Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to John Read, 25 June 1798

To John Read

Philadelphia June 25. 1798


I have read & considered the paragraph extracted from a letter written by me while in Europe to Mr Jones, of the house of Farrell & Jones of Bristol: and though I have not here the whole letter to turn to, I recognize the paragraph, & what it’s meaning was. it is shortly expressed; but so as to have been well understood by Mr Jones & myself, who knew the facts & the laws alluded to—to others to whom these are less known, some explanation may be necessary.

Mr Wayles died in 1773. indebted to Farrell & Jones about 8 or 9000 £ sterling the third of this debt devolved on me. I sold lands in 1774. more than sufficient to discharge my portion of it, & took bonds for the price. Mr Evans, named in the paragraph, was the then agent of F. & J. I pressed him to accept an assignment of the bonds and to discharge me, observing that the obligors were as sure as myself, & that it would relieve me, without injuring his employers. he refused. on the first appearance of troubles (in 1775. I think) he went off to England. I cannot here state the time when the debtors paid me their money: but it was after great depreciation incurred, & before the law of Virginia was passed establishing a scale of depreciation. on these facts, well known to Mr Jones & myself, the true meaning of the paragraph will be intelligible to others also. had Evans accepted assignments of the bonds, so that the debts would have been turned over to F. & J. as he immediately went off and no other agent was appointed by them, till Mr Hanson was, after the peace, the debts would have remained unpaid till the peace for want of a receiver, and then would have been recoverable by Jones in sterling Money under the treaty: or if the debtors had paid into the treasury in depreciated money, their debts would still have been recovered under the treaty in sterling money. in either case, I should have been saved from a second sale of property which I was obliged to make after the peace, to pay the debt a second time; Mr Jones would have received, and the debtors would have paid their debt fully, & thus justice would have been done all round. as it was, I lost the amount of the debt. because it was paid to me nominally before the Virginia depreciation law was passed. & when that was enacted it did not authorize a retrospect on debts nominally paid up, tho in depreciated paper.

I will take this occasion of adding some further particulars on the subject of this debt, it was amicably settled with Mr Hanson immediately on my return to America, in Jan. or Feb. 1790. about a twelve-month after the commencement of the present government. the whole debt was by that time got up again, I think to about £9000 ster. (without war interest) according to their statement. the war-interest he agreed readily to relinquish. and, within the time stipulated with Mr Hanson I put into his hands bonds, under my ultimate guarantee, for property again sold, to the whole amount of my portion of the debt, except £80 or £100. which I wished him to receive from the treasury of Virginia. he agreed not to call on us for the money, unless the obligors failed after full prosecutions at law by him. these prosecutions have taken time; but the debts were so solid that not a shilling of them will be lost.

It may be asked why should the Agent of Mr Jones have accepted any thing short of ready money paiment? I answer, on principles of morality, as well as of expedience. Mr Wayles had for a very great number of years been a most friendly, meritorious, and valuable customer to F. & J. as a shipper of tobacco. they had made a great deal of money out of him. there is a moral duty of indulgence towards such a customer. Moreover, the year after he died, we shipped them 400 hhds of tobo. most of which they credited after the peace, only at antient prices. we believed that such probable proof of the real proceeds of this tobacco could have been obtained as would have convinced impartial judges that the debt was fully discharged. we waived however all dispute of the account, and accepted the accommodations yielded us on the other side.

The other case on which you ask information was this. a consignment was made to mr Wayles and Richard Randolph for sale & collection. these two gentlemen had no connection in any business with one another, nor were previously consulted about being made joint consignees on this occasion, it was an association of the Consignor’s own choice, flowing from his seperate confidence in each they sold the property, but, before collection, mr Wayles died, and the whole authority and profit of the consignment survived to Randolph, who collected the debts, as has been said, and, before accounting for them, died, under great embarrasments if not bankrupt. it was never pretended, by any body, that one joint consignee, under these circumstances, is responsible for the proceedings of the other, any more than one executor or attorney is for the waste of another. but mr Hanson laid hold of a loose expression in a letter of mr Wayles’s to F. & J. by which he contended that mr Wayles had assumed upon himself to answer for Randolph, tho never desired by F. & J. and tho’ the letter was after the consignment made. it is unnecessary here to go into the many circumstances of evidence that this letter was no assumpsit. mr Hanson however sued on it. mr Wayles’s exors denied that their testator was bound for Randolph. and so 11. of the jury, & the court agreed, at the first hearing. but one juror dissenting, the cause laid over, and was tried again at the next Federal court, when a second jury, with the approbation of the court, found a verdict in favor of Wayles’s exors, to wit, that their testator was not answerable.

