Uncommon War Date Autograph Letter Signed of the Signer of the Declaration of Independence.
When hostilities broke out between Great Britain and the America in 1775, privateers set out from American ports with letters of marque issued by either the state governments or the Continental Congress. These privately owned and outfitted ships cruised in search of enemy vessels and merchantmen, seeking to take and bring...
When hostilities broke out between Great Britain and the America in 1775, privateers set out from American ports with letters of marque issued by either the state governments or the Continental Congress. These privately owned and outfitted ships cruised in search of enemy vessels and merchantmen, seeking to take and bring them into port for private gain. There a prize court would determine if a legal capture had been made, and then either condemn the vessel to be sold and the prize money distributed to the privateer or release the vessel. If the cargo was perishable, it could order an immediate sale regardless. Congress encouraged the separate states to establish such prize courts and it provided for an appeal to Congress in the event that a party disagreed with the local ruling.
Hopkinson was a Philadelphia lawyer, member of the Continental Congress, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1779, he was appointed to succeed fellow Signer George Ross as the judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania, in which capacity he presided over the prize cases for ships coming into the busy port of Philadelphia. In 1790, after sitting on the bench for a decade, he would be impeached by the state senate, due to claimed corruption in office (taking bribes to order the condemnation and sale of prize cargos from those wishing to sell those cargo). The present letter refers to the prize ship Albion, which was mentioned in the impeachment report of November 22, 1790 as an example in which he issued a writ of sale, claiming that the cargo was in danger of waste, spoil and damage, when in fact he had no evidence of this. He was not only acquitted of all charges, but President Washington gave Hopkinson a vote of confidence by appointing him Judge of the United States, for the district of Pennsylvania.
The Albion was captured and brought into Philadelphia in 1780, at which time its case was brought before Hopkinson. He condemned the cargo to be sold as perishable on an expedited basis, but evidently someone protested the condemnation and sale. Hopkinson looked into the matter.
Autograph Letter Signed, Philadelphia, August 11, 1780, to the official who was responsible for conducting the sales of prize cargos, probably the sheriff. "Some doubts having arisen as to the propriety of suffering Prize Goods to be sold by public Vendue unless the same shall on Inspection be found to be in a perishing condition, I have directed William Heysham &?William Budden Esquires to examine the Situation of the Cargoe on Board the Prize Ship Albion, which cargo you have advertised for sale this afternoon. Messrs. Heysham &?Budden have made a Report to me that they have carefully examined the said Cargo being Liverpool Salt & that 'they find the same in good order and well condition'd and in no immediate Danger of suffering by Waste or otherwise. You are therefore hereby directed not to proceed with the sale of the said salt, but reserve the same to be disposed of as the Court shall order after Trial of the said Ship Albion and her Cargoe." This is our first letter of Hopkinson concerning prize cases in the Revolution. Our research discovers just 4 ALSs of Hopkinson selling publicly during the course of the last three decades.
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