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President Thomas Jefferson weighs in on the case of Gen. Ira Allen, the founder of the state of Vermont and the brother of Ethan Allen, who had been accused by the British of trafficking muskets and cannon to Irish rebels
A Thomas Jefferson Autographed Letter Signed as President – One page, Quarto, dated August 27, 1808, from Monticello.
Written to Caesar A. Rodney, who was then serving as Attorney General in Jeffersonâ€™s cabinet (1807-1811), regarding two important admiralty cases then facing his administration: that of Gen. Ira Allen with the British government, and Marc MouÃ©san, a French national who had recently been imprisoned in the U.S. for piracy. Jefferson pens (in full):
Your favor of the 13th is received. I see no reason against your giving your opinion, in favor of General Allen, to him to be used with the British government. The only doubt I ever entertained on it was that which you mention respecting his bail, and I have not yet seen my way out of that. I inclose you the letter of a M. MouÃ©san, whose case seems to be as hard a one as I have known. I wish you to open a correspondence with the district attorney of Maryland, get him to do for MouÃ©san whatever he can and to state the truth of the case, as it has appeared to him, & transmit it to us while it is fresh in his memory, as I have little doubt it will become a case between government & government. We have not received one interesting word from Genl. [John] Armstrong [then minister to France] or Mr. [William] Pinckney [then in London conducting negotiations with Great Britain regarding the U.S. embargo and British naval abuses in the Atlantic] since our separation. I salute you with affection & respect,
In 1796, Gen. Ira Allen went to France to buy guns and ammunition, which, according to his contract, were “for the use of the militia of the state of Vermont.” The guns were loaded on the American ship Olive Branch, which was captured by the British and taken into Portsmouth, England, as a lawful prize, England and France at that time being at war. His cargo of muskets, cannon, powder and other arms were deemed by the British to be bound for Irish rebels, despite Allenâ€™s protestations to the contrary. Allen was imprisoned for over a year, and was only released after being forced to pay for his court costs and his own imprisonment costs (his â€œbailâ€, as referred to by Jefferson in this letter).
Before Allen left for Europe, he was said to have $1,000,000 in land and cash. The British fine consisted of many thousands of dollars, and since Allen had already incurred large bills defending himself, he returned to the U.S. penniless, and pursued by creditors.
Improbable as it now seems, for over eleven years Allen battled the British Admiralty courts for just compensation. His request for U.S. intervention on his behalf stems from a meeting he had with Jefferson in Washington some seven months before the date of this letter, on February 2, 1808. The President agreed that he should submit his papers to Attorney General Caesar A. Rodney, who was to give his opinion to the President on the justice of Allenâ€™s claim against the British. Rodney was at once furnished with the evidence, which required a trunk to hold it, and which by its volume must have staggered the Attorney General, considering his duties at this period. Jefferson was completing his second term, and would retire on March 4, 1809. Allen had found him sympathetic to his cause and was anxious to push his case before Jeffersonâ€™s administration expired.
Allen remained in Washington until Rodney had written his opinion. Early in August, he learned it would be favorable, and Rodney returned all the records to him. Rodneyâ€™s opinion reads (in small part):
â€œThe case of General Allen merited, and has received mature consideration. His situation is peculiarly hard and distressing. If, agreeable to the acknowledged principles of the laws of nations, he is entitled to redress, the special interference of the Government of the United States will not only be proper, but is an act of real justice due to an injured individualâ€¦
General Allen is entitled to the interference of the Government of the United States, to produce him redress for the manifest injuries he has sustained, and injustice he has suffered, which he has hitherto sought in vain from the British Government.â€
The opinion was a full vindication of Allenâ€™s contentions, from the day of the seizure eleven years prior. This opinion should have secure to him the most positive and urgent demand on Great Britain by the United States Government, and full compensation for his great losses. Unfortunately for him, President Jefferson suspended diplomatic intercourse with Great Britain on August 9, and imposed an embargo against trade with Britain for interfering with U.S. merchant ships on the high seas. While Allen had accomplished the vindication of his character through the Attorney Generalâ€™s opinion and Jeffersonâ€™s ardent support, he had not recovered any damages so justly due from Great Britain.
The other legal case mentioned by Jefferson in this letter is that regarding the imprisonment of Marc MouÃ©san, commander of a French merchant vessel, who had been accused of piracy. MouÃ©san had petitioned Jefferson in a letter dated just seven days prior, on August 20, 1808, in which he described a similar odyssey to that of Gen. Allen. According to MouÃ©sanâ€™s account, his ship was attacked by two merchant schooners based out of Baltimore, which were then engaged in smuggling runs along the Atlantic seaboard. His ship was looted, and some of his crew were killed.
MouÃ©san then pursued legal action against the owners of the two schooners in a Baltimore court, seeking compensation for his ship and the deaths of his crewmen. Though the court found in his favor, the case then took (as MouÃ©san describes it) â€œa serious turnâ€. Before he could collect his judgment, he was countersued by the owners of the American schooners for seizing a ship called the Peggy some two years earlier in 1804, which he had captured off of Santo Domingo. Though the Santo Domingo admiralty court had judged that seizure lawful, the Baltimore court, perhaps improperly influenced by the American claimants, declared MouÃ©sanâ€™s earlier seizure of the Peggy to be an act of piracy. They vacated his judgment against the American merchants, and had him thrown in jail!
MouÃ©san then wrote to Jefferson in a desperate appeal for justice, which the President instructs Rodney to consider in the present letter. It is not known what became of MouÃ©san interesting case, although Jefferson properly sees it as a case that will soon be elevated to an issue between â€œgovernment & governmentâ€.
An excellent letter from Jefferson to his attorney general, Caesar Rodney, regarding two important civil admiralty cases, each threatening to cause an international incident.
In fine condition.
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