1528: Eitelhans Langenmantel, Thomas Jefferson ancestor

1 comment May 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1528, the Augsburg Anabaptist Eitelhans Langenmantel was executed as a heretic, along with a servant and a maid. Langenmantel had used his own fortune to print several dissident tracts.

His infant grandson, Daniel Hoechstetter, would eventually emigrate to Cumberland where he did honorable business for England’s Royal Mines as part of a community of German miners.

Through this Anglicized descendant, Langenmantel is the maternal great great great great great great great grandfather of U.S. President and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.

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1807: Jenkin Ratford, Chesapeake-Leopard affair casualty

Add comment August 31st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1807, the British navy hanged Jenkin Ratford from the yardarm of the HMS Halifax off the coast of Maryland — an incident destined to become a rallying cry for the United States in the ill-fated War of 1812.

The U.S. at this moment was an upstart young country and naturally enough chafed at the lordly interpositions of her recent mother country. Great Britain had the navy, however, so the Americans could chafe all they liked. In the words of the tune that had emerged in the 18th century with Britain’s globe-straddling sea power

Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves
Britons never will be slaves.

The Britons who got to do the grunt work of wave-ruling might disagree.

Seaman in the Royal Navy, and that huge navy needed many seamen, was a harrowingly brutal position often filled by press gangs empowered to grab anyone not able to produce immediate evidence of exemption and have them by next morning swabbing the nearest frigate on a ration of wormy hardtack. Desertion was correspondingly popular and more radical resorts not unheard-of; the mutiny on the Bounty had occurred in 1789; two other mutinies much more alarmingly proximate to Old Blighty took place in 1797.

Britain’s willingness to extend impressment to stopping American ships and seizing crew members who couldn’t produce American identity papers made a great affront to the young Republic — an insulting reminder of its third-rate* place among the nations. Years before while American colonists were kicking redcoat ass in the Revolution, they had dreamt among other things of correcting America’s aggravating dependence on the British fleet. “No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense. “Ship building is America’s greatest pride, and in which she will, in time, excel the whole world.”

Congress got a start on that project with a 1794 naval act creating the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. The USS Constitution is the most famous of these; one of her five sisters, the Chesapeake, will figure in the action of this date’s post.

In 1806, two French ships, the Cybelle and the Patriot, struggled into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay for repairs after being crippled by a storm at sea — stalked by British ships that blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake to trap them there.

The proximity of American soil proved an irresistible inducement for at least four sailors on the British ships to desert. Three of them — William Ware, Daniel Martin and John Strachan — were American victims of British impressment. The fourth, our man Jenkins Ratford, was a Limey. They then enlisted in the American Navy.

Great Britain’s demands for their return met with steady refusal on the American side. Knowing that the deserters had been posted to the Chesapeake, which was then outfitting for deployment to the Mediterranean, British ships in the vicinity of the North American coast were ordered to stop the Chesapeake on sight to recover the absconders.

This the HMS Leopard did do on June 22, 1807, and with a singular lack of subtlety: the Leopard battered the Chesapeake with broadsides. Shocked and unprepared, the Americans couldn’t even fire back before striking colors and yielding to a humiliating British search that hauled off Ware, Martin, Strachan and Ratford.


The HMS Leopard (easily recognizable since it’s the only ship firing!) vs. the USS Chesapeake.

While these unfortunates were sailed off to Halifax, Nova Scotia** for their trial, outrage spread on American shores — immediately advised of the incident since the Chesapeake† had had to limp directly back to Norfolk, Va., for repairs. Outrage at the British, but also outrage at the captain who failed to so much as resist the attack (he was court-martialed, and suspended from command for five years), and outrage for the national honor. Some, more vengeful than sensible, wanted immmediate hostilities with Great Britain. “Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity,” U.S President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, the French emigre Dupont de Nemours.‡

Ratford, the only actual British citizen among the shanghaied sailormen, was the only one executed. The Americans “merely” got prison sentences.

At the political level, President Jefferson had a thorny problem. The British could in no way be induced to meet the American demand to end impressment, for simultaneous with the scandal Napoleon was finalizing victories that would knock Britain’s continental allies out of an altogether more urgent war. No derogation of security interests could be entertained, and so for America, no diplomatic satisfaction could be forthcoming.

