Volume XII · Autumn 1956 · Number 1
Letters to a Congressman, 1806-1809
--MARGARET K. TOTH
"No man may ever dictate to me, on first principles— however superiorerly capable, as to their diversified application. I look upon Politicks, as Religion, essentially, not only to consist of very few points or heads, but to be, generally speaking, within the reach of all— who may be within the reach of common information, with a common stock of candour and intelligence."
Thus wrote William Sommerville to Colonel John Morrow in 1806, in one of a series of letters to his congressman. Through the kindness of Captain John D. Shea, former Commanding Officer of the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the University of Rochester, who brought in to us thirty letters written between 1806 and 1811 by his great-great-grandfather, William Sommerville, we are able to present some of the observations of an American patriot of a hundred and fifty years ago.
The letters are masterpieces of circumlocution, teeming with mixed metaphors and jumbled quotations, but filled with reflections on national and international affairs. They show the writer to be possessed of some education and a knowledge of world affairs gleaned no doubt from a careful perusal of the newspapers which he frequently mentions. The general tone of the letters is one of approbation for the actions of Colonel Morrow, but there is no lack of caustic comment on the way other governmental personages deported themselves, and the management of governmental affairs both at home and abroad are often severely criticized.
William Sommerville was born in Northern Ireland about 1750 and came to America with four brothers in 1771. A copy of a letter written by his son, William A. Sommerville, to the U. S. Commissioner of Pensions in August, 1861, tells of his activities during the war years. According to this letter he served from August 8, 1776, to October, 1778, as First Sergeant in Captain Wendel Oury's company of the Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment, and from October, 1778, to January 20, 1781, as Conductor of Artillery and Commissary of Military Stores. At the close of the war he settled in Martinsburgh, now in West Virginia, but then in Virginia.
As was the custom before separate envelopes were widely used, letters were folded in such a way that the outside blank leaf could be used for the address. Many of the Sommerville letters were folded in this way and bear the return address and the notation "Wm. Sommerville, P.M." so it appears that Sommerville was the Martinsburgh postmaster at least during the period covered by the letters.
The Congressional Directory gives Colonel John Morrow's dates of service in Congress as 1805-1809. According to Hening's Statutes at Large. . . of Virginia, the Virginia Legislature by an act of October 1790 appointed "John Morrow, gent.," one of the trustees to manage a lottery to raise money to build a Presbyterian church in Shepherdstown, a town nine miles southeast of Martinsburgh. Morrow was present at all sessions of Congress during his term of office, and the record of his voting shows his liberal and decidedly Republican tendencies. He and two of his brothers who made their homes in Shepherdstown were very well thought of in their home community. Another brother, Jeremiah, was at one time governor and subsequently senator from Ohio. Morrow's sister Mary was the second wife of James Rumsey, famed experimenter in the development of the steamboat.
The first Sommerville letter is dated January 12, 1806, and is addressed to "Colonel John Morrow of Virginia, in Congress, Washington City." At this time the United States was having a difficult time maintaining neutrality. The Napoleonic Wars had been resumed and Great Britain, whose naval strength was superior to that of France, was able to interfere with neutral shipping with resulting damage to American commerce. This led to a renewal of British-American difficulties over neutral trade, impressment of American seamen, and the blockade.
Martinsburgh, Jany. 12th, 1806.
Your obliging favour of the 1st I had the gratification of receiving the 10th inst. and feels myself much indebted for the Polite attention, & Satisfaction afforded— Whilst my regrets were sensibly awakened by the intimation of your indisposition. Mortality, in its peculiar characteristics— Sickness, Chagrine, & Disappointments will attach itself to us.. . The lowly cottage— the Gorgeous Palace— & the cloud capt Towers alike are unexempted from 'em. I hope however, with sincere as earnest Solicitude, that e'er now— or at least the soonest, you will have fully recovered, & be rendered capable of giving all that attention both inclination & a sense of public obligation will I'm well assur'd, have induced you to yield, &c &c.
