792, to December Session 1806 …, Richmond, 1835–36, 3 vols. description ends i, 128-9; McColley, Slavery, description begins Robert McColley, Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia, Urbana, Ill., 1964 description ends 80–1; Malone, Jefferson description begins Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, Boston, 1948–81, 6 vols. description ends , III, 179).

In addition to the 52 slaves here mortgaged to Henderson, McCaul & Company, TJ gave in collateral a total of 98 other slaves to William Short, Wakelyn Welch, Sr., Philip Mazzei, and the Dutch firm of Van Staphorst & Hubbard. The deed of mortgage to Van Staphorst & Hubbard of 12 May 1796 and the present letter to Lyle with its enclosure are the only surviving texts of the May 1796 documents known to the Editors. TJ did not immediately inform all of the mortgagees of his action. According to SJL he wrote a letter to Short on 18 May 1796 that was to be “lodged with T.B.,” and also wrote a letter of the same date to Thomas Bell, neither of which has been found. Only in 1800 did TJ tell Short of the mortgage indenture, which was still in Bell’s keeping (TJ to Short, 13 Apr. 1800). Six months after drawing up the original mortgage documents, TJ drew up a new instrument conveying to Van Staphorst & Hubbard “his right and equity of redemption” in all 150 previously mortgaged slaves (see Deed of Mortgage of Slaves to Van Staphorst & Hubbard, 21 Nov. 1796). This second mortgage, the sole source of information about the missing agreements of May, nominally secured a new loan of $2,000 from Van Staphorst & Hubbard, but there is no evidence that TJ informed the firm of the mortgage, and he soon gave bonds to guarantee the loan—which suggests that the November mortgage, like those of May, was intended primarily to preserve his property in slaves against creditors (Van Staphorst & Hubbard to TJ, 21 May 1796; TJ to Van Staphorst & Hubbard, 27 Mch. 1797).

Present representative of Farrell & Jones: Richard Hanson.

John Wayles’s loose and equivocal expression, which concerned the consignment to him and Richard Randolph of 280 Africans transported to Virginia in the slave ship The Prince of Wales, appears in the first sentence of a letter Wayles wrote to the British firm of Farell & Jones on 14 May 1772—not, as the Editors mistakenly stated in Vol. 15: 649n, in Wayles’s letter to John Thompson of 9 May 1770 (see Henry Skipwith to TJ, 7 Apr. 1791). For the conclusion of the case in Wayles’s executors’ favor, see TJ’s letter to John Read of 25 June 1798. In Vol. 15, partly from a misreading of the date of TJ’s letter to Lyle printed above, the Editors also conflated elements of three distinct lawsuits against the Wayles estate: the suit by Farell & Jones over the Prince of Wales consignment; another suit brought by the same firm concerning an obligation of John Randolph; and a third case, not involving Farell & Jones, over a bond to James Bivins (see editorial note and Documents I and VI of a group of documents on the debt to Farell & Jones, printed in Vol. 15: 647–9, 653; for the Bivins case, see List of Unretained Letters, [ca. 9 June 1794]).

Correspondent in Charlottesville: possibly Richard Harvie (see Notes on the Account with Richard Harvie & Company, 22 July 1795).

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