Declaration-Signer and U.S. Flag Designer Francis Hopkinson Considers Prize Cases Involving Slaves
FRANCIS HOPKINSON, Endorsement Signed, Deposition of Joseph Hill, August 14, 1781, Philadelphia, in Leonard & Wright v. Schooner May Flower & Sloop General Leslie. 1 p., 7.75ʺ x 6.75ʺ. Also includes George Campbell, Autograph Document Signed, [August 1781], Bill in Forbes qui tam v. Schooner Tryal. 2 pp., 8ʺ x 13.25ʺ.
This pair of documents illustrates the tenuous positions of persons of color during the American Revolution. In the summer of 1781, the Nesbit, a privateer brigantine under the command of James Forbes of Baltimore, captured the schooner Tryal at sea and brought it into Philadelphia to have it condemned. Among the “property” on board the Tryal were four slaves who belonged to British owners. The Nesbit also captured the schooner May Flower and the sloop General Leslie, the latter of which also had six slaves aboard. Captain Forbes petitioned the admiralty court to have the ships and their cargoes condemned and sold for the benefit of Forbes, his crew, and his financial backers.
Aboard the Tryal were two sailors, John Leonard and William Wright, apparently from Bermuda, who agreed to serve aboard the Nesbit with the stipulation that they would be excused from service if the Nesbit encountered another ship crewed by Bermudians. Apparently, the captain excluded them from prize money that the crew of the Nesbit received for the capture of the sloop General Leslie and of the schooner May Flower. The May Flower was serving as a dispatch boat for the British between New York and Portsmouth, Virginia. Leonard and Wright sued in the admiralty court in Philadelphia for their share of the prizes. Judge Hopkinson ordered that Leonard and Wright should each receive “one Seaman’s share” of the prize money and ordered Marshal Clement Biddle to pay one share each to them or their agents.
Hopkinson held separate hearings on condemning the May Flower and the General Leslie as prizes on June 25 and June 28. Marshal Biddle sold both the May Flower and the General Leslie and their cargoes at public auctions on July 2 and July 5. The fate of the slaves remains unclear.
After Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, admiralty jurisdiction transferred to federal district courts rather than state courts.
“Joseph Hill a witness produced in this Cause on the part of the Owners & Crew of the Brig Nesbitt being duly sworn saith that sd John Leonard and William Wright were taken in the Schooner Trial, and thereafter did duty on board the Brig, and engaged to act as Seamen on board, unless they should meet with Bermudians in which Case they would expect to be excused from Action;
Sworn to this 14th Augt 1781
“James Forbes with his Officers Marines and Seamen on Board of the said Brigantine or Vessel sailing upon the High Seas and within the Jurisdiction of this Hon’ble Court between the first day of June Instant and the day of Exhibiting this Bill did discover pursue take and Conquer as lawful prize and Booty of War a certain Schooner of Vessel called the Tryal Henry Hutchings late Commander Burthen about thirty four Tons with the following Negroes or Slaves, to wit One Negroe called Bablico Smith, One called Joseph Blackburn, one called Ann Eastern, and the other called William Witney, belonging to his Brittanick Majesty or to some Subject or Subjects of the said King, and the said Geo Campble who in his Behalf prosecutes as aforesaid further gives this Hon’ble Court to understand and be informed that the said Schooner or Vessel at the time of her Capture aforesaid was employed in the present War against the said United States and in Carrying provisions and supplies to and for the use of the Fleets and Armies of the said British King.. .. Wherefore the said Geo Campbell who prosecutes as aforesaid prays that by a definitive Sentence or final decree of this Hon’ble Court the Negroes may be adjudged and Condemned as lawful Prize & Booty of War to and for the use of the said Libellants & all others concerned in the said Brigantine or Vessel called the Nesbit and that Right and Justice may be done & administered in the premises.
Geo Campbell, Proctr pr Libellts"
Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) was born in Philadelphia and graduated from the College of Philadelphia (now University of Pennsylvania) in 1757 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1760 with a master’s degree. In 1759, he became the first American composer of a secular song. He practiced law in Philadelphia from 1761 to 1766. After spending more than a year in England unsuccessfully seeking the office of Commissioner of Customs for North America, Hopkinson returned to Philadelphia, became a merchant, and served as Collector of Customs at New Castle, Delaware. From 1774 to 1776, he served as a member of the New Jersey Provincial Council and represented New Jersey in 1776 in the Second Continental Congress, where he signed the Declaration of Independence. He served in a variety of offices during the Revolutionary War, including member of the Navy Board (1776-1777), Treasurer of the Continental Loan Office (1778-1781), and Judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania (1779-1789). As an artist, Hopkinson created designs for Continental paper money, the first United States coin, and two early versions of the American flag, one for the United States and another for the U.S. Navy (both originally with six-pointed stars). He also contributed to the design of the Great Seal of the United States. In addition, he was a member of the Pennsylvania Convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. In 1789, President George Washington appointed Hopkinson as judge of the new United States District Court for the District of Pennsylvania, a position Hopkinson held until his death nearly twenty months later.
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