James Madison Papers

Amendment to Report on Thomas Edison, [3 December] 1781

Amendment to Report on Thomas Edison

MS (NA: PCC, No. 19, II, 201–3). Written by JM. The docket of the report reads: “Letter from Thos. Edison Nov. 30 referred to Mr. Lovell Mr. Carroll Mr. Bee Report—Entd. 3 Dec. recommitted passed Decr. 5th. 1781.”

[3 December 1781]1

Tha[t] T. Eddison has by an essential service to the U. S. and a singular proof of his fidelity to their interests recommended himself to the attention & reward of Congress.2

1The editors assume that JM offered his amendment on the date when the committee first reported to Congress (see headnote). The printed journal mentions neither the appointment of the committee on 30 November nor the recommitment of the original proposal three days later (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1147–51). The committee’s first report read:

“That Mr. Edison has rendered a very essential Service to the United States; and hath manifested singular Fidelity to them, has sacrificed a large Emolument, thereby meriting a Gratuity and future special Confidence. Whereupon

“Resolved that the Sum of £100 pounds be paid gratuitously to Thos. Edison out of the public Treasury of the United States.”

Before reporting to Congress, the committee probably struck out the clause deleted above. On the manuscript the entire first paragraph is excised by a heavily inked cross, most likely from the pen of Charles Thomson and signifying that Congress had agreed to replace that paragraph with JM’s amendment. The report was then sent back to the committee for redrafting.

An editorial footnote in the printed journal of 5 December, when Congress adopted the new version of the report, mistakenly attributes JM’s amendment to Thomas Bee. The concluding paragraph was altered to read: “Ordered, That the sum of two hundred and sixty-six dollars and two-thirds of a dollar be paid to Thomas Edison out of the treasury of the United States” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1160, and n. 2.).

2For about three years, beginning on 12 June 1778, Thomas Edison was a clerk in the office of Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress. Little else can be said about him with assurance. His age, his early life, the full story of his “very essential Service to the United States,” and his career after the spring of 1783 are all controversial. Judging from incidental remarks in his letters and from an expense account rendered shortly after he started to work for Thomson, Edison and near relatives had come about 1775 to America, and possibly to Yorktown, Va. Although his kinsfolk were Loyalists, and may have taken refuge in New York, he embraced the patriot cause. During his employment by Thomson, Edison seems to have become increasingly disgruntled by his low salary and by Congress’ failure to pay it when due. According to Robert Morris, Edison was prone to live too expensively “for his circumstances.” The exact date in 1781 when he gave up his clerkship has not been ascertained, but about 1 October he returned to Philadelphia from a stay in New York City. He had been taken there after being captured at sea in an American ship. While in New York he heard of, and perhaps assented to, a scheme, apparently concocted by Benedict Arnold, “that blot upon humanity,” whereby the British soldiers John Moody and Laurence Marr were promised five hundred guineas if they succeeded in purloining confidential documents from Charles Thomson’s office and delivering them to Arnold. At least as far back as the autumn of 1779 there had been talk at Clinton’s headquarters of placing a secret agent among Thomson’s clerks. Edison’s experience obviously qualified him for the assignment. Early in November 1781 Edison, Moody, and Marr were apprehended in Philadelphia. The latter two men were tried by court-martial and sentenced to death as spies.

The present resolution permits no doubt that at least a majority of the members of Congress believed Edison had shared in the plot in order to expose it, and hence merited a reward. On the other hand, many prominent Philadelphians continued to hold that he had been a willing conspirator until his arrest. Only then, in their opinion, did he rediscover his patriotism, turn state’s evidence, and thus save himself from death. Until Edison dropped out of sight in April 1783, he frequently wrote to the president or some other leading member of Congress, describing his abject poverty, his creditors’ relentlessness, and his peril from the vengeance of the “Torey Faction.” With growing bitterness at the injustice of Congress, he asked with little success for further monetary reward and a new appointment as a clerk. During this period Congress appears to have paid him about $335 in addition to the sum awarded him by the present resolution (NA: PCC, No. 19, II, 203; No. 78, VIII, 357, 361, 365, 375, 381, 385, 389, 393, 397, 405; No. 142, fols. 39, 131, 291, 339; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XI, 789, 1153; XIII, 44, 238, 474; XXI, 1109; XXII, 209, 349; XXIII, 542, 629; XXIV, 43 n., 265; Pennsylvania Gazette, 14 November 1781; Pennsylvania Packet, 15 November 1781; Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, XVI [1892], 160–61; XXVIII [1904], 291; Carl Van Doren, Secret History of American Revolution, pp. 225–26; William E. O’Donnell, Chevalier de La Luzerne, p. 209).

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