Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Stephens Smith, 7 September 1801

From William Stephens Smith

Surveyors office new york Septr. 7th. 1801.


Your goodness will pardon the Liberty I take in addressing a Letter particularly to you, at the moment perhaps, in which you are, more importantly engaged than to attend to my individual wishes and pursuits—The veneration however, that I have for you as the Cheif majestrate of my Country, connected with the particular respect I have for your private Virtues derived from the acquaintance I formerly had the honor of enjoying with you in Europe, emboldens me to present myself to you, in the first instance soliciting your confirmation of the office I now hold under your administration

It cannot be necessary for me to represent to you, Sir, the active and early part I took in the defence of the Liberties of my Country—or to state, that the greatest part of my Life, has been devoted to its Service—But I feel no diffidence in concluding from your personal knowledge of my sentiments and the Springs of my action, you will rely upon the duties required of me being discharged with a consientious impartiallity and true Republican fidelity—.

I am flattered with the assurance, that the duties of the office I at present fill, are discharged, to the Satisfaction of my fellow Citizens, who are disposed to regulate their Commerce, by the established laws of our Country, the applause of the other description, I shall not Seek for—Should you think my pretensions equal to others who may be solicitous to occupy the station I fill, and think proper to continue me in it, I shall think myself vastly obliged

But should you view me thro’ a more favourable medium, and compliment me with promotion in the department of The Customs, I shall esteem myself highly honoured, and particularly complimented,—I have been pointedly interferred with by the past administrations, they first became hostile to me in consequence of a Letter I wrote to Mr. Jay when secretary of foreign affairs under date of the 6th. of Decbr. 1785—when I returned from Berlin & Vienna to London and gave him a detail of my tour thro. Germany in which was this sentence—”In the first place Sir permit me to breathe a Serious wish, that my Countrymen had a proper Idea of the happiness within their grasp; and the benefits arising to society from Virtuous republican establishments.—The very fact of nature here speaks for itself, and as you pass this variegated Country and Government bears in strong lines the different degrees of toleration and indulgence they enjoy; I will not prostitute the term of Liberty by using it, when speaking of any of them: and as for myself, if it were possible for an addition to be made to my enthusiam in that Subject, I am now a most perfect devotee”—for this sentence I was never forgiven by those, who under the mask of republican systems, perpetrated acts of tyranny, and advocated the principles of monarchical Establishments—

But I will refer you to the letter itself in the files of the secretary of State, and feel myself emboldened to say, if the pure preservation of the Principles of the earliest part of our revolution would be considered of moment—I can boast of their most pointed cultivation and support—and my enemies cannot charge me with the Shaddow of changing.

I hope I may not be considered as overstepping the bounds of propriety, in Stating to you, Sir, that there does not, neither do I believe there can exist, that Cordiallity between the Collector and the present naval officer, which the good of the Service requires—The Principles of the Collector you are well acquainted with, those of the Naval officer, are in the highest scale of toryism, with an evident prejudice against our present establishment—a case lately occured relative to the Brigg Rainbow, which I reported to the Collector as a Vessel sailing under false papers, and of course subject to seizure—the hesitation and delays which the Collector experienced from the Naval officer, were such that he finally took counsel of The Attorney General whose opinion was prompt and decissive, and an order consequently issued to me to seize her, but the Brigg having then cleared out, had got under way, & tho’ I sent the Custom House boat in pursuit of her, she made her escape—

It being the received opinion in society here that the Naval officer will be removed—the Bearer Mr. Mathew L. Davis, a very deserving Citizen, and whose name cannot be unknown to you, has been flattered by his friends with the expectation of receiving the appointment, I am highly sensible, that he is entitled to notice, and the countenance and protection of administration. his indefatigable assiduity, his talents and influence in society, ought to be cultivated, and nourished It cannot however be expected I should advocate his promotion to a Station in office above me I have had a friendly conversation with him on the subject, and should it be the determination of The President to remove the present naval officer, and appoint Mr. Davis in his place I shall like a good Citizen, bow with respect to his arrangement—But should he Compliment the present Surveyor with the appointment of Naval officer and make Mr. Davis Surveyor The attention will be gratefully received, and most pointedly acknowledged, by strict attention to the discharge of the duties of the office

By Sir—Your most obedt and Very Humble Servt.

W. S. Smith

RC (DNA: RG 59, LAR); with closing quotation mark supplied; at head of text: “To The President of The United States”; endorsed by TJ as received 17 Sep. but recorded in SJL at 18 Sep. and connected by a brace with eight other letters received from New York on that date with notation: “Davis to be Naval officer”; also endorsed by TJ: “Davis.”

Acquaintance I formerly had the honor of enjoying with you: Smith arrived in London to serve as secretary of the U.S. legation in May 1785. In the fall he toured Europe, visiting Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, Vienna, and Paris, where TJ entertained him. After Smith’s return to London, TJ wrote Abigail Adams and commented upon the “extreme worth of his character.” On 12 June 1786, Smith informed TJ of his impending marriage to the Adams’s daughter, Abigail. TJ and Smith communicated regularly until Smith’s return to the United States in May 1788 (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; Vol. 8:249–50, 541–2; Vol. 9:47–9, 634–5; Vol. 12:484–5; Vol. 13:315).

Office i now hold: for the Senate debate over the appointment of Smith as surveyor and inspector of customs at New York in December 1800, see Vol. 32:351–2. The opinion relating to the brig rainbow has not been found and may have been given by the U.S. district attorney rather than the attorney general. David Gelston later reported that shortly after he took office in 1801 he found that many ships, the real property of persons residing in Europe, had fraudulently obtained American registers. On 2 Oct. 1801, Edward Livington, as U.S. district attorney, wrote on the New York surveyor’s report, which recommended the seizure of Liberty and Two Marys, two ships registered as American vessels but believed to be owned by British subjects: “I think the Circumstances related of these two Ships well warrant a Seizure and that the expectation of more complete proofs on the vessels is reasonable.” Additional proof, however, was not obtained and the seizures ended in suits brought against the collector (Gallatin, Papers description begins Carl E. Prince and Helene E. Fineman, eds., The Papers of Albert Gallatin, microfilm edition in 46 reels, Philadelphia, 1969, and Supplement, Barbara B. Oberg, ed., reels 47–51, Wilmington, Del., 1985 description ends , 13:662–5, 672).

Index Entries