Doubtless, my Dear Sir, These are all-important times— "Pregnant with" Solemn Aspects and with "great events"— the development of which— HE, who rules amongst the mad-children— of men, guides their hands unseen— warps their Passions & their Purposes at will, often unfelt, to accomplish HIS wise, awful & inscruitable Designs— whether for evil (upon us) or for reformation— for Punishment or Good . . . alone can shew— May this too insensible— ungrateful country, not come in for a share of the inflictions of that Dreadful Rod, now scourging so many Nations— whilst the Omnipotent hand that wields it with such evident indignant wrath, seems"streatched out still."
But, should it be our harder fate, that the shakings now over our head, should fall more hardly upon us— which yet God forbid! Surely indeed, so far as an auspicious issue may be Inferred from a rightious foundation— generally speaking,— Unprovock'd abuse, & strickt Justice on our side— we can contest our maurading Neighbour's claims, their Robberies & Inroads with a full Tone, & Effect— Vile Villainy & Slaves! can never shew nor count upon.
"That congress, upon just & honourable terms, would prefer Peace," next to Justice, "above all things," I have no doubt— I'm equally satisfied with your fullest accordance— and in this, we do make but one— But how we can now well escape, seems, from the murky threatening aspect of affairs, to me almost impracticable— But, Interest may impress, where a sense of Justice passeth, like the idle wind unheaded by.
Can the British Stand?— or can Spain fight us! I mean either on our own ground— or even their own intersecting slavish stripe of Territory!
May we not one day cherish so much public and Moral Virtue, as to moderate our Mania for European Gew Gaws & West india— murdering Rum? Let us but enter for one year upon this most Defensive, & no less enobling piece of Self-denial— and, at the same time, Teach those Sea, high way Robbers— those uncontrolable and insatiate Banditti, the Value of the Rich & ample board God & our Industry Spreads daily for them— by with holding both "The Loaves & Fishes"— but for three "little months" the single solitary quarter of one year— and then— "What Then! let clay cold heads & luke warm hearts, argue down or maske their passions as they please"— But we would have them with Briefs of doleful tenour in their out streatched & conciliating hands, whilst the quivering voice, the pleading Eye would call for Mercy— and the trickling Tear would soften us into it— whilst, Egyptian like they cry'd— "Give us but Bread & take our all" "No more we'll rob with a"— "Whereas, the present state of Commerce" "requires it"— nor new-Modle & remodle again to facilitate OUR "System of Plunder," from day to day, & They out Herod Blackbeard.
As for the night-walking Dons— Surely They ought to beware lest we should realize the Puff of yore— lest their present unsanctified conduct should indeed — "Show us the Way to Mexico"— For if the Sword's once drawn, 'tis not in
Floriday it will be re-sheathed— Yes, May universal PEACE be ours— and that Wisdom & Spiritalso, which alone can ensure it— Or guard us for the future. But under God— Freedom & Jefferson we will not fear.
Your attention to the complimentary commissions I took the liberty of troubling you with— has exceedingly obliged— to both the Gentn I hold myself very truly and very inveriably attached— their Politeness— but their Principles far more, thus strictly binds me to them— as to Talents & Integrity, for which They are so justly distinguished, where so ever found— & I am alwaysTheirs.
For the Papers, I thank you warmly— I have, as requested, enclosed— perhaps too multifarous a minute? But you will select at choice—
That cloven minded D---l, Bonaparte, how high in mischief & in state he moves! But Britian too has triumph'd! Ay, but Nelson's "gone to court— with"— much less "Sins," tis hop'd than blood"upon his head." Yes, but the — now I think in truth, we may say, the Hopeless— Royal & imperial pair of Brothers has as yet their share of Pennance pending— nor will they obtain an easy absolution, if the Pope's "Dear Son in Christ"— or Satan, as a Fed or English man would term it, has the imposing of it. Austria has surely "taken a mad dog by the ears as he passed by"— into Bavaria. Your indulgence I pray! & believe me as ever, very truly yours,
Dear Sir, your most obedient,
John Morrow &c &c &c
William Sommerville's letter of March 1, 1806, again discusses events in Europe and includes several interesting predictions in the following excerpt:
Britain's to be watched, guarded— humbled— Continental hierarchies of both church & State, must be ameliorated, if not overturned. Witness the Dependent & circumscribed, hampered state of HIM— whose Tripod was the Earth & wash-basin the seas— nay— who has usurped the prerogatives of Deity— & wrested HIS Seat. Witness too, the late Successful search made after Sacerdotal Sins on the Continent, by that Arch Minister of Justice & of Police & [?] too, Bonaparte, in his secularizations, etc, etc. Turning those Mitered Electorates as a platter's turned upside down, wiping them clear of all their Clerical Sinful Existance & power.
