George Washington Papers

To George Washington from J. Poncignon, 13 October 1791

From J. Poncignon

au Cap Français [Saint Domingue]
le 13 8bre [Oct.] 1791

Monsieur Le Président

Nous ne vous repéterons point le recit des malheurs qui affligent cette brillante Portion de L’empire français, nos premiers dépêches vous ont Instruit, mais nous nous voyons a la Veille de ressentir violemment les Suites de cette Castastrophe, lorsque la tranquillité Sera Entiérement rétablie, la nécéssité ou nous sommes, par la Devastation et La Consommation des Vivres, de pourvoir, pour quelque tems et à nôtre subsistance Personnelle, et à celle de nos negres, à mesure que la force & la faim les forceront de rentrér dans le devoir, ainsi que les besoins de bois pour rêparér les bâtimens que les flammes ont devorés, ont determiné l’assemblé Générale et la partie française du Domingue, Conjointement avec le représentant du Roy, D’Envoyér au près des Etats unis, deux nouveaux Commissaires, Messieurs De Beauvois & ⟨Payan⟩ Pour sollicitér ces Secours, nous pensons que le Congrés Se prêtera d’autant plus Volontiers a la Secourir, qu’il Contribuera par la, d’une part à Conserver a la france une de Ses plus belles et plus riches posséssions, et que de l’autre il leur Sera Presenté des Suretes pour le payement Exact du somme ou des Objets qu’ils auront avancés;1 La Générosité de la france, et Son Empressement à venir au secours de Ses alliés malheureux, est trop généralement connue, pour qu’elle n’ait pas le droit d’espérer les mêmes Services, lorsqu’elle se trouve, ou un forte partie d’elle même dans le Besoin.

Nous nous flattons donc Monsieur Le President que le Congrés que Vous présides, voudra bien prendre notre Position en Consideration en observant que la prosperité du Commerce que les Sujets des etats unis font avec la Colonie française de St Domingue, depend en quelque façon de L’abondance des productions de cette derniere & des moyens de rétablir Ses manufactures detruites & incendiés. J’ai L’honneur D’être De Votre Excellence Le tres humble & tres Obeissant Serviteur.



ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

J. Poncignon [Poucignon], probably a native of Bordeaux, apparently later emigrated from Saint Domingue to the United States, having asked Stephen Girard around 1793 for help in obtaining lodgings in Philadelphia (Debien, Colons de Saint-Domingue et la Révolution description begins Gabriel Debien. Les Colons de Saint-Domingue et la Révolution: Essai sur le Club Massiac (Août 1789-Août 1792). Paris, 1953. description ends , 106, n.49; Childs, French Refugee Life description begins Frances Sergeant Childs. French Refugee Life in the United States, 1790–1800: An American Chapter of the French Revolution. Baltimore, 1940. description ends , 102). For background to the slave uprising in northern Saint Domingue, see Samuel Wall to GW, 16 Sept., n.1, and Ternant to GW, 24 September.

