George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Churchman, 25 March 1799

From John Churchman

March 25th 1799.

John Churchman presents his respectful compliments to General Washington, & altho almost out of Season, he wishes to make an apology for a certain Transaction which he understood was made known to the General, just before he resigned the important Office of President, a Transaction which might have done J. Churchman some Honor had he acted with caution, but he is afraid it has been construed to the contrary, therefore as his reputation is concerned which is dearer to him than life, he begs Liberty to State the case, & hopes to be pardoned for so doing.

After J. Churchman had got on Ship Board, he received under cover directed to himself, from the American Consul at Bordeaux, a Packet directed to Timothy Pickering Esqr. Secretary of State, Seeing the cover was directed to J. Churchman, he first broke the outside Seal; & without taking time to examine he broke the Seal of the Letter to the Secretary of State before he suspected it was for any other person besides himself, for as he had a short time before received through the hands of the American minister then at Paris, & the Consul at Bordeaux, a Copy of a Diploma from an European Academy of Sciences, he expected this Letter contained the original Diploma, & immediately after he discovered his error, he Sealed up the Letter & delivered it in Person to a Servant at the Door of the Secretary on the evening of the Day on which he Landed. Altho a Stranger to him he would have been very glad to have Spoken to the Secretary at that time, only on account of a tedious Voyage he happened to be scarce of clean Linen. A few days after this, J. Churchman introduced himself to the Secretary of State as the Bearer of his Letter, at which the Secretary said (in such a manner that alarmed him) that he was glad to hear it for the Letter had been opened, at this J. Churchman was at first afraid of being prosecuted, & said he did not open the Letter, neither did he for he only broke the Seal, but soon after on the same day J. Churchman took fresh courage, called on the Secretary of State again, & explained the whole affair to him, & was treated so Politely by him, that J. Churchman was very sorry he had not the resolution to have been so candid at the first interview.1

N.B. A copy of the above was shewn to the Secretary of State some time past with a very little Variation.


John Churchman (1753–1805), a surveyor and mapmaker, received considerable attention in the late 1780s and early 1790s for his controversial “Scheme for determining the Longitude from a combined observation of the latitude & variation of the magnetic needle” (Churchman to GW, 7 May 1789). See Thomas Ruston to GW, 20 Mar. 1789, introducing Churchman, and Churchman’s petition to GW, 7 May 1789, and see the editors’ notes in both these documents.

1On 29 July 1796 Secretary of State Timothy Pickering wrote GW: “About noon to-day Mr John Churchman . . . called at the office. He came last from Bourdeaux, and was the bearer of Mr [James] Monroe’s letter of the 2d of May. I told him it had been broken open; & after a few questions, asked him to give me a certificate of the circumstances which attended his receipt of it; and offered him pen, ink & paper to write it; unless he chose to do it at home. He said he would go home, and call himself at five in the afternoon (if that hour was convenient to me) as the matter required some consideration. He called at five accordingly; and then told me (with some emotion) that he thought it best to be candid . . . He had himself broken the seal, tho’ by mere accident; and as soon as he discovered his mistake, closed the letter again without reading it.” Pickering goes on to recount Churchman’s explanation of how this happened and then tells GW that he accepted the explanation. The U.S. consul to whom Churchman referred was Joseph Fenwick. For the removal of Fenwick as consul, see Comments on Monroe’s View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, c. March 1798.

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