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Elwyn, Thomas
Three Autograph Letters Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1805 and 1812 to his brother William, a lawyer in Bristol, England

3 letters, 12 pages, folio, and quarto, in good legible condition, some defects affecting text due to careless opening, foredge of page 3 of the 1805 letter is chipped with some loss of text, else very good.

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Group of three letters from Thomas Elwyn, a little-known, rich, expatriate English aristocrat, son-in-law of John Langdon, a Signer of the U.S. Constitution, who immigrated to America and became a dedicated Jeffersonian democrat.

            “I have not heard from the President in answer to a long letter,” Elwyn wrote, in the first of these letters, to his brother. His wait was soon to be over. In his letter to his brother in England, Elwyn describes the “flattery” and “abuse” he had received, in Portsmouth and Boston, after anonymously publishing a pamphlet, “Letter to a Federalist,” (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: 1805) defending Thomas Jefferson and his Administration against Federalist critics. Three weeks before, Elwyn had sent a copy to Jefferson; soon after writing this letter, he would receive a response, the President thanking the young author (of whom he probably knew nothing) for the “conciliatory tendency” of his defense, adding, “Some are of opinion that attempts at conciliation are useless. This is true only as to distinguished leaders who had committed themselves so far that their pride will not permit them to correct themselves, but it is not true as to the mass of those who had been led astray by an honest confidence in the government & by misinformation. The great majority of these has already reconciled itself to us, & the rest are doing so as fast as the natural progress of opinion will permit…”

             Jefferson’s own letter to Elwyn sold at auction