George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Robert French, 24 April 1789

From Robert French

St Croix 24t Apl 1789

Heads of a Petition from Rt French, Mariner of Philadelphia Confin’d in the Fort, Island St Croix

To his Excellency the President and To The Right Honourable the senate and Congress of the United States the humble petition of Rt French respectfully Sheweth, that Your humble petitioner has a truly distress’d Family of a Wife and two Children in Philadelphia, that he has been a true and faithful Subject of the United States since the Year 1778 the period when he arriv’d there, from which period ’till his present Misfortune he has supported an irreproachable Character in every Capacity that a Mariner can serve on board, a Merchantman, and in all according to the Laws of Commerce—your humble petitioner, hopes from a consideration of those Facts, and the following, that Your honours will cause him to be demanded from the Danish Government, to be sent for to Philadelphia there to be tried by the Laws of his Country.1

The Cause of Your humble petitioners request is as follows—In the Month June Last 88 I commanded a Sloop of Mr Jno. Wilcocks2 to this Island (Your humble Petitioner Previous to this Command had been involv’d in Debt by the failure of a Mr Geo. Henry3 a Ship of whose he Commanded) in the Latter of sd Month being ready for Sea, I receiv’d from Mr Wilcocks the Sum of 96 half Joannes’s to be delivered here to Messrs Wm & Saml Newton Unexpected Demands coming on me the very Day I sail’d from Philadelphia I Made Use of part of this Money, being well Assured I had Venture on board more than sufficient to reimburse the Money. I Navigated the Vessel & took Care of her & Cargo to the best of my Knowledge, And arriv’d safe in this port, both Vessel and Cargo in good order, Notwithstanding the very severe Gales Wind we had and the Quantity of Water the Vessel made, which I think wou’d have Justified me in putting in to any other port, where, had my intentions been to Defraud, I might have left the Vessel, immediately on my Arrival here I acquainted the Mr Newtons with the Sum I had received Delivered their Letters with Bill of Lading inclos’d; I us’d every Effort to dispose of my Venture in order to make up the Money but it all prov’d ineffectual, three Days after my Arrival here I went to St Thomas a Danish Island 8 Leagues Dist. from St Croix in order to dispose of a few Articles which I compleated & was on the point of my return the Afternoon of the same Day I left this Island, when a Kings Sloop arriv’d with Orders from his Exellency the General of those Islands4 to apprehend me, in Vain did I beg to be sent over to this Island to deliver up the Effects I had for the Benefit of Mr Wilcocks. I was carried to the Fort and close Confin’d in a most miserable Room the description of which wou’d strike terror into the breast of any Human being. I was continued there for 10 Days then brought over here and lodg’d in close Confinement no person being Admitted to See me. I was carried after some time under a Strong Guard to Court, where I acknowledg’d the receipt of the Money Told the Necessities that Urdg’d me to lay it out, & the Means I had of reimbursing it, inform’d the Court that I appeal’d to the laws of my Country for there, and against them I had transgress’d and that not intentionally, after the expiration of 3 Months Judgment came out of the lower Court wherein it was declar’d that nothing Criminal was in my Case, and that it did not come Under the Danish Law. his Excellency the General at whose option it lies whether to Ratify a Judgment or not, and at the Same time was my prosecutor, appeal’d it to the upper Court here, after the expiration of three Months without ever been call’d to Court, to Defend myself, there was a most Dreadful Sentance read off to me.

It is that I am to pay the Sum in the Bill Lading Viz. 96 Joes Double that to the King as fine, to be Whipt and Branded under the Gallows all my Effects to be forfeited to the King, then put in Irons & there to remain during Life.

Oh Merciful God to thee & the Laws of my Country I appeal for Mercy.

I have appeal’d to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen in order to gain time to lay my dreadful Situation before Your honours & most Humbly begs & prays for your humane interpositions, as I have never in the smallest matter Transgress’d Against the Laws of Denmark. I will chearfully Submit to the Laws of my Country, and with a Christian like resignation receive the Judgt my unhappy Case may be deem’d deserving of[.] I Humbly beg & pray that your Honours will be pleas’d to take my Case into Consideration, that I may have the Benefit of those Laws, that I have Fought for & Bled to Support And in Duty I shall for Ever pray

Rt French

ADS, DNA:PCC, item 78; LB, DLC:GW.