But, is not Russia to become much more civilized? Imperial chaines to be broken, and poor Poland to be again restored— To be free! There was but One good thing on Earth— and that was her's— but to be so no longer than the Trinity of Hell, Russia, Prussia, & Austria, will'd that they should be the distinguished as happy possessors. And here by the bye, a reflection arises, Glorious for HE who Directs in all— Tomorrow— come, oh! Shame where was thy Blush, Toasted in America— but it was in the "Reign of Terror"— the Bloody Butcher of Warsaw as well'sIsmael, alike the christian & their Turk, so cursed in Ambition! Died unregarded as it were, in the Suburbs of St. Petersburg— it was in those of Warsaw when some 20,000 fell, after the hapless Poles were conquered— and now, th' imperial Successor of the partitioner— and actual holder of the Robbery, is a Fugitive, as may be said, at the Mercy of that illifated Country!
God! how awfully just art Thou— Brave, unfortunate Virtuous Poles ! what a Triumph's here !— But may a greater soon be, in your complete & permanent Emancipation.
Turkey too, my Dear Sir, must one day fall; the East Indias become independent— Affrica be enlightened— Assia Regenerated— And South America— make an atonement to the shades ofMontezuma & Tlataualpa [Quetzlcoatl?]
Intoxicating splendid Glorious view! here I could Gaze & "Feast" forever— But when will all these rapturous Scenes be once realized! Not undoubtedly till when— I hope my Dear Sir, Paradise itself will to us. May both be so assuredly.
On January 29, 1806, Andrew Gregg, representative from Pennsylvania, introduced a resolution in the House on non-importation of British goods. Mr. Gregg's resolution was rejected in favor of one offered on February 10 by Joseph Hopper Nicholson, a member from Maryland. Congress passed the non-importation act on April 18. This prohibited the importation from England of a number of articles which could be produced in the United States or imported from other countries. It was to become effective on November 15, but, on recommendation of President Jefferson, it was suspended and did not become operative until December, 1808. The following comments are from William Sommerville's letter of April 3, 1806.
Dear Sir, the public prints, subsequent to your favour— has superceeded much ground of speculation the subject of the contents might have otherwise excited. Mr. Nicholson's Resolutions has, I perceive, substituted Mr. Gregg's. It may be well enough. . . as the whole was but a mere matter of essay— a pulse-feeling Touch of that War— & Commerce moonstruck Bedlamite... whom, upon all occasions we seem to approach with a greater sympathy than Horrour— did I say? No, rather a desperate indifference to our own Interest, our own Safety, whilst as madly engaged in wit will & power either in guarding Her from committing suicide upon her Vicious self, or, in effect, directing her Liberticide hand so as to dart her poison'd Arrows into the vitals alike of both friend & foe. . . So as she may but reign still Paramount. So much for the preferences given to our Nerveless Mother, Britain.
O! That self-depreciating— self-ruining Colonial Spirit! That so absorbs directs & damns the whole. God! Shall we never be Free! ! Free as MEN not as machines, directed so & so, as the gale of Prejudice, of Passion, Folly Madness— or the basest Mercinary spirit may drive us along, as does the passing wind, the floating chaff.
But shall I mutter or peep, when the little Lions of a Randolph Roars & stalks! — Yes — were it a J-ff-n could HE so far forget Himself— The Honour Interest Independence of his Constituents & his Country— as to play at Blindman's Buff with Duty...
And is it to come to this? and are we so despicably impudent, as to call ourselves free? What ! does not their Laws, in peace, and their Arms in war, run the line of Limitation? Why, now by all the living soul of '76, this is out-heroding that Herod, the 'famous British— Treaty, which, by their infamous 70 ton clause, confined us to cock boats— made Provisions in effect contraband of War— and inhibited the exportation at all of certain of our own produce ! -How humiliating all this, and yet it would seem, The cup of degradation and mendicity's not drained quite, at her nefarious hand.