1Naturalist Ambroise-Marie-François-Joseph Palisot (1752–1820), baron de Beauvois, arrived in Philadelphia with Jean Payen de Boisneuf (Payan de Bois Neuf; d. 1815) on 13 Nov., carrying the above letter for GW and a separate one signed by Poncignon on 13 Oct. addressed to Congress. Beauvois was a native of Arras, France, who had served as a lawyer in the Parlement of Paris in 1772 before replacing his brother as general collector of estates in 1777. In the 1780s he pursued his interest in natural history in West Africa and Saint Domingue, arriving in the latter colony in 1788, where he soon became a member of the colonial assembly and the governor’s council. After Beauvois returned to Saint Domingue from his mission to Philadelphia, he was imprisoned by black leaders in June 1793 but later released, and made his way back to America, where he remained for several years collecting fossils, rattlesnakes, mushrooms, and other scientific specimens, before returning to France. Boisneuf later settled on the banks of the Monocacy River in Maryland, where he attempted to replicate the cruel regime of Saint Domingue slavery (Hartridge, “Refugees from St. Domingo in Maryland,” description begins Walter Charlton Hartridge. “The Refugees from the Island of St. Domingo in Maryland.” Maryland Historical Magazine 38 (June 1943): 103–22. description ends 119; Niemcewicz, Vine and Fig Tree, description begins Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797–1799, 1805, with Some Further Account of Life in New Jersey. Translated and edited by Metchie J. E. Budka. Elizabeth, N.J., 1965. description ends 111–12). After arriving in Philadelphia in 1791 and receiving permission from the French minister to do so, Beauvois and Boisneuf personally delivered their letters to the American secretary of state. Jefferson presented to the Senate Poncignon’s letter to Congress of 13 October. After reading it the Senate sent it to the House of Representatives on 18 Nov. (see Ternant to Montmorin, 17, 19, 24 Nov., 10 Dec., in Turner, Correspondence of the French Ministers, description begins Frederick J. Turner, ed. Correspondence of the French Ministers to the United States, 1791–1797. Washington, D.C., 1904. In Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1903, vol. 2. description ends 72–84; Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 2d Cong., 1st sess., 31). Congress took no action on Poncignon’s letter, which Philip Freneau printed in translation in his new National Gazette (Philadelphia) on 24 Nov.: “In our letter of the 24th of last August, you received information of the misfortunes which had befallen the northern part of this flourishing colony. Our whole force, though very limited, has been levelled against the ravagers, who are laying it waste; and we have so accomplished our ends, as if not to effect their total reduction, at least to check the evil in its progress. That unhappy catastrophe forced the General Assembly of the French part of St Domingo to embrace every means of safety, indispensable in similar cases, and rendered necessary by the urgency of circumstances; in consequence of which, the shipping in general, and among the rest, the vessels belonging to your nation, have experienced some little delay in their departure. But, desirous of maintaining that peace and harmony, that subsist between France (of which we constitute a part) and your states—desirous also of testifying, as far as in their power, their grateful acknowledgment of the generous services, offered and rendered to the colony, by the brave subject of the United States—the General Assembly, in concert with the King’s representative, have, in the first place, set aside the Droit d’Aubaine, in favor of such as might fall victims to their own zeal and courage. The Assembly would have wished to abolish it forever, and to extend the exemption to the Americans in general; but this object being a constitutional point, they intend to apply for it to the mother country; and we have not a doubt, that she will eagerly gratify our wishes. In the next place, having taken into consideration the obstacles, experienced by Mr Silvanus Bourne, your consul in this colony, to the registry of his credentials—obstacles, which were occasioned by certain formal defects—the General Assembly hastened to remove them, and to give orders that the said credentials should be registered. Finally, under the constant influence of those principles of justice and equity, which cement the union between the two allied nations, and desirous of corresponding with the views of France, who will ever hold dear the memorable epoch, when she saw permanent security given to the unlimited freedom of a nation, that has furnished her with the glorious example, for the recovery of her own rights so long misunderstood—The General Assembly have, in favor of the Americans, hastened to take off the embargo, which the unfortunate situation of affairs had obliged them to lay on all vessels without distinction. But in vain would the colony have recovered her former tranquility, if the means of applying a speedy remedy to the evil were not to be employed. The General Assembly have therefore determined to send to your body two new commissioners, Messrs De Beavois and Payan, who are provided with letters from the Assembly and the King’s representative. The General Assembly do not entertain a doubt, that you will together with a favorable reception to them, give your assent to the requisitions which they are empowered to make of you, the success of which will undoubtedly extend its influence to the commerce, which the subjects of the United States carry on with this colony. With this pleasing hope, we contemplate their departure, and direct them to the representatives of a generous nation, the friend and ally of France since the year 1782, the period when she fully recovered her liberty” (Poncignon to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, 13 Oct. 1791). For Jefferson’s detailed report of the affair to William Short on 24 Nov., see Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 22:328–32.

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