I am not able at this time & place to give a certain answer as to the remaining part of your letter. it shall be the subject of my enquiry when I return to Virginia, & if I can obtain information of precision to be relied on, I will communicate it.

I am with esteem Sir your most obedt. servt.

Th: Jefferson

Tr (PRO: T 79/30); part of the claim of John Tyndale Warre; in an unidentified hand; at foot of first page: “Mr Read”; endorsed in a clerk’s hand.

Delaware native John Read (1769–1854), the son of George Read, practiced law in Philadelphia beginning in 1792. From 1797 to 1809 he was general agent for the settlement of British debt claims under Article 6 of the Jay Treaty. Afterward he held office at the city and state level and was a bank director and president (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends .)

The paragraph extracted from a letter that TJ wrote to William Jones, then the surviving partner of Farell & Jones, was probably the third paragraph of a letter of 5 Jan. 1787; see Vol. 11:15–16. Thomas Evans had acted as the English firm’s agent in Virginia until his death, ca. 1778 (Vol. 15:673). In 1790 TJ and the other executors of John Wayles’s estate, Frances Eppes and Henry Skipwith, amicably settled their father-in-law’s debt to the firm, the result of Wayles’s marketing of tobacco to Farell & Jones in exchange for goods and credit, by agreeing on terms with Evans’s successor, Richard Hanson. Each executor undertook to pay one-third of the principle and the accrued interest, which would not be charged for the period of the American Revolution, and each would pay in installments guaranteed by bond (see Vol. 15:674–6).

The other case involved the consignment of 280 Africans brought to Virginia aboard The Prince of Wales in 1772. The consignors were not Farell & Jones but another Bristol firm, John Powell & Co., which had experience in the African and West Indian trade and owned the ship. But Farell & Jones arranged the transaction, pairing two of their Virginia customers, Wayles and Richard Randolph, as agents for the sale of the Africans into slavery. Powell required security, and Farell & Jones undertook that obligation, as they informed Wayles and Randolph, “on your behalf’s.” After Wayles’s death in 1773, however, almost no remittance from the sales, which totaled more than £7,000 sterling, arrived from Virginia. Although there was no bond securing the obligation, Farell & Jones paid more than £6,000 sterling to Powell’s firm. “We can truly say we never experienced a more disagreeable transaction in our Lives,” Farell & Jones complained (Walter Minchinton, Celia King, and Peter Waite, eds., Virginia Slave-Trade Statistics 1698–1775 [Richmond, 1984], 184–5; David Richardson, ed., Bristol, Africa and the Eighteenth-Century Slave Trade to America, Vol. 4: The Final Years, 1770–1807 [Bristol, 1996], 37; Kenneth Morgan, Bristol and the Atlantic Trade in the Eighteenth Century [Cambridge, 1993], 144; Vol. 15:6515,664,666,676–7).

As the agent and attorney of Farell & Jones, Hanson sought compensation from Randolph, from his estate after his death, and from Wayles’s estate, and after Farell’s and Jones’s deaths Hanson pursued the claim on behalf of John Tyndale Warre, Jones’s executor. Throughout, TJ argued that responsibility for the collection of the sale payments, and for remittance of the money to England, had on Wayles’s death devolved entirely upon Randolph. Wayles’s estate could only be held accountable if he had collected payments and failed to remit the money, which was not the case. Hanson founded the firm’s claim on the statement by Wayles that TJ dismissed as a loose expression: Wayles had offered Farell & Jones “every Assurance,” as he wrote them on 14 May 1772, “that whatever engagement you may be kind enough to enter into on our behalf shall be complyed with without inconvenience or prejudice to yourselves” (Vol. 15:653). In a detailed letter of 6 May 1791 TJ assured Skipwith that neither under common law nor in equity could that comment, which in any event was made after the consignment had already been arranged, place Wayles’s estate under an obligation to make good on Randolph’s sale of the slaves. John Marshall, who with Andrew Ronald acted as legal counsel for Wayles’s executors, initially thought the Farell & Jones claim might have some validity, but by 1796 he agreed with TJ. Yet while staunchly holding to his position TJ recognized that “all things are possible,” including a legal victory for Hanson. Therefore in 1796 he quietly mortgaged most of his slaves to prevent their seizure if Hanson succeeded in winning a court judgment (TJ to James Lyle, 12 May 1796; Marshall, Papers description begins Herbert A. Johnson, Charles T. Cullen, Charles F. Hobson, and others, eds., The Papers of John Marshall, Chapel Hill, 1974–2006, 12 vols. description ends , 2:89–90,304; Vol. 29:197n).