Instead of war, Jefferson responded by convincing Congress to enact an embargo on trade with Europe. It proved to be a counterproductive policy that damaged the U.S. far more than the European export markets it had intended to punish.

The U.S. and U.K. would come to blows soon enough, and if the War of 1812 was hardly fought because of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, that incident was certainly among the contributing grievances.

Injuries more directly attributable were not hard to come by, however. When James Barron, the suspended former commander of the Chesapeake, sought reinstatement to the navy, early American naval hero Stephen Decatur opposed him with vehemence sufficient to induce Barron to challenge Decatur to a duel. Decatur was slain in the fight, shockingly pinching out one of America’s leading military figures at the age of 41.


(cc) image by David King.

The Chesapeake herself fared little better. The ship was captured by the British in the ill-fated War of 1812, and recommissioned into the hated Royal Navy. Sold off for scrap in 1819, its timbers were repurposed for a long-lived (and now historic) Hampshire watermill — the Chesapeake Mill.

* See what I did there.

** Halifax the city is where they were tried; the HMS Halifax, which was Ratford’s ship prior to desertion, is where Ratford was executed. It’s Halifaxes all the way down.

Thanks to this incident, the very name “USS Chesapeake” became so blackened in American naval history that it has barely been touched for any vessel since.

‡ Father of the DuPont who founded the DuPont chemical company and made that family perpetual American plutocrats down to the present day.

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1778: Josiah Phillips, attainted by Thomas Jefferson

Add comment December 4th, 2013 Headsman

There is one example of this violation in Virginia, of a most striking and shocking nature; an example so horrid, that if I conceived my country would passively permit a repetition of it, dear as it is to me, I should seek means of expatriating myself from it. A man, who was then a citizen, was deprived of his life thus: From a mere reliance on general reports, a gentleman in the house of delegates informed the house, that a certain man had committed several crimes, and was running at large perpetrating other crimes; he, therefore, moved for leave to attaint him; he obtained that leave instantly … Without being confronted with his accusers and witnesses, without the privilege of calling for evidence in his behalf, he was sentenced to death, and was afterwards actually executed. Was this arbitrary deprivation of life, the dearest gift of God to man, consistent with the genius of a republican government? Is this compatible with the spirit of freedom? This, sir, has made the deepest impression in my heart, and I cannot contemplate it without horror.

Edmund Randolph (Source)

On this date in 1778, attainted Revolutionary War-era outlaw Josiah Phillips was hanged in Virginia.

Contrary to Randolph’s recollection, the execution took place according to a regular jury verdict convicting Philips for stealing 28 hats and five pounds of twine — felony theft by the Bloody Code inherited from England.

Even so, it was the Act of Attainder voted unanimously by the Virginia legislature that stuck in the popular memory, so much so that even the likes of Randolph, a lawyer by trade and later the first Attorney General of the independent United States, misstated* it as the proximate cause of Phillips’s execution.

Another inheritance from the mother country, Acts of Attainder — wherein the legislature declares some party guilty of a crime and declares punishment without benefit of trial — were going right out of style in the twilight of the 18th century. The eventual U.S. Constitution would flatly abolish the practice; Britain herself has not enacted one since 1798.

So it comes as some surprise to see that Phillips was outlawed** at the instigation of no less a person than old Mr. Inalienable Rights himself, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Bill of Attainder gave Philips and his band a June 1778 deadline to turn themselves in voluntarily, or else they

shall stand and be convicted and attainted of high treason, and shall suffer the pains of death, and incur all forfeitures, penalties and disabilities prescribed by the law against those convicted and attainted of High-treason: and that execution of this sentence of attainder shall be done by order of the General court to be entered as soon as may be conveniently after notice that any of the said offenders are in custody of the keeper of the public gaol …

And that the good people of this commonwealth may not in the mean time be subject to the unrestrained hostilities of the said insurgents, be it further enacted that from and after the passing of this act it shall be lawful for any person with or without orders, to pursue and slay the said Josiah Philips and any others who have been of his associates or confederates at any time.

Now in fairness, Josiah Phillips was no ordinary hat-thief, regardless of what the charge-sheet read. He was a Tory marauder who led a gang of outlaws/guerrillas/terrorists who lurked in the Dismal Swamp and had just weeks before repelled a Commonwealth militia dispatched by Governor Patrick Henry.

