George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Marchant, 3 August 1793

From Henry Marchant

Newport [R.I.] August 3rd 1793


it is my Duty to give Your Excellency the earliest Intelligence of a Transaction highly important, as it may affect the national Honor, and the Interest of Individuals.1

On the thirtieth day of July last, A British MerchtShip, called the Catharine, William James Davis Master or Commander mounting Eight Cannon, and a number of wooden Guns, arrived and anchored in this Harbour—She was last from Jamaica, bound for New Brunswick with five or six passengers, their black Servants and their Baggage, contracted to be landed at Sandy Hook or Rhode Island2—On the thirty first Day of July at four o’Clock in the Afternoon the Captn entered his Ship at the Custom House: at about twele o’Clock of the same Day two respectable Gentlemen of this Town informed me that some of the Passengers who Appeared to be Gentlemen, had related, that on their passage Capt. Davis had boarded an American Sloop, and plundered her of a Considerable Property—and that they declared they were willing to give the fullest acct to the Authority—Under this simple statemnt I conceived the Information to be of the highest Importance and if well founded had no Doubt of what might be my immediate Duty—I requested One of the Gentlemen to procure me the Names of these passengers, and where they might be found, and that he would in his way see Jabez Champlin the Deputy Marshall.3 The Gentleman soon returned with the name of Richard Birch; I issued a Summons for him but he was gone on Board, it was said about his Baggage—At Three o’Clock in the Afternoon Birch came with Dr John Harris another Passenger, and I took the Deposition of Birch—The getting out the material parts of a lengthy Narration. The making of a fair Copy to be signed and engaged to, and a very improper Interference in the Business took up much Time4—As the Facts stood upon the Deposition of Birch, I confess I had Embarrassments upon my Mind. Questions of magnitude and National Importance arose. I had no Law Character to Consult—The Attorney of the United States was very sick—My Library was my only help, but Time was necessary—I sent however to the Atty of the U.S.—requesting him if not too unwell to think upon the Subject5—I had early made out a Warrant to be ready, when I shd obtain the necessary Information to Ground it upon—and make up my mind upon the Subject—Mr Atty sent me word about six O’Clock, that he was clear Capt. Davis ought to be charged with Piracy and advised a Warrant accordingly. I called upon him, and a few minutes after Eight o’Clock, the moment I had been able to get the deposition of Birch (whose Conduct had become much altered by the Interference above hinted at,) signed and sworn to, I delivered the Warrant to the Depy Marshall with Directions to execute it immediately, and to call for whatever Assistance he should want in Case of Opposition—And I am happy to find that notwithstanding the Delay occasioned in the manner Mentioned, the warrant was delivered in Season for Execution.6

It was thought the Capt. was on Board, but it was the next Day discovered, that he had been in Town, till just before ten o’Clock in the Evening, when he was put on Board, as I am informed by the Person who Pilotted him in. The Custom-House Boat, I am informed was offered the Deputy-Marshall, but it was never called for. He made some arrangements with John Wanton Capt. of the Fort, who Offered to go on Board with him, and to procure hands; but before Ten o’Clock the D. Marshall, informed Capt. Wanton, (who had procured hands he thought sufficient) He had given up the Idea of going on Board till the next morning; but requested Capt. Wanton with the Poeple he had collected, to go to the Fort and endeavour to stop the Ship, if he discovered her attempting to go out. Capt. Wanton urged their going on Board then, but said if he the D. Marshall declined it, he would go to the Fort, and do what he could, which he did.7

The D. Marshall returned home. It had been a perfect Calm till about Eleven o’Clock, when a fair Breeze sprang up, and the Ship cut or sliped her Cable and got under Way—Capt. Wanton Says, upon perceiving her in Motion he hailed her, and told them, if she attempted to go out, He would fire into Her; They answered they should not, but immediately her lights were struck out, and her Sails all loose, and She was under Way—He fired a Gun, the Breeze had much increased, She was soon at a very considerable distance, But he fired another Gun, after which she was soon out of Sight—Capt. Wanton says that just after he had arrived at the Fort—a small Boat from Town, went on Board the Ship—The D. Marshall made Return of his Warrant, as on the Copy there of No. 3.

Rhode Island District ss. Augt 1. 1793

The within named William James Davis not to be by me found within this District

Jabez Champlin D.M.

The above Account of the Capt: of the Fort was related to me by himself in the presence of the D. Marshall who made no Objections thereto—The Ship left her Papers at the Custom House and Carried off the Baggage of her Passengers.8

I would hope to be favoured with your Excellencies Thoughts upon this Subject9—I feel the present situation of our Country and am anxious for the Preservation of its Peace and Prosperity, and the Honor of its Government. Which I am well assured however, under the Auspices of the great Governor of the World, will be well supported by those Under whose Protection it is placed by Heaven-directed Wisdom. With Sentments of,10 entire Duty and sincere Respect I am Your Excellencies most obedient and very humble Servt

Henry Marchant.

LS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

1Marchant was a federal judge for the district of Rhode Island (Marchant to GW, 7 June 1790).

2The ship was bound for the Canadian maritime province of New Brunswick, and the captain apparently decided to dock temporarily at Newport rather than Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

3Jabez Champlin (1728–1805) served as the sheriff of Newport prior to the Revolutionary War and currently was the deputy federal marshal for Rhode Island. During the war he served as barrack-master for the troops under French general Rochambeau during their encampment at Newport in 1781 (GW to Pierre François, Chevalier de Béville, 8 May 1781, Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW).