Disputing the estate’s responsibility for the Prince of Wales consignment, TJ and his brothers-in-law specifically excluded the transaction from the 1790 agreement with Hanson that resolved payment of Wayles’s individual trading debts to Farell & Jones. Recognizing along with many others in Virginia that Randolph’s disposition of property before his death in 1786 had sheltered his estate’s assets from seizure by creditors (see Bill in Chancery of Wayles’s Executors against the Heirs of Richard Randolph, [on or before 2 Mch. 1795]), Hanson aggressively sought to make Wayles’s estate liable. Even before American courts opened to British creditors he yearned to bring suit. Declaring that he would “not be trifled with,” he brushed aside TJ’s “absurd arguments” and stated that “as the proofs are so numerous and Clear … it is one of the first suits I shall bring” (Hanson to the firm, 20 Dec. 1784, 25 Oct. 1785, 20 Dec. 1788, 8 May 1789, extracts in Warre claim papers, PRO: T 79/30). Obtaining Jerman Baker’s services as attorney, in 1790 Hanson filed lawsuits against Wayles’s and Randolph’s estates in U.S. Circuit Court. Wayles’s executors seemed as eager as Hanson was to go to trial: he thought they were anxious to resolve the matter before all hope of recovery from Randolph’s assets drained away, in case a judgment should go against both estates. Yet as the suit progressed Hanson found that presenting his case required depositions and original documents not easily obtained from overseas. The press to resolve the matter worked in the defendants’ favor, and Hanson repeatedly found himself asking for continuations. Finally, the first hearing of the suit against TJ and his fellow executors came during the May 1797 term, occupying a full day of the court’s calendar. By this time Hanson’s counsel included U.S. Attorney General Charles Lee, who could not attend. The court refusing Hanson’s request for a jury consisting entirely of merchants, he instead saw his case given to a panel of “Brutes,” who after five days of deliberation could not resolve a split of eleven to one against his cause. “A Jury of a very low Class of people,” Hanson declared it, “many of which attends every Court to get a Dollar a day for serving and determined not to give a Verdict for a British debt.” The suit was retried in December 1797, when the second jury found that Wayles’s estate owed nothing to Farell & Jones for the slave cargo of The Prince of Wales. In the separate lawsuit against Randolph’s executors, a jury awarded Hanson and his employers a judgment for more than $52,000, but only because, Hanson was convinced, the Randolph estate was insolvent and no money would actually change hands (Hanson to the firm, 1, 17 Mch., 3 June, 26 July 1790, 31 Dec. 1794, 10 July, 30 Nov. 1795, 2 June, 15 Dec. 1797, extracts in same; Rule Book No. 1 and Order Books Nos. 1–3 in Vi: USCC).

As early as July 1795 Hanson viewed the bilateral commission provided for by the Jay Treaty, which first met in Philadelphia in May 1797, as his recourse for any debt claims rejected by the American courts. “My great dependance is on the Commissioners,” he noted after the first trial of the suit against Wayles’s executors ended in the deadlocked jury. By early in June 1798 he gave Read vouchers for the many claims that were still outstanding in the American accounts of Farell & Jones. It was evidently an inquiry from Read that prompted TJ to write the letter above. However, the debts commission, rent by disagreement between its American and British members, dissolved before it could rule on most of the applications before it (see TJ to Madison, 16 Jan. 1799). In 1802 the U.S. agreed to pay British creditors an indemnification of £600,000 sterling, to be allocated by a panel in Britain. The claims allowed by that new commission totaled a vastly larger sum, more than £1.4 million sterling. Warre’s claims were for at least £89,800 sterling, of which the commission allowed £35,000, entitling him to a £16,255 share of the indemnification (Hanson to Warre, 21 July 1795, 2 June 1797, 25 June 1798, 8 Aug. 1799, in Warre claim, PRO: T 79/30; John Bassett Moore, ed., International Adjudications: Ancient and Modern, History and Documents, 6 vols. [New York, 1929–33] 3:9, 22, 339, 340, 422, 430; Perkins, First Rapprochement description begins Bradford Perkins, The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1795–1805, Philadelphia, 1955; Berkeley, 1967 description ends , 117–19, 140–1).

Documents relating to the trial are in Vi: USCC. In those records another suit by Farell & Jones against Wayles’s executors, involving a bond of John Randolph, is similarly titled and appeared in some of the same terms of the court (for that case, see TJ to Francis Eppes, 28 Aug. 1794). In the voluminous papers of Warre’s claims in behalf of Farell & Jones in PRO: T 79/30, including Hanson’s correspondence, the Prince of Wales debt is sometimes labeled the “African” account, evidently so called because the firm’s transactions did not usually involve slaves.

Your letter: Read’s letter to TJ, which according to SJL was written and received on this day, has not been found.

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