For Henry, who sought the attainder, and for Jefferson the Phillips band looked like a clear security threat. “The delays which would attend the proceeding to outlaw the said offenders according to the usual forms and procedures of the courts of law would leave the said good people for a long time exposed to murder and devastation,” in the words of the attainder. And indeed, the rebellious colonies — ultra-patriotic Pennsylvania especially — had had regular recourse to Acts of Attainder against Tory loyalists over the span of the American Revolution. (Actual executions under attainders were extremely rare.)

However, the inconsistency of such an instrument long associated with monarchical tyranny with its author’s more usual Rights of Man fulminations had Jefferson still defending the Phillips attainder as late as 1815.

Whatever might have best suited Josiah Phillips, the last word on the matter in American jurisprudence has belonged to the overwhelming sentiment of his fellow-Founders … like James Madison, whose Federalist no. 44 flatly avers that Bills of Attainder “are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”

* Randolph himself, as Virginia’s attorney general, made the call not to use the attainder against Phillips because of Randolph’s own discomfort with it. But his “misremembering” was convenient to a later interest in excoriating Patrick Henry.

** Arguably contravening Virginia’s existing 1776 Declaration of Rights. “In all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.”

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1799: Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas, anti-slavery insurrectionist

Add comment December 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Portuguese Jew Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas was publicly hanged in Kingston for attempting to incite a slave revolt in the British colony of Jamaica.

Here in a revolutionary age, probably no insurrection could terrify Europe’s ancien regimes like the Haitian Revolution.

History’s most successful slave revolt, the rising that seized Saint-Domingue from the French conceivably threatened — if it should spread — the entire material foundation of Europe’s colonial exploitation, and the racist intellectual superstructure that justified it.

This nightmare of crowned heads was also the dream of the epoch’s visionaries, and the subject of a struggle whose victims included Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas among many, many others.

Domingue if I do

An insurrection of Caribbean slaves against European exploiters had obvious appeal to their brethren groaning at the bottom of the Atlantic economy. In “Saint Domingue in Virginia: Ideology, Local Meanings, and Resistance to Slavery, 1790-1800” (Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1997) James Sidbury explores the (to whites) nerve-wracking arrival in that U.S. state of both news and refugees from revolutionary Saint-Domingue.

In 1793 Willis Wilson complained to Governor Lee of the “defenceless situation” of the town of Portsmouth, whose militia lacked arms and whose streets contained “many hundreds [of] French Negroes” including, Wilson had been “inform’d,” many who “belong[ed] tothe insurrection of Hispaniola.” … a commander at the state arsenal of Point of Fork — located on the James River west of Richmond and southesat of Charlottesville — reported dangerous “conversations amount the “people of colour” … “particularly since the Arrival of the French from C[ap] F[rancois],” Saint Domingue.

While these currents carried along Gabriel Prosser and a young Denmark Vesey, they also swept up men who were not slaves at all.

Isaac Sasportas, the nephew of a prominent Charleston trader (said trader’s 200-year-old home still stands there), was himself a wealthy Caribbean shipper who in the 1790s seems to have taken a nearly professional interest in revolution. After trying and failing to re-ignite a rebellion in Dutch Curacao, he started zeroing in on Haiti’s next-door neighbor, the brutal British sugar colony of Jamaica. Distinguished as it was by a running history of slave revolts, it was a natural target for the fin de siecle‘s savvy revolution-exporter.

Sasportas landed there in 1799 under cover of his gadabout-merchant act to reconnoiter British defenses and make contact with the island’s maroons.

Diplomatic L’Ouverture

The Haitian Revolution’s progress through the 1790s and into the first years of the 19th century was itself a complicated political process entailing the realest of realpolitik. Here was a colony surrounded by rival empires’ outposts, whose home country was itself engulfed in revolution. This could, and did, cut a lot of different ways.

Legendary national liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture agreed to work with the French revolutionary government in April 1793 to repel the inroads of Brits, who smelled an opportunity to swipe the lucrative colony. Alliance with the French (L’Ouverture’s black regiments served under French colors) came in exchange for the French recognizing emancipation. Win-win.

But the script had flipped by the last years of the decade.

Toussaint L’Ouverture reveals to British officer Thomas Maitland papers from the French representative d’Hedouville.

In 1798, the British were evacuating their Saint-Domingue enclaves … and L’Ouverture, now the Bonaparte figure of a somewhat autonomous polity, had to maneuver it regionally vis-a-vis its neighbors.

