Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Robert Smith, 9 April 1803

From Robert Smith

Navy Dep. Ap. 9. 1803


As the Governor of Massachussetts has in a letter to the Secretary at War renewed his application respecting the Cannon and other Stores Obtained from that State in the year 1798, I consider it proper to send to you the enclosed Copies of letters, which will give you a view of the part of the Case for which this Department has been responsible.

The Books and papers of this Department have been carefully examined and I cannot find that the demand and refusal have ever been made as stated in the resolutions of the Legislature of that State. Neither is it presumeable that the Government of the United States would have refused to return the Cannon as, it seems, they were not fit for a Man of War and could not be used in the frigate Constitution for which they had been borrowed.

With great respect, I have the honor to be Sir, Your Ob. Ser

Rt Smith

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “The President”; endorsed by TJ as received from the Navy Department on 9 Apr. and “Massachusets cannon” and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures: (1) Secretary of War James McHenry to the Governor of Massachusetts, 30 May 1798, stating that the failure of a contract has left the frigate Constitution at Boston in need of cannon for its upper battery; McHenry has learned that Castle Island in Boston harbor has nineteen 18-pound cannon available and that Captain Samuel Nicholson wishes to obtain them for his ship; McHenry asks for “a loan” of 14 or 16 of these and in return offers “either to return the same Guns as soon as others can be provided for the frigate, or to replace them with Guns equally good,” and also to order the same number of 32-pound cannon from Providence for use in defending Boston harbor; McHenry also asks the governor to furnish a suitable quantity of 18-pound shot, for which “the United States will punctually & promptly return an equal quantity.” (2) Henry Jackson, navy agent at Boston, to McHenry, 7 June 1798, stating that he has been informed by James Warren that the 18-pound cannon requested from Massachusetts for use on the Constitution “are really the property of the United States”; the cannon were imported from France during the American Revolution for a vessel then being constructed and were delivered to Samuel Hodgdon, the commissary of military stores; application has been made to the governor of Massachusetts for the cannon and Jackson is certain that “he will cordially loan them” according to McHenry’s request. (3) Extract of a letter from Jackson to McHenry, 11 June 1798, informing him that the governor of Massachusetts has given Jackson an order “for the Loan of 16 eighteen pound cannon laying at Castle Island, for the use of the frigate Constitution.” (4) Robert Smith to Samuel Brown, 10 Dec. 1801, informing him that the state of Massachusetts has applied to the Navy Department “for repayment of some Cannon and Shot” that it loaned to the United States during the fitting out of the Constitution; Smith encloses a letter from Amasa Davis, the quartermaster general for Massachusetts, to Major Daniel Jackson, along with copies of the original vouchers given by former navy agent Henry Jackson for the articles received; Smith asks Brown to look into the matter and ascertain if remuneration has been made for the loan or any part of it; if not, Brown is to inquire if the original guns can be returned or if new guns would be preferable; Brown is also to see if he has enough suitable shot in store to return as well; Smith suggests that Captain Nicholson can provide information regarding the receipt and employment of the cannon and shot; in a postscript, Smith adds that the state will need to supply the original vouchers prior to any settlement. (5) Brown to Smith, 25 Jan. 1802, stating that he has made the necessary inquiries, but cannot find that any remuneration has been made for the cannon and shot; the cannon were too heavy for use in the Constitution and were therefore moved to the old Boston navy yard, where they remain; Brown wrote to Quartermaster Davis to inform him that he was ready to return the articles in question, but Davis was unwilling to receive them and instead hopes “to oblige the United States to pay for them in cash” agreeable to the appraisement he received from Daniel Jackson; as Brown understands it, the pretext for the refusal is that “the articles were not returned when asked for at some past period”; Brown believes he has sufficient shot to discharge that part of the loan, and that canister can be had from the Constitution. (6) Smith to Caleb Strong, 18 July 1802, enclosing a copy of McHenry’s letter to the governor of Massachusetts of 30 May 1798, and pointing out that it contained a proposition “not of a purchase but merely of a loan” and that the cannon and shot could not have been delivered by the state or received by the navy agent at Boston on any other terms; Smith states that in his letter to Samuel Brown of 10 Dec. 1801, he authorized the navy agent to deliver the articles to the proper officer of the state; by Brown’s reply of 25 Jan. 1802, Smith was informed that the state quartermaster general was unwilling to receive the cannon and shot, hoping instead that the United States would pay cash for them; believing that McHenry’s letter will convince Strong that the transaction was a loan and not a purchase, Smith hopes that the governor will “authorise the proper Officer to receive the cannon and Shot” and adds that he has “repeated my instructions to the Navy Agent to deliver them” (Trs in same).

For previous efforts by Governor Caleb Strong to secure payment for ordnance and stores provided by Massachusetts to the United States in 1798, see Vol. 38:63–4, 340–1, 350. Strong’s 5 Apr. 1803 letter to the secretary at war has not been found, but it enclosed a 5 Mch. resolution by the Massachusetts legislature authorizing the governor to propose referring the claim to the U.S. circuit court in Massachusetts. If the United States refused the suggestion, then Strong was to accept “any reasonable proposals which the government of the United States may offer as a substitute” and to secure a final settlement on the most advantageous terms possible. In his 16 Apr. reply to Strong, Henry Dearborn repeated his earlier position that the United States could only be held responsible for such articles that were deemed either necessary for the defense of Boston or actually used by the federal garrison. Dearborn had previously stated that the value placed by Massachusetts on the articles in question was far too high and suggested that they instead be appraised by a third party. Dearborn now proposes that Captain Nehemiah Freeman, the commander at Fort Independence, join with an artillery officer from Boston to determine a just valuation. Regarding the cannon and shot loaned to the navy, Dearborn has been informed that the secretary of the navy has written Strong on the subject “and will take the necessary measures for adjusting the business” (Resolves, &c. of the General Court of Massachusetts. Begun and Held at Boston, on Wednesday, the Twenty-Sixth Day of May, Anno Domini, 1802, and Continued by Adjournment to Tuesday, March 8, 1803 [Boston, 1803], 64–5; Dearborn to Strong, 16 Apr. 1803, Lb in DNA: RG 107, MLS).

Index Entries