James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Pinkney, 22 January 1812

From William Pinkney

Baltimore. 22. Jany 1811. [1812]

Dear Sir

I have received a Letter from Mr Dallas (of the 16th.) from which it appears that he had not been applied to by Mr. Gallatin to assist in the Cases in the supreme Court of the US. in which it was thought his Aid would be advisable, and further that he would be willing to assist if applied to. Although I shall be perfectly prepared to argue one of them (the Case of the French National Vessel)1 it will be a great Gratification to me to have him for an associate in both. I take the Liberty to submit it to your Consideration whether an early Application to him would not be well, if it is intended to employ him at all.

I find an immense Mass of Business in the Supreme Court in which the Government is concerned but I hope to be able to get through with it at the ensuing Term. The Committee of Claims has referred Beaumarchais’s Case to me upon the Law of it. It perplexes me exceedingly; for in strict Law the Discount cannot well be maintained—and yet in all Righteousness it ought to be insisted on—at least there seems to be the strongest probability that it ought.2 I hope to be in Washington on Tuesday next. In the meantime I am not neglecting my Official Duties. I have the Honour to be with sincere Respect & Attachment—Dear Sir, Your faithful & Obt Servant.

Wm Pinkney

RC (DLC). Misdated 1811; date here assigned on the grounds that Pinkney was in London in January 1811 and also on the basis of internal evidence (see nn. 1 and 2). RC later docketed by JM as “Jany. 22. 1811.”

1Pinkney referred to the case of the French dispatch vessel the Balaou, which had been seized in Philadelphia in August 1811 (see Monroe to JM, 7 Sept. 1811, PJM-PS description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (4 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984–). description ends , 3:450, 451 n. 1). The U.S. circuit court, after reversing the decision of the U.S. district court which had ordered the Balaou released to its French master and crew, ordered that the vessel be restored to the Americans John M’Faddon and William Greetham, who claimed that it had been their property as the schooner Exchange before its confiscation by French officials in December 1810. District Attorney Alexander James Dallas then appealed this reversal to the Supreme Court, which during its 1812 term reversed the decision of the U.S. circuit court and restored the decision of the U.S. district court returning the vessel to France (see “The Schooner Exchange v. M’Faddon and Others,” 7 Cranch description begins William Cranch, Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Supreme Court of the United States (9 vols., 1804–17; reprint, Newark, N.Y., 1882). description ends 116–47). A full account of the episode was printed in the National Intelligencer on 5 Mar. 1812.

2The claim of the heirs of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais against the U.S. was a protracted matter, having already been considered by both Congress and JM on several occasions over the previous twenty-five years. The root of the problem was whether various amounts of money advanced to the U.S. during the Revolution for military and naval supplies, and particularly a sum of one million livres that Louis XVI had authorized Beaumarchais to spend in June 1776, had been gifts or loans from the French government, or whether they had been made from the personal finances of the count himself. With respect to the one million livres of June 1776, the heirs of Beaumarchais took the latter position, while the U.S. had adopted the former and invariably discounted the remuneration sought by the heirs by that amount (see JM to Joseph Jones, 28 May 1782, PJM description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (1st ser., vols. 1–10, Chicago, 1962–77, vols. 11–17, Charlottesville, Va., 1977–91). description ends , 4:287, 289–90 n. 4; Louis-André Pichon to JM, 14 Nov. 1801, PJM-SS description begins Robert J. Brugger et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series (4 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1986–). description ends , 2:241–43 and n. 1; ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Claims, pp. 314–19, 332, 334–37, 341–42, 343–46).

On 2 Jan. 1812 the House of Representatives instructed the Committee of Claims to come up with some solution to the dispute that did not require its removal to another tribunal. The committee members referred the matter to the attorney general one week later, and Pinkney subsequently informed them that if the demand of the heirs “has been admitted without rigorous proof, it is for Congress to determine how far it may be proper to measure a discount, claimed by the Government, by a standard purely legal.” “But,” he continued, “viewing the question referred to me, as I have been desired to view it, as a mere matter of law, I am compelled to say, that the title to the deduction insisted upon must be shown by the United States, and that the evidence would not be sufficient to establish it in a court of justice.” Pinkney’s view notwithstanding, the Committee of Claims made an unfavorable report on the petitions of the Beaumarchais heirs on 23 Mar. 1812, and the matter dragged on until 1835 (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 12th Cong., 1st sess., 610–11, 1231; Pinkney to [Thomas Gholson], 28 Feb. 1812, ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Claims, pp. 434–35).

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