4Marchant enclosed copies of four depositions taken from British passengers aboard the Catherine: Richard Birch, 31 July; Dr. John Harris and Mary Fitch, 1 August; and Joseph Fitch, 2 August (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). According to these depositions the captain and crew of the Catherine boarded an American sloop off Cape Hatteras sometime in July. They left the sloop’s cargo of coffee untouched, but confiscated money, plate, and clothing belonging to the French passengers, who were refugees from the French colony of Saint Domingue. While the depositions do not agree on the exact date of this incident and other details, they all agree that when the Catherine encountered the British frigate Boston a few days later, Captain Davis turned over a portion of the confiscated money to George William Augustus Courtenay, commander of the frigate. According to an article in the 31 July issue of the Daily Advertiser (New York), the American sloop Rainbow, under command of Captain Mackay, left the port of Cap Français on 11 July with forty-three passengers. On 21 July, Davis and the crew of the Catherine boarded the sloop and confiscated the property of the French passengers.

In a second letter to GW of this date, Marchant explained the improper action: “an Explanation of the improper Interference hinted in my Letter of this same Date respecting the Conduct of Capt: Davis of the Ship Catherine, I thought most prudent to refer to a seperate Letter. Mr Birch the Witness mentioned in my other Letter, having been represented as much of a Gentleman, and his first Appearance being much so, and apparently very candid, as was that of Dr Harris, who accompanied him, when I had completed his Deposition all to copying I permitted ⟨him⟩ to step to his Lodgings untill a fair Copy of it should be made. He engaged he would return within three quarters of an Hour but did not within two Hours and an half. I had wished to see the U.S. Atty [William Channing] I went to his House, but previously directed my Son [William] to bring Mr Birch thither as soon as he should come to my Office. At length Mr Birch came to the District Attorneys Office accompanied with Mr [William] Moore, whom I have presumed is a Vice Consul, altho’ I have never seen any Credentials of it. I told Mr Birch, I was sorry he had so exceedingly departed from his Engagement to me. He answered, he had been detained in Conversation with the Vice Consul; I told him it was no Excuse, or worse than none. The V. Consul is very hard of hearing. He made no Observation upon what I had said, but in somewhat of a Flutter came closer up to me, and in a low Voice said he had undertaken for those People, he hoped it would not be exceptionable. I answered him, I had no Objection to his giving any kind of Assistance to British Subjects, that might be consistant with his Character. He then asked me by what Authority the Evidence of this Gentleman was taken. I told him by mine as Judge of this District, upon which he seemed to shrink back, and immediately said, but Sir, he was never summoned. I answered I had sent an Officer with a summons, and Mr Birch had answered it by an immediate Appearance. Sir, said Mr Birch I never saw or knew of a summons a Gentleman came to me; and saying the Judge wished to see me; I waited upon him. I answered the Officer had treated him as a Gentleman, had he hessitated, the Officer would have shewn him his Authority. But this is all from the Purpose I replied. You are now before me, and are you willing to sign and engage to the Declaration you have made or not? Yes Sir, Then Sir there is a fair Copy, peruse it. He desired one or two trifling alterations might be made, which being made, and he just going to sign it, Mr V. Consul eagerly said, there can be no Occasion of being in a hurry, the Morning will do as well. Sir said I, it shall be done now or never. Upon which Mr Birch said he was ready to do it; He signed and made Oath to it. Then the V. Consul seeming under much Concern said, if the Capt. has done wickedly in this Business, I am willing he should suffer, will you in the Morning take any Depositions or Examinations We may require? I replied I would chearfully We will wait upon you then Sir said he, And upon Honor you may rely upon it, the Capt: will himself come, and give you a candid Account of the whole Transacton. I told him I should be glad to see him.

“Whatever were my Feelings, I suppressed them, meaning to communicate them myself to your Excellency—I am aware of the Times; the Delicacy that may be proper for the Moment, The Trouble that many are wishing daily to heap upon your Excellency. I am willing, to sacrifice every personal Consideration to your Peace, and the Happiness of Our Country—Knowing that its real Honor and Reputation are in Hands capable and sufficient under Heaven for Their Security and the most permanent Establishment of Our Government” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

5William Channing was the U.S. attorney for the District of Rhode Island.

6Marchant enclosed a copy of the warrant that was issued on 31 July (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

7Fort Washington, called Fort George by the British during their occupation of Newport in the Revolutionary War, was located on Goat Island and guarded the entrance from Narragansett Bay to Newport’s harbor. It was renamed Fort Wolcott in 1798.

8Marchant enclosed copies of the “Manifest of the Cargo, and Passenger’s baggage, on board the Catherine,” Newport, 31 July; a customs certificate, Kingston, Jamaica, 21 June; and a clearance form, Kingston, Jamaica, 21 June 1793. William Ellery, the collector of customs at Newport, certified each copy on 3 Aug. 1793. All three copies are in DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

9After receiving Marchant’s letters and enclosures on 14 August, GW had Tobias Lear send them to Thomas Jefferson for his opinion (JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends , 219; Lear to Jefferson, 14 Aug. 1793).

10The remainder of the closing and the signature is in Marchant’s writing.

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