Papers of John Adams, volume 18

From Thomas Jefferson

From John Jay

To John Adams from John Jay, 18 August 1786 Jay, John Adams, John
From John Jay
Dr. Sir New York 18th: August 1786

I have the Honor of transmitting to you herewith enclosed, a Copy of a Report on the Case of the Brig Jane and Elizabeth of Portsmouth in New Hampshire seized by a british man of War at Barbadoes; together with Copies of the Papers on that Subject annexed to it.—1

The Conduct of the Captain of the Boreas as stated in these Papers appears very exceptionable, but unfortunately for the Brig, her Attempt to pass as a british Vessel by means of false Papers was equally so.—

This Business therefore must be submitted to your Discretion, for as on the one Hand it would be improper to support the Cause of the Brig further than it may appear just, so on the other it ought to be asserted as far as it may be right.—

The Owners doubtless have Correspondents in London who will probably apply to you on the Subject; and it is intended by this Report to leave you at perfect Liberty to give them such Advice and such official Countenance and Aid, as may appear to you to be proper.—2

With great and sincere Esteem and Regard / I am, Dr Sir, / Your most obt. & hble: Servt.

John Jay—

RC and enclosures (Adams Papers); internal address: “The Honorable John Adams Esquire / Minister Plenipoteny. of the United / States at the Court of London”; enclosure endorsed by WSS: “the Case of the Brigg / Jane & Elizabeth / inclosed in Letter of Augst. / 18th. 1786. from Mr. Jay.”


There were four enclosures with this letter. The first, which Jay summarizes, comprised his 5 Aug. report to Congress on the case of the brig Jane and Elizabeth and Congress’ response of 8 Aug. ( JCC , 31:501). The second was New Hampshire governor John Sullivan’s request that Congress consider the vessel’s seizure and take appropriate action. The third was a petition to Congress by James and William Sheafe requesting its interposition to obtain the return of their “property ravished from them by the hand of power.”

These first three enclosures indicated that the Jane and Elizabeth, Capt. John Fraser, sailed from Portsmouth, N.H., on 9 Feb. with a cargo of lumber for Tobago and, in the course of the voyage, put into the island of Barbados. There, on suspicion of seeking to land the lumber under false papers in violation of the Navigation Act, the vessel was seized by Capt. Horatio Nelson, then commanding the 28-gun frigate Boreas. The fourth enclosure was a 16 March affidavit done at Barbados by Fraser, George Marshall, and Andrew Stavers, giving their account of the case.


A fifth document with this letter in the Adams Papers was clearly not an enclosure, and its source is unknown. It is a letter from James and William Sheafe to John Langdon, New Hampshire governor before and after Sullivan. It was written sometime after 18 Aug., maybe as late as 1788 when Langdon returned as governor, for the two men mentioned Jay’s letter to JA but indicate their decision not to pursue their case any further in British courts.


JA apparently took no action regarding the Jane and Elizabeth until 21 Jan. 1788, just prior to his departure from England. Then, in a letter to the Marquis of Carmarthen of that date, he enclosed the documents received from Jay for the “Consideration of His Majestys Ministers” (PRO:FO 4, State Papers, vol. 6, f. 37–54). A docketing on JA’s letter indicates that the enclosures, which have not been found, were sent to the Admiralty on 25 January. But the case had been considered prior to JA’s presenting the matter to Carmarthen, for with his letter in the PRO are two reports by the Admiralty concerning the Jane and Elizabeth dated 2 Aug. 1786 and 5 July 1787. Both observed that the conduct of Nelson and the vice admiralty court at Barbados were irregular, but they did not recommend restoration of or compensation for the vessel.