James Madison Papers

To James Madison from John Dawson, 13 August 1797

From John Dawson

Philadelphia August 13th. 1797.

Dear Sir!

By the mail on Thursday I recievd your favour of the  1 Int.

On the 12 of the last month we sent a messenger to Tennessee for some persons & papers,2 & have good reason to conclude that we shall get some material testimony from that quarter. For his return I wait, & shall on it set out for Virginia, if I can escape the fever3 which is pretty prevalent here, notwithstanding the heavy rains which we have had.

The opinion which you have taken up of the plot, which is the subject of our investigation, is a correct one; & from the testimony which we already possess, I think we shall be able to shew to those who will recieve light, the perfidy of some of our own citizens—the criminality of the British minister,4 & the partiality of our polite secretary5—if an armd force has not been sent by the British ministry to Pensacola, to act in conjunction with American citizens & Indians against the Spaniards, or rather against the session of Louisiana by Spain to France, it is certainly not owing to the humanity of Mr. Liston or to his regard for our neutral rights—nor can we suppose that considerations of this nature have had much influence on the ministry—you therefore justly attribute the relinquishment to the great events which have taken place in Europe.

We are in hourly expectation of interesting accounts from Europe—the last (June 12) leave the mutiny of the sailors in the Nore in a very problematical state6—they may return to their duty—they may go to Holland or Bres⟨t⟩ or they may join their brother tars in Ireland, who appear to have caught the same spirit—if they can effect the latter, I confess it appears to me to be the course which they will most probably adopt, & one which in some points of view [is] likely to prove most ruinous to old England.

Colo Monroe is unwell & has been for several days—he thinks very ill—but I am persuaded that if he was in Albemarle, where the name of the yellow fever was scarce ever heard, he woud think very little of his present complaint. Present my respects to your lady & the family. Yrs with much Esteem

J Dawson


1Dawson left a blank space here. He referred to JM’s letter of ca. 3 Aug. 1797.

2Dawson was a member of the House committee charged with producing articles of impeachment against William Blount. On 11 July the committee authorized Maj. Thomas Lewis to serve a warrant on Maj. James Grant and precepts on John Rogers and James Carey, compelling them as alleged conspirators in the plan to invade Spanish possessions in North America to appear before the committee with all relevant documents. Lewis and his company arrived in Germantown, where the committee was sitting, on 25 Sept. (see the committee report, 30 Nov. 1797, in Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 5th Cong., 2d sess., 2320–21).

3In early August 1797 a yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia as it had during the summer of 1793. In the general panic a great number of citizens decamped, including Dawson’s committee. Many did not return until the onset of cold weather in October (Kenneth R. Rossman, Thomas Mifflin and the Politics of the American Revolution [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1952], pp. 282–85).

4Robert Liston (1742–1836) was the British minister to the U.S. from 1796 to 1800. In a letter of 28 Apr. 1797 to Dr. Nicholas Romayne, a friend and confederate of William Blount’s, Liston asked the doctor for “a full explanation of your sentiments on the subject [of the proposed attack on Spanish possessions],” promising to keep such communication secret. Liston was convinced that “something might possibly be effected” if a “person of confidence, with proper authority from home” led the actual invasion. This letter came into the committee’s possession 12 July (Mayo, Instructions to British Ministers, pp. 99 n. 75, 186 n. 25; Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 5th Cong., 2d sess., 2320, 2351–52).

5Dawson’s reference is to Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, who made considerable efforts to shield Liston from the consequences of his involvement in the conspiracy (Arthur Preston Whitaker, The Mississippi Question, 1795–1803: A Study in Trade, Politics, and Diplomacy [1934; Gloucester, Mass., 1962 reprint], p. 113; Gerard H. Clarfield, Timothy Pickering and American Diplomacy, 1795–1800 [Columbia, Mo., 1969], pp. 132–34).

6On 12 May 1797 the British fleet at Nore followed the example of the channel fleet at Spithead and mutinied. The outbreak at Spithead had been met with acquiescence to the demands of the mutineers and a general pardon; that at Nore was met by an inflexible determination to suppress it. While the twenty-four line-of-battle ships of the Nore mutineers blockaded the Thames, the government readied three small fleets manned by volunteers and merchant seamen to break the insurrection. By the middle of June the blockade was ended by the defection of a number of ships, and the ability of the remaining mutineers to flee was hindered by the government’s removal of the buoys that marked the channel. Reports from London of 12 June published in the Philadelphia Aurora General Advertiser of 9 Aug. predicted that the submission of the mutineers would quickly follow. By 13 June the few remaining ships had surrendered unconditionally, and on the last day of the month Richard Parker, the “president of the fleet,” and twenty-eight other leaders were hanged (G. J. Marcus, The Age of Nelson: The Royal Navy, 1793–1815 [New York, 1971], pp. 82–92).

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