Fomenting slave rebellions willy-nilly was not on his agenda. Indeed, “one could even describe Louverture, in the diplomatic field, as an active impediment to the spread of emancipation.”*

So far was the former slave L’Ouverture from anti-slavery firebrand that in 1798-99 he made arrangements with the slave powers Britain and the United States, helping them oppose the French. And when the French envoy went to work on the grab-Jamaica scheme with Sasportas as an agent — Paris now being the one to smell an opportunity to steal a rival’s colony — L’Ouverture found it expedient to play along whilst quietly tipping the British to the whole plot. In effect, L’Ouverture shopped Sasportas.

Louverture could have used his newfound power to advocate independence and emancipation across the Caribbean; he decided otherwise.

Napoleon Bonaparte and other French leaders hoped that Louverture would turn Saint-Domingue into the centerpiece of a revolutionary French empire in the Americas. With an army of twenty thousand veteran black soldiers, Louverture could have threatened France’s enemies in North America, most notably British Jamaica and the United States. But Louverture declined the offer, choosing instead to sign secret treaies of nonaggression and commerce with these two countries in 1799 …

That same year, the French agent Roume drafted an ambitious plan to use part of Louverture’s army to invade British Jamaica. After the landing, Roume redicted, Jamaica’s slaves would revolt and join local maroons and Dominguian liberators on a victorious march to Kingston. Dominguian troops would become heralds of freedom, France would acquire a lucrative colony at little cost, and the expedition would deal a mortal blow to British commerce. Louverture acquiesced in public, but in private he notified British and U.S. authorities of Roume’s bellicose plans. England subsequently captured France’s secret agent in Jamaica, a French Jew named Isaac Sasportas, and the entire venture foundered. Having apparently concluded that an expedition would divert key troops and resources that were needed to secure his power base in Saint-Domingue, Louverture chose to sacrifice the Jamaiacans’ freedom on the altar of his own ambitions. Jamaican slaves would remain in bondage until 1834.

– From Haiti: The Tumultuous History — From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation

Haiti the Game

Whether one rates it as dextrous statecraft or unconscionble betrayal, L’Ouverture’s maneuvering to maintain a scope of action for himself and his fledgling nation would continue until 1802. It featured brutal continuation of Haiti’s cash crop plantation economy — now worked by cultivateurs supporting black elites, instead of slaves supporting French elites — rough suppression of labor protests, high-minded assertion of racial equality, and unsentimental diplomatic skullduggery shifting arrangents among France, Britain, and the U.S. He even bought slaves to regenerate the half-island’s labor force, decimated by years of warfare.

In the end, this Bonaparte of Haiti was undone by the Bonaparte of France** in 1802, with the full support of the British. During a lull in those nations’ hostilities, they found frank agreement that “Toussaint’s black empire” was to neither’s liking — and “We both want to destroy Jacobinism, especially that of the blacks”.† L’Ouverture played the diplomatic game very adroitly, but he had no card to match a mutual agreement of white privilege among his opposite numbers.

Toussaint L’Ouverture died of pneumonia in a French dungeon … but his countrymen rallied against the French incursion and completed the Haitian Revolution. Its independence day is January 1, 1804.‡

* Philippe R. Girard, “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint Louverture’s Diplomacy, 1798-1802,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan. 2009

** Napoleon’s wife Josephine was herself of Caribbean aristocratic stock: she grew up on her family’s sugar plantation in Martinique.

† Prime Minister Henry Addington, as quoted in The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804. Thomas Jefferson, fretting “another Algiers in the seas of America,” also kinda-sorta went along with the idea, although Jefferson was at least equally concerned about a potential French resurgence keyed by its unruly Caribbean base; for America, this politicking set up the Louisiana Purchase, and that transaction was considerably facilitated by the French failure to re-establish control in Haiti after arresting L’Ouverture.

‡ In one last warped expression of colonialism — and a dreadful preview of the ruinous debt peonage more familiar to our present day — Haiti had to pay “reparations” to France for the loss to the French empire of itself, Haiti. It made these payments until 1947. France has no plans to repair the reparations.

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1800: Prosser’s Gabriel, slave rebel

Add comment October 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1800,** the Virginia slave Gabriel — sometimes remembered as Gabriel Prosser after his owner’s surname, although that wasn’t what his contemporaries called him — was hanged in Richmond, along with a number of his confederates in a planned slave rising.

