Papers of John Adams, volume 18

From Nicolaas & Jacob van Staphorst

To Thomas Jefferson

To John Adams from Thomas McKean, 1 July 1786 McKean, Thomas Adams, John
From Thomas McKean
Dear Sir, Philadelphia July 1st. 1786.

I do not write to you now as a Public Minister, tho’ I have a heartfelt pleasure in your being so, and at the very court where I long wished you to reside. The office of Chief Justice of this State now engages my principal attention; having quit the Congress in 1783. The affairs of our University, Philosophical & Agriculture Societies &c. employ my vacant time; and I enjoy a good state of health. So much respecting myself.—1

Permit me now, Sir, to request your attention to the subject-matter of the Letter inclosed herewith. It was written by William Augustus Atlee Esquire, senior Justice of the Supreme court of this State, one of my brethren. His father, William Atlee, an Englishman, died in this city, about forty years ago, without having made any disposition of his estate in England. It is believed, his real estate there was valuable, tho’ his eldest son, & heir at law, knows nothing more about it, than what he mentions in his letter to me. Will you be so kind as to make some inquiry regarding it, or cause it to be done?2 I should desire to be informed, whether the estate in the parishes of Acton and Ealy, called Ford-hook, near London, and that in Lincolns-Inn-fields, are to be found? What may be their present condition & value? Who is in possession? What shall be said by the possessors, when told of the claim of Mr: Atlee? Whether his being now an Alien, and very active in the late glorious Revolution, will be a Bar or even a Prejudice to his recovering real property in England? And any thing else relating to this matter, that can be known.

I am aware of the liberty I am now taking with you, and of the trouble this will give you; but in behalf of a friend, and a worthy Gentleman, who has a numerous offspring, and from our former acquaintance, I am induced to sollicit your friendship on the occasion. It is not meant, that you should step out of your line in the least about it, but only, that you would be pleased to engage some sensible and trusty person to manage it under your direction. Your countenance alone will be of great weight, and may perhaps 371 intimidate mere occupants or possessors, and leave them more readily to yield up the estates to the true owner.

The expences, this will occasion you, will be thankfully repaid to you or Order, by Mr: Atlee or myself, as soon as known.

Mr: Cutting, who will deliver this, has just now been so good as to undertake the performance of every thing necessary, under your direction; so that you need not apply to any other person.3 I must beg the favor of you to pay him any money, that may be necessary for searches in offices, travelling expences &c. about this business. Could I form any judgment of them, I would advance the money here.

I write in haste, and have only time to assure you, that you have my best wishes for your happiness, and that I am, with the warmest attachment, / Dear Sir, / Your Excellency’s / most obedient humble servant

Thos M:Kean

RC and enclosure (Adams Papers); internal address: “His Excellency John Adams Esqr.—” The enclosure, for which see note 2, is dated 11 Oct. 1785 and is filmed at that date.


Thomas McKean, former president of Congress and longtime Delaware member of Congress, had served as the chief justice of Pennsylvania since 1777 and continued in that office until 1799, when he was elected governor ( ANB ). From mid-1776, McKean and JA carried on an extensive correspondence, but JA’s most recent letter to McKean was of 6 Feb. 1783 (vol. 14:248–249).


William Augustus Atlee (1735–1793), of Lancaster, Penn., was a noted lawyer, long active in Pennsylvania politics, who had served as a justice of the Penn. Supreme Court since 1777 (Biographical Annals of Lancaster County Pennsylvania, Chicago, 1903, p. 11–13). Atlee’s 11 Oct. 1785 letter (Adams Papers), which McKean accurately summarizes, contained a detailed account of what Atlee knew, from American and British sources, of his father’s property and indicated that he had planned to go to England to pursue his claims but was prevented by the outbreak of the Revolution.


Dr. John Brown Cutting (1755–1831) was born in Boston and served as a Continental Army apothecary. He reached England in early August, intending to continue his legal studies begun in Boston with John Lowell in 1783 ( AFC , 7:122, 303; Salem Gazette, 15 Feb. 1831). Cutting apparently undertook the task McKean envisioned for him, with JA supplying the funds to meet his expenses, for which see Cutting’s 13 Dec. 1786 letter, below, and a receipt dated 20 Feb. 1787. The receipt, which JA sent to McKean on the 28th (DLC:Tufts Papers), indicates that he had supplied Cutting with 35 guineas as requested. McKean wrote to JA on 30 April 1787 (Adams Papers) that Atlee would soon send Cutting the “powers, proofs &c. necessary to recover his estate.” It is not known whether Cutting was successful in his quest, nor whether JA played any role in it other than supplying funds.

From his arrival until the Adamses left London in March 1788, Cutting was much a part of life at Grosvenor Square, and he was JA’s traveling companion in 1787 on a trip to Portsmouth in April and to the Netherlands in May (see indexes to AFC vols. 7 and 8). On Christmas Day 1786, JA wrote to AA, then at Bath, England, that he and Cutting “now talk Politicks all alone and are much cooler and more rational than when We dispute in Company” ( AFC , 7:412). That JA and Cutting discussed politics is significant because in his 13 Dec. letter, below, Cutting indicates that he was then reading a manuscript copy of the first volume of JA’s Defence. He would do the same in Aug. 1787 for the second volume.