George Washington Papers

To George Washington from William Lewis, 7 March 1791

From William Lewis

Philada 7th March 1791.


The interesting nature of the following business will I hope apologize for my troubling you respecting it. On Saturday last, I received Information that several Persons were on some account or other, confined in the Jail of this City, and that one of them, of the name of Henry Smith, had informed the Attorney General of this State, that he, with two or three of his Fellow Prisoners, and several other persons who are now at large in the different States, had been employed for a considerable time past in counterfeiting the Certificates of the United States, and in passing them as genuine.1 In consequence of this, I called on the Attorney General, and found from the communications which had been made to him, and some papers which he shewed me, that there was but little room to doubt of the truth of Smith’s Information. He added that Smith was willing to mention the Names of all the Offenders, with the places, where they are to be found, provided that he was assured of being perfectly indemnified.

I this morning called at the Jail, and had some private Conversation with Smith. I found him very willing to disclose the whole Business, on the above Terms, and indeed he went so far as to offer to shew me several of their original Papers, which he said would establish the whole of his account. As I was not authorized to give him any assurance of a Pardon, I thought this would be going too far, until I should know your Pleasure respecting it. He says, that two or three of the Offenders are now in Jail with him; that another is at large in this City, that some have gone off since he was apprehended, and that others are dispersed through the different States. It is certainly of importance that immediate Steps should be taken, for apprehending such daring Offenders, before they have a knowledge of Smith’s Discovery. I therefore submit to your superior Judgment, whether it will be proper for such assurances to be given to Smith as he requires.

If this is done, he may be immediately examined before a Judge, and the necessary steps be taken for securing his Confederates, though without his assistance I am afraid that Justice will be eluded.2 I have the honor to be with the greatest Esteem Your mo: Obt & mo: hble Servt

Wm Lewis

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

William Lewis (1751–1819), a Philadelphia Quaker lawyer, was born in Chester County, Pa., and was admitted to the bar in 1773. During the Revolution he served as defense counsel in several prominent treason trials and thereafter was regarded as a leading expert on treason and related crimes. He was also recognized as an authority on admiralty law. An outspoken opponent of the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 and later a prominent Federalist, Lewis was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature in 1787 and 1789 and was a principal draftsman of the Pennsylvania constitution of 1790. GW appointed him U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania in 1789. In July 1791 GW appointed him judge for the eastern district of Pennsylvania, in which capacity he served until April 1792.

1Counterfeiting public securities was a capital offense under section 14 of “An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States” (1 Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends 112–19 [30 April 1790]). The attorney general of Pennsylvania to whom Henry Smith confessed was William Bradford, subsequently appointed by GW to succeed Edmund Randolph as attorney general of the United States. At about the same time Smith was arrested in Philadelphia, one of his confederates, Clarkson Freeman, was arrested in New Jersey. Through his attorney, Elisha Boudinot, Freeman offered to confess to Abraham Ogden, U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Elisha Boudinot was the brother of Elias Boudinot, whose daughter was married to William Bradford. Promising only that it would not be used in evidence against him, Ogden proceeded to take down Freeman’s confession, which he forwarded under a letter to John Jay. Jay immediately forwarded these documents to GW (see Jay to GW, 11 Mar. 1791).

2Lewis apparently was instructed to take Smith’s confession or was able to obtain other information instrumental in the arrest of Francis Crane and Israel Fuller in New York for their counterfeiting activities (Alexander Hamilton to Richard Harison, 15 Mar. 1791, and Harison to Hamilton, 8 April 1791, Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 8:184–85, 251–53).

Index Entries