Decades before Virginia’s more famed Nat Turner rebellion, Gabriel was plenty frightening for the growing little burg of Richmond in 1800. (The incident would result in a clampdown on education and mobility for slave and free blacks alike.)

Gabriel and company conceived a daring revolution to seize the city of Richmond, take hostage Governor (and future U.S. President) James Monroe, and rearrange the state’s power structure.

This scheme, in which the rebels actually stay in Virginia, depended on an optimistic assessment for the prospects of a multiracial alliance — with Richmond’s own poor whites, and also, according to testimony given by conspirators, with Indians and with the French in opposition to a pro-British American policy tilt.

But if ever the time might have been right for such a plot, it was in 1800. A bitter presidential contest adjudicating the Republic’s most fundamental issues was unfolding; there were rumors that the governing Federalists would not voluntarily relinquish power, and the matter might fall to civil war between by the factions.

Gabriel unabashedly attempted to leverage this division between whites; working as he and many other urban blacks did side-by-side with white Republican laborers — whose own interests vis-a-vis Federalist merchants were being so bitterly contested — he must have had a good vibe about the situation on the ground to gamble his life on it. Though the hope was that the white working class would join the revolt after it broke out, there were at least a few whites already initiated into the conspiracy beforehand.

Alas, what broke out was not rebellion but a storm: a downpour that rained out the first planned rising, washing out bridges and roads that the conspirators were counting on to assemble. Before the makeup date could be scheduled, some slaves taking a care for their own necks had betrayed it.

The public mind has been much involved in dangerous apprehensions, concerning an insurrection of the negroes in several of the adjacent counties. Such a thing has been in agitation among the blacks, principally instigated by an ambitious and insidious fellow, a slave, by the name of GABRIEL, the property of Mr. Thomas Prosser, of the county of Henrico. This villain, assuming to himself the appellation of General, through his artfulness, has caused some disturbance, having induced many poor, ignorant, and unfortunate creatures to share in his nefarious and horrid design.

The plot has been entirely exploded, which was shallow; and had the attempt even been made to carry it into execution, but little resistance would have been required, to render their scheme entirely abortive. Thirty or forty of the party have been arrested and confined in jail for trial. Yesterday a called court was held for that purpose, at the court house in this city when six of them were convicted and condemned to suffer death this day at 12 o’clock. It is said that the evidence which has been procured, will go to prove nearly this whole of them guilty. To-day the court will proceed to go thro’ with the rest of the trials.

[The Governor has issued his Proclamation, offering a reward of THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS† for the apprehension of the above “GENERAL,” who has thought proper to take himself off. Exclusive of this sum, he likewise promises “to any number not exceeding five of the said accomplices, who shall apprehend the said GABRIEL, and deliver him up so that he be brought to justice, a FULL PARDON for their offences.” ]

Columbian Mirror, Tuesday, Sep. 16, 1800, quoting “a Richmond paper”

It would be interesting counterfactual history to know the world in which the insurrection was actually launched — whether “but little resistance” would have sufficed to put it down. Gabriel might have reckoned naively on the prospective balance of forces,‡ but his read of the fractious alliance against him was spot-on. Maybe with a modern communications infrastructure, the affair could have become a full-blown October Surprise.

The Jeffersonian party, desperate not to give its plantation supporters cause to rethink its partisan alignment, took pains to downplay what was really quite a bold conspiracy. Not for the last time, wealthy merchants (here backing the Federalists) sought their own advantage pressing the racial wedge issue — for the slaves’ prospective lower-class white allies were also part of Jefferson’s coalition.

“If any thing will correct & bring to repentance old hardened sinners in Jacobinism, it must be an insurrection of their slaves,” editorialized the Boston Gazetteex cathedra, as it were, from 18th century America’s very temple of Mammon. (The quote comes from this tome.)

One thing all right-thinking whites could agree on was a heaping serving of scorn for “General” Gabriel.


Columbian Mirror, Saturday, October 4, 1800.

But then, that personal interview with Monroe also gives a lie to Gabriel’s insignificance. (Gabriel told Monroe nothing of any use to the latter; Monroe sent him away with orders to keep him nearly incommunicado from the sort of working stiffs who would figure to be his jailers.)

A few years later, an English visitor captured at second hand this indefatigable portrait of the doomed slave in his masters’ courts.

