Mitchill, Samuel W.
Autograph Letter Signed Washington, D.C., March 1, 1802, to Hannibal W. Dobbyn, New York

quarto, two pages, plus address leaf, “free” franked with Mitchill’s signature, some staining slight loss of a few letters due to careless opening, else in very good legible condition.

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“Dear Sir,

             I acknowledge the receipt of your two late letters; and I thank you for the valuable information concerning canine madness in the former of them.

             The agreement about a purchase of land in the North western territory of the U. S. was as you state, made with a Committee of Congress. The Nature of Congressional business is such that an agreement with a Committee is [not] binding upon the House which appointed them, far less is it obligatory upon the Legislature consisting of two branches. Business in Committee is in reality only in its incipient state, and to be bonding must be reported to the House and either agreed to in the form of a Resolution, or of a Statute.

             It does not appear from anything I can learn here, or from your own letters, that any Resolve or law was ever passed in your favour. I believe none of the present Members know anything about it. And if they did, it would be necessary for the application to be made anew, after the manner of all other business left unfinished at a former session.

             I am therefore inclined to believe that the Conversation held between you and the Committee, about the land you mention, was never considered by the government as of any Avail. It is probable the proposals were never formally known to the Government.

            Be that as it may, those transactions are to be considered, I am rather inclined to think, as of no importance at this day. If therefore you wish to purchase land, a new Application must be made at the proper office, where the conditions will be made known to you. I am apprehensive, my dear Sir, you have labored under some misconception in this affair.

            It would be highly desireable to receive worthy Settlers for our new lands, and I am sure no one would be more willing to welcome the good and virtuous men you mention than myself …”

 

Hannibal William Dobbyn was an Irishman in his 30s, a Protestant from a “family of great antiquity” in Waterford, if not one of the original Norman families to settle in Ireland’s second largest city. After serving as an officer of the Ulster Volunteers that agitated, hopelessly, for Irish independence during the American Revolution, Dobbyns sailed for America in 1789, at first settling in New York to seek large tracts of land on which he proposed to settle “respectable”, Protestant Irish immigrants.  He petitioned the United States Congress for the right to purchase 50,000 acres in the “Western Country” – the Northwest Territory – still uninhabited (except, of course, for the Native Americans). The “special terms” he proposed were a cash down payment of a third of the purchase price, the remainder to be paid in installments over a twelve year period. His petition prompted an extended debate in Congress at the start of 1790. Some legislators favored the sale as a means of promoting speedy settlement of the territory, “to encourage useful settlers among us”, it being “of high importance to encourage the emigration into this country from all quarters of the world” and, not incidentally, to raise revenue to service the public debt. Others objected to a sale which did not require full cash payment, especially to an “alien” who, though he proposed to become a naturalized citizen, could not yet legally own land in the United States. Still others opposed rewarding foreigners with “cheap farms” carved from a large tract of land sold to a single individual, this running counter to ideals of a “democratic” land system. Finally, on purely technical grounds, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton nixed the immediate sale of any Western Lands since “the Indian Title” to territory was not yet “extinguished”. Dobbyn’s petition was tabled – though he thought one Congressional Committee favored his proposal. Deluding himself into thinking it was only a matter of time before the deal was done, Dobbyns remained in America “in daily expectation of confirming the sale, at a very considerable expence and loss of Time.” Meanwhile, he optimistically informed “those Families who most ardently wished to emigrate to America” of his expectations; these hopefuls were “induced to sell their property in Ireland” with plans for imminent immigration; what proved to be an interminable delay drove them “to great [financial] distress” while they waited in vain for favorable word from across the Atlantic. Six years later, Dobbyns himself was still waiting – as he related his sad story to President John Adams in May 1796 – and renewing his petition to Congress. But this time another congressional committee “definitely reported against it.”

 

There is no further mention in historical annals of Dobbyn’s land proposal – this letter, another six years later, to renaissance man Samuel Mitchill (1764-1831) – New York Congressman, and Senator, Medical Doctor and distinguished amateur scientist (his interest must have been piqued by Dobbyns’ note on “canine madness”) – was apparently Dobbyns’ last hurrah. Thirty years later, a naturalized citizen, he died in obscurity in Milford, Pike County, Pennsylvania.