But, let us view their continued proceedings & their recent orders of Robbery in Council— That such trade, &c shall not be carried on— except thro' their free Ports in the W. Indias.
Besides, do they not, by proclamation let us in, & also shut us out from their colonial possessions at pleasure— but well may they do this, when by proclamation, they have the intolerable & at the same time laughable impudence to declare an Iseland, a Continent, in a state of blockade! By what Powerful Armament, or number of men?— why, neither more nor less than, an imperious wall raised up by or with a blotted sheet of Paper!
Comments on the Aaron Burr conspiracy first mentioned in the letter of January 19, 1807, run through many of the lengthy epistles:
Your fears, my dear Sir, may be but too justly cherish'd— But, surely surely such a conjunction as alluded to, would be one, to appearance, one of those which may be termed— "The jarring seeds of ill consorted things." What! Spain aid a Burr to sever The Spur of the union, & think to fight this then "cock of the school," with a Gaff of Sand! Could the Floridas subsist under his Dominion for one single hour longer than this arch-Intriguer should deign? And would he not pair down the sides of "Taxhas" by piece if not gulp it at one meal! as fast as his means would admit & his ambition drive? most undoubtedly. And would this canting Cromwell be content, whilst there was scope between him & the Southern pole? No, by no means no— for, could Spain trust, or set bounds by treaties to, the man who proved or should prove, a Traitor to his country?— He who first attempted to supplant his Brother, and next, Cain-like, would possess the 'State by murder— Impossible, it is impossible!
Would it not then be wisdom in Hispania rather to bestow to us, than aid Burr in his, I hope, as well's the king of Spain's— ultimately at least— self-damning schemes of black and Dark & fel Ambition? Most indubitably.
But can France, by her countenance, thus wish to aid him, & really injure her impotent ally? But, this would-be Minimi Bonaparte, would be, an "Emperor"— granted. But, there could be but oneRoman Ceasar— and would our modern Lucifers, think you better agree? No— an Octaviouswould reign, tho' an hundred Mark Antony's or Lepidus' should fall. No co-incidence of Principle, & the projector builds upon the sand, which Interest, Incident or wild ambition or furious revenge will not suffer to stand.
But, England. . . . That Madam Quixotte— fighting— not only for the freedom of the world— (I wonder the Juggling Puffers said not— the Sea too!) but, the Battles of America. so I find it would be. This is more & more monstrous still. "What, & art thou there, my Son?" as he wraped up his face in his mantle, evidently in dispair at seeing his wanted, and as he once thought, firm friend Brutus amongst the conspirators, exclaimed Caesar. So even may the falsely, oraffectedly confiding feds now say, to their cruel step Mother, Britain ...
But why not name, or be more satisfactorally explicit in designating "The foreign Power?" If not meriting this Trust— none ought to have been placed— the character considered. And if known— why not made known too! But, certainly time "& the vigilence of Government must bring the whole— nefarious— business soon to light.
My Dear Sir, if Burr's destruction is decreed, he will no doubt persevere, as sure, as his brother, Absolom lay still.
The letter of November 27, 1807, written after the opening of the Tenth Congress on October 26, refers to the British seizure of the Danish fleet in Copenhagen to prevent it from falling into the hands of Russia and France.
As for those British Blackbeards— "Power" not only "seems," but really proves, their only "rule of Morality" and right—"Nor will she" no doubt "Suffer" any Nation to enjoy Peace— that is Neutrality, inconsistant with her marauding and nefarious schemes. Witness the fate of the inoffending Danes !— Ye Gods! is there no Supernumerary Thunder bolts in Stone to depress her lawless and abhorrent Power, give th' oppressed their revenge, and let the world once more be free. Yes, the Blood, the Plunder & the Chaines these semi Barbariz'd Mabys have imposed on the world cries aloud for vengeance & for Extirpation— and their Knell is wrung.
The fate of Denmark has made Mercy kick the Beam— Now Babel must fall—fall in the sympathy of Mankind— whilst the Bowels of Heaven will Schrink from the unhallowed Touch of such a prophane votary— should her unequall'd Sins at all Suffer her to cry for acceptance.