I passed by a field in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them being asked, what he had to say to the court in his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause: and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?”

In 2007, James Monroe’s (distant) successor as governor of the Old Dominion (informally) posthumously pardoned Prosser’s Gabriel. Gov. Tim Kaine’s statement on the occasion validated Gabriel’s own defense of himself.

“Gabriel and his colleagues were freedom fighters and deserve their rightful place in history as women and men of integrity who fought for freedom.”

And the site of his martyrdom? Well, it’s … a good place to park.

* Some sources give Oct. 7 as the date of execution; this apparently was the initial sentence of the court but delayed a few days to hang the ringleader along with others in a variety of spots around town.


Virginia Argus, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1800.

** A pregnant year in the history of slave rebellion: Denmark Vesey bought his freedom in 1800; Nat Turner and John Brown were both born in 1800. (Noted here.)

† It was a slave who eventually turned in Prosser’s Gabriel … but Virginia stiffed him on the reward, handing over only $50 instead of the promised $300.

‡ Or maybe that’s just hindsight talking. In 1800, the Haitian Revolution was underway — so who could blame slaves for thinking big?

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1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British

4 comments August 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Thomas Nash was hanged in Jamaica for the bloody mutiny on the HMS Hermione.


Before there was Hermione Granger, there was the HMS Hermione. Painting by Thomas Whitcombe.

The Admiralty’s most notorious mutiny this side of the Bounty was actually a far bloodier affair. Dig the description from one of the conspirators who later turned state’s evidence.

“The captain,” said he, “was very severe with the men, who were all good seamen, and they were determined to either run the ship on shore and desert, or else take her by force. This had been in their minds for months before it happened. At last,” said he, “on a dark night, when the young lieutenant had the watch, our minds were made up. A party went to the cabin-door, knocked down the sentry, and entered it. The captain was in his cot, and he was soon overpowered. We threw him out of the cabin-window. Another party threw the officer of the watch over the larboard quarter, but he, being young and active, caught hold of the hammock-stanchion, when one of the men cut his hands off, and he soon dropped astern. The first lieutenant had been ill and keeping his cot, but on hearing the noise, he came up the hatchway in his shirt, when one of the carpenter’s crew cut him down with an axe, and he was sent overboard with several others.”

(There’s a fine audio lecture about this mutiny in the context of maritime class violence at the Bristol Radical History Group, which reminds that in a context where most of a ship’s manpower was marshaled with the violence of involuntary conscription, mutiny bids were a regular feature of Old Blighty’s maritime empire. London Times archives are available from 1785, and searches on the word “mutiny” in those early years reveal dozens of episodes — and those were just the reported ones.)

After making sharkmeat of that tyrannical captain, 27-year-old Hugh Pigot, the Hermione mutineers got drunk, and then delivered the frigate to the Spanish.

A Royal Navy vessel aptly named the Surprise* was able to surprise the wayward warship and cut her out of the Venezuelan harbor Puerto Cabello. The Hermione was then aptly renamed the Retaliation (and later, Retribution). Then, the British put the ominous word into action with a global manhunt for the mutineers.

Nearly thirty men ultimately hanged for the affair, though that meant that most of those involved escaped the noose.

And Executed Today never** deals with the lucky ones.

Mind if I do a Jay?

And so we come at last to our day’s protagonist, one of the Hermione mutineers who was at length recognized in the breakaway former British colonies now constituting themselves the United States of America.

Upon catching this intelligence, British envoys demanded the extradition of this character — who now claimed to be an American citizen by the name of “Jonathan Robbins” — under the terms of the recent and controversial Jay Treaty. After several months under lock and key without any American charge against him, Robbins/Nash eventually had a habeas corpus hearing before Judge Thomas Bee, who decided† that this “American citizen” was no such thing. With an okay from the Adams administration, Bee had the man delivered to the crown.

Nash was immediately shipped down to the British colony of Jamaica, put on trial on Aug. 15 (he had no defense), and hanged on Aug. 19.

Little could the Waterford-born seaman imagine the legacy he bequeathed his fake-adopted country.

I know my rights, man

The Nash extradition became a political firestorm in the U.S., with anti-British Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans decrying the Federalist administration’s handling of the case. For the infant republic, formulating juridical precedent on the fly, this played as a separation-of-powers issue: was it within the president’s power to fulfill the treaty unilaterally, absent executing legislation passed by Congress? Was it within a judge’s purview to approve an extradition request without the constitutionally assured right to trial by jury?