1Robert French’s petition for aid in securing his release from confinement in St. Croix was accompanied by a certificate from Archibald Fisher, whom French had succeeded as master of the Queen of France, attesting to French’s good character and a statement of support for his petition signed by nineteen Philadelphia ship captains. On 15 June French’s wife Mary also wrote to GW and Congress describing her husband’s confinement and contending that “if her said Husband is guilty of any Crime in the premises, the place where such Crime is committed, shou’d be his place of Tryal, especially he being a Citizen of these United States, and therefore prays that if it be consistant with the Laws of Nations, he may be demanded as a Subject under your Excellency & Honours, as under his present Sentance your Petitioner is sure he cannot long sustain Life under his present Confinement, by which he will leave a most distressed Wife and two small Children to be beholding to the Charitable and Humane for their support, which with your Petitioner cannot be long—but provided it may not be expedient to demand him as a Subject of the United States, your Petitioner most Humbly prayeth your Excellency and Honours may in your great Justice and Humanity, grant her a Line to the Governor of Saint De Croix, or in such other manner or way (for his enlargement) as in your Excellency and Honors wisdom may seem mete” (DNA:PCC, item 78). Mrs. French’s petition is accompanied by a certificate, signed by seven Philadelphia residents including Benjamin Rush, stating that “we the Subscribers have long known the above Mary French, and beleive her to be a woman of fair character, and worthy of being credited.” Both Robert French’s petition and that of his wife were sent to GW on 19 June by George Clymer, congressman from Pennsylvania.

On 4 July 1789 John Jay wrote to Frederick Walterstorff, governor of St. Croix, stating that a member of Congress had “lately presented to the President of the United States, a Petition from Robert French” and one from his wife. “Both these Petitions are supported by Testimonies in Favor of both their Characters. . . . These several Facts and Circumstances induced the President to direct me to write to you on the Subject; and I do it with the more Pleasure, as it affords me an Opportunity of renewing the Acquaintance I had the Honor of forming with you at Paris, and as I am persuaded that you will chearfully render to Justice and Humanity, whatever they may appear to claim.”

“As it is difficult to suppose that the Sentence in Question was decreed to punish a Breach of Trust, involved in the Misapplication of Money; I presume that his going to St Thomas, must have been attended with Circumstances, which afforded presumptive Evidence of criminal Design. . . . It is natural and proper that Governments should be attentive to the Fate of their Citizens and Subjects. You I am persuaded will readily concur in this Sentiment, as well as in every proper Measure for cultivating and confirming mutual Satisfaction and Cordiality between our respective Governments and People” (DNA: RG 59, Foreign Letters of the Continental Congress and the Department of State, 1785–90). Walterstorff replied on 5 Aug.: “Some of the points stated by Robert Frensh, in a Petition presented to the President of the United States, are true, Some are incorrect, and others entirely devoid of Truth.

“On the 23 July 1788 said Robert French signed at Philadelphia Bills of Lading for 1 Johannes & 94 half Johannes’s, delivered to him by Mr Willoocks, in a bag, in good order & Condition & marked Wm & Samuel Newton Esqrs., to be delivered in the like good order and Condition to Said Messrs Wm & Samuel Newton at St Croix—However after his arrival here with his Sloop Molly Bourke, on the 24 August, he under different pretexts, procrastinated the delivery of Said 96 half Johannesses, untill the 29th of the Same month, when I received a Petition from Mr Henry Cooper, attorney to Mr John Willcoks and Consignee of Said Sloop Molly Bourke, stating that Robert Frensh had that Morning gone from the Island without delivering these 96 half Johannesses, or without having first completely unloaded: that he had not received the concurrence nor approbation of the Consignee of the Said Vessel, nor previously advertized his Departure or taken the usual Clearance from the Customhouse or Passport from the Government; & this being a matter in which the Safety of Commerce in general was Concerned, the Petitioner had thought it his Duty immedeately to acquaint me of Said Robert Frensh’s having thus clandestinely left the Island, in order that I might take Such Steps as Should appear requisite to prevent him from making use of this Money.” Walterstorff verified Cooper’s charges and dispatched a public vessel to St. Thomas to apprehend French. The governor assured Jay that at French’s trial he was represented by an attorney and had received every advantage of due process under Danish law; he defended the severity of the sentence on the ground that French had admitted most of the charges lodged against him. At French’s request Walterstorff sent all of the proceedings to the court of chancery in Copenhagen on appeal. “I have the Satisfaction to assure your Excellency, that Robert Frensh has not only been recommended to mercy by the upper Court, but that I have likewise represented to the Chancery that, as I had Succeeded in the principal object of my instituting a public action against Said Robert Frensh, which was Solely to impress the other masters of Vessels with a Sense of the Danger they would incur by making away with the Goods committed to their Care,” the chancery might lay the matter before the king “in a manner favourable to Said Robert Frensh” (DNA:PCC, item 78).

2John Wilcocks was a Philadelphia merchant. He was a stockholder in the Bank of North America and an active federalist.

3George Henry, a Philadelphia merchant, served as Pennsylvania’s commissary of naval stores during the Revolution. He apparently fell into financial difficulties in the mid–1780s.

4“The General” was Walterstorff. His full title was “His Danish Majesty’s Major General of Infantry, Chamberlain and Governor General of the Danish West India Islands” (Royal Danish American Gazette [St. Croix], 21 Mar. 1789).

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