Stoddert, Benjamin


1807 ALS from the former (and 1st) Navy Secretary on his own tangled finances and investments, mentions possible war with France



Autograph ID: 6605
Condition: Very good, usual folds
Description: “(1751-1813) Pennsylvania cavalry captain, Secretary to the Continental Board of War during the War of Independence. In 1781, he married the daughter of a Maryland merchant and went into business in George Town, Maryland (later, Georgetown, District of Columbia). President Washington asked him to purchase key parcels of land for the national capital before a formal decision to establish the federal city drove up prices, and Stoddert transferred parcels to the government. During the 1790s, he helped found the Bank of Columbia to handle purchases of land in the District of Columbia for the federal government. In May 1798, President Adams appointed Stoddert, a loyal Federalist, to oversee the new Navy Department. As 1st Secretary of the Navy 1798-March 31, 1801, he dealt with an undeclared naval war with France (“the Quasi-War). He realized the infant Navy possessed too few warships to protect a far-flung merchant marine and that the best way to defeat the French campaign against US shipping was by offensive operations in the Caribbean, where most French cruisers were based. Under his leadership, the Navy acquitted itself well and stopped depredations by French ships against American commerce. He established the first 6 navy yards and urged building 12 ships of the line. Congress initially approved construction of 6 such ships, but following the peace accord with France, eliminated ships of the line and reduced the officer corps. His last years saw a decline in his fortunes: Stoddert lost heavily in land speculation, Georgetown declined as a commercial center, and the Embargo and War of 1812 halted US overseas trade.

10 x 8 ALS “Ben Stoddert” from the former Secretary of the Navy, George Town, December 9 1807 2pp (1 sheet, both sides full), to a business associate (John Templeman). Stoddert bemoans the decline in his business affairs, noting he cannot send his son from home, he is currently “with an excellent teacher of the dead languages”, hopes he is “not suffering” but he cannot “do better by him.” He mentions a possible sale of his tontine investment (“for distant profit”) and believes money will be “unlocked” if there might be war with France or England (“the former of the two, I think more possible, tho neither is probable”) or other causes, the carrying trade is nearly at an end. He mentions possible real estate deals for his Monocacy (Penn.) and Maryland lands, dealings with an Irish tenant farmer as to trees and rail fencing, etc.
Stoddert’s son Richard (“Dick”) was born ca. 1792 and died in 1810. A tontine is an investment plan for raising capital, devised in the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. It combines features of a group annuity and a lottery. Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund, and thereafter receives an annuity. As members die, their shares devolve to the other participants, and so the value of each annuity increases. On the death of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”
Type: Letter

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