Sounding eerily contemporary, New York Rep. Robert Livingston denounced a system whereby “a citizen of the United States might be dragged from his country, his connections and his friends, and subjected to the judgment of an unrelenting military tribunal.” Less measured, a Philadelphia Aurora headline announced: “BRITISH INFLUENCE threatens destruction of these United States!” (Source of both quotes)

Though it was surely not decisive, this issue provided great fodder in the 1800 elections swept by the Democratic-Republicans and standard-bearer Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s home state of

Virginia, the stronghold of inimical feeling to Great Britain … passed a law forbidding under heavy punishment a magistrate to be instrumental in extraditing any person out of the state. Thus desertions from British ships in a Virginian port became a regular event. Captains of British vessels sailing to United States ports in no long time would meet their men strolling in the streets, furnished with naturalization papers, who set them at defiance, for their arrest was impossible.

“This passage of history,” the otherwise hostile-to-Nash source is obliged to concede, “tells unfavourably on the character of the treatment of British seamen … the Discipline was harsh and oppressive, one of pure repression. The consideration of others, enforced by benevolence and duty, was often regarded as weakness.”

Hard to imagine why anyone would want to mutiny! It calls to mind, at the end of this passion play as at its start, the words supposed to have been hurled at the Hermione‘s doomed Captain Pigot as he pled with his assailants for mercy: “You’ve shown no mercy yourself and therefore deserve none.”

A real reactionary

Despite the electoral slam dunk, the real last word on the case ultimately belonged to the administration’s defenders.

Among these rose in Congress a first-term — for he would only serve a single such term — member of the House of Representatives also from the Old Dominion, John Marshall.

Just months later, Marshall would be one of outgoing President Adams’s “midnight judges” appointed to the federal courts: in Marshall’s case, to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his epochal 34-year term as Chief Justice would shape the future evolution of American jurisprudence.

Rising on March 7, 1800, in defense of President Adams’s conduct in the Nash case, Representative Marshall gave a preview of the strong federalist perspective that would define his time on the bench. (Read it in full here.)

The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations … He possesses the whole Executive power. He holds and directs the force of the nation. Of consequence, any act to be performed by the force of the nation is to be performed through him.

This passage was exhumed from Congressional archives for citation in a 1936 Supreme Court case on federal supremacy, and has proceeded thence into a go-to bullet point for every latter-day defender of any arbitrary executive authority.

Of consequence (as Marshall might put it), Marshall’s speech about Nash gets an approving reference in Bush administration lawyer — and possible future extradition subject?John Yoo‘s September 25, 2001 memorandum on “The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them”.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, too, quotes this phrase in his Hamdi v. Rumsfeld dissent, further to the doctrine that a man consigned to a presidential oubliette has no recourse to the courts; Justice John Harlan used it (with the rather grandiosely exaggerated qualifier that “from that time, shortly after the founding of the Nation, to this, there has been no substantial challenge to this description”) in his dissent in the Pentagon Papers case to claim that Richard Nixon could prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the embarrassing classified history of the Vietnam War.‡

So in this imperial age, Thomas Nash is more with us than ever he was. Who knows but what noxious monarchical theories are even now being buttressed with footnotes resolving to the vindictive execution of that obscure mariner two centuries past?

* The Surprise features prominently in novelist Patrick O’Brian‘s beloved Aubrey-Maturin series of nautical adventure novels, the most widely recognized of which is Master and Commander.

Given the vessel’s centrality in this popular series, there’s a book all about the colorful history of the Surprise. In reality, the Surprise — actually a captured French ship herself — was sold out of the service in 1802, prior to the notional 1805 setting of both the cinematic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and the book in the series when Jack Aubrey first commands her.

** … hardly ever.

† Rightly, it’s generally presumed; “Robbins” is alleged (albeit by his self-interested executioners) to have confessed to being Nash before his execution. This entry garners the Wrongful Execution tag on the basis of its contested American jurisprudence.

‡ The limited aim of Marshall’s speech in context, and its subsequent (mis)appropriation, is the subject of an interesting and accessible-to-laypersons law review article here. (pdf) This tome gets a bit more into the weeds on the way the separation of powers operated practically as the Nash case unfolded in Judge Bee’s court.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA,Wrongful Executions

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