But no more—To reflect on this vicegerant of the Devil— O! it would excite a ferment in the blood of the most torpid Frog— or paralized Soul.
And yet, no Federalist complaines! Heavens, what artificial rogues these are in grain— mereSallamanders, who can live, aye— and, Devil-like, Propagate in the very fire— next to H-ll's to be sure— that is, of British Depredation on the rights, & liberties of a devoted world— and not a wrythe or frown— nay, ready to cry out— whilst their country is Immolating—"We— are reclining on a bed of Roses"— yet, name but the marauding of a petty Gallic Privateer! and all their Sensibilities of Soul are up in Arms—Oh! Shame! Where is thy Blush— sure not to be found upon the case-harden'd cheek of modern Federalism. But I am really done.
The last of William Sommerville's letters to mention the embargo also lauds Colonel Morrow for his fine work as a representative. His term was nearly over, and he was not re-elected, so the correspondence soon ended. Unless another group of letters is found, we'll never know how William Sommerville felt when the war he foresaw actually occurred.
Martinsburgh, Feby. 24th, 1809.
However busily or importantly engaged, as necessarily you must be on the eve of the close of so all-important a Session, I cannot prevail upon myself not to intrude what I may call myfarewell address to you as our Representative— I mean for the present period for sorry I should be to admit for a moment, that it should be longer an Interregnum than the fourth Monday of next May—if then convened?
But if not, it will not as a Sin lie at the Doors of your political Opponents—So far as industry, zeal, & 'lis too much to be feared, not the fairest exercised— can insure 'em success. Last Munday morning, your friend set off on his speculating tour to Hampshire— his friends are doingbusiness for him in Jefferson—— whilst those here are throwing in their mites most zealously— far more so than rightiously I fear me. But be this as it may, It is very certain— that yesterday a meeting of both Jefferson, & Berkeley, So far they chose to attend— was held in Shepherd's Town— The famous Turner being the Mouth Piece-but further I cannot say as to the out or indoor management— No doubt however some of your friends there— or perhaps even present, will advise you of it more particularly— Thus you see, with what pith & perseverance does these Terriers scent out, pursue, & as far as practicable, run down the objects of their insatiable vengeance.
But, even this mighty stretch! of electioneering manoeuvre, it is to be hoped, will not serve their purpose, if the people at least will be but fa[i]thful to themselves, and their most faithful friends— & of course Col Morrow.
Did they despair of finding the Embargo, that grand Rock of Offence, now or at all raised? O no by no means. . . what then? Why, that they might amplify and by playing the part of allopposing bodies, beg in their Echo-sound, and infuse the Dull Symphony into the wine-work'd mouths of their still Duller Echoing Co-workers in the Holy deeds of Insurrection— My Dear Sir, however Diabolic those, or despicable these Ant-like Burthenbearers are— Still they are not to be slighted— But the intervening time must be the most improved— for Devils-like, they will do every thing but make ropes of the sand, to bind the friends of real & equal Liberty. And you know too well, how very much of mere Laodiceans we good Republicans are— Jupiter Prayers & all! out of the Mud some times will scarcely move us.
I have scrawled so much upon this subject one so near my heart! that there's no room for more on any general or political subject— Suffer me then to devote the little paper left to the expression of those Sentiments which shall never cease to influence me—that in all things your Political carreer has been such as I should in like circumstances & so situated be proude to imitate— That therefore my fullest approbation as well as unconfin'd Respect & grateful regard is freely & fittingly awarded—whilst is superadded the assurance of my small but best endeavours for, & the warmest wishes that your Re-Election will be made sure— If not, tis more than probable, that I shall never more appear— even in name or paper associated with a People so lost to all sense of their own dignity as well as public Interest— and versatile in the extreme.
But I will not Despond— & may the Heavens realize all our best hopes & wishes— But here is comfort, should they take your seat away, they never can the issue of an honest conduct as well's conscience—Real Honour and, allsupporting Peace.
May God preserve & bless you all your alloted years— and, the most feeling Adieu, Dear Sir,