1813 Autograph Letter Signed by Lawyer John Pickering of Salem, Massachusetts concerning a Case of Libel and the Impressment of American Sailors in the War of 1812

1813 legal letter from Salem, Massachusetts lawyer, John Pickering (1777–1846), concerning an action for libel against John Kneeland. The libel concerns the publication of a report dealing the impressment of American sailors during the War of 1812:

I sometime ago commenced an action, in my own name, against Mr. [John] Kneeland (the Andover Representative) for libeling me as one of the Committee on Impressments. The libel was contained in an “address of the Republican Convention of Essex South District” to the people, published last March & signed by Mr. Kneeland, a moderator of the Convention. The paragraph charged us with attempting in a most reprehensible manner, to impose upon the people that there were only 157 cases of impressment from the whole state, when in the town to which one of the committee belonged, that number was greatly exceeded; – these are nearly the words of the libel – The defendant (you will be astonished at the effrontery) means to justify! How he expects to maintain his answer, I cannot conceive. The action stands for trial at our present Court which has adjourned till the Monday after next; and it has occurred to me that the defendant may possibly make use of our colleague, Mr. Breed, as a witness. You recollect Breed’s feelings well, & if he testifies as he felt in the Committee, it will be necessary for me to have some evidence to meet his. The object therefore of this letter is to request you to go before some Magistrate & give your Deposition, without delay & forward it to me immediately. I wish you to testify as to the conduct of the Committee generally during the whole of their sittings and of my conduct particularly, so far as you can with a clear conscience.

The crux of the libel case was that John Pickering and the Committee on Impressment conducted their investigations “unfairly” so as to mislead the public. A skilled lawyer, John Pickering, here writing to an unnamed colleague, tries to direct the content of the solicited deposition:

State particularly how much pains we talked to obtain the names of well-informed witnesses in different towns and that we desired every member of the Committee to name such witnesses as he thought of, and that all the members did from time to time name witnesses, and that every name (as you recollect was the fact) without exception was put into the Subpoenas, when mentioned by any one of the Committee – & that the witnesses were selected without distinction of party – &c. &c. &c. & that they were not dismissed till every member had put such questions as he wished – and that all that the witnesses stated was faithfully & impartially inserted in the Deposition. The essence of the libel is that we conducted the business unfairly, partially & with a design to impose upon the public. … State among other facts, that we faithfully reported all the cases that came to our knowledge, & occupied ourselves with the utmost diligence during the Session in prosecuting the enquiry – perhaps you might also state that the Report itself is true, impartial &c. Pray see that the caption of the Depo[sition]. stands right. It is to be used in an action of the case now pending in the Sup. Jud. Court between John Pickering of Salem &c. plaintiff and John Kneeland of Andover &c. defendant. Have the goodness to let no delay take place as I have no time to lose.

Lawyer and philologist John Pickering was born in Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts, the eldest child of Timothy Pickering (1745–1829), American Revolutionary soldier and, later, third U.S. Secretary of State. John Pickering graduated from Harvard in 1796 and then studied law in Philadelphia under Edward Tilghman. He was admitted to the Essex County Massachusetts bar in 1804 and represented Salem in the General Court in 1812, 1814, and 1826. John Pickering was a polyglot. His philological writings include a Greek lexicon and the first collection of Americanisms, Vocabulary or Collection of Words and Phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States of America (1816).

Amidst, high tensions and raised tempers, Pickering’s cool legal thinking is seen within this letter focused upon a case of libel and the impressment of sailors in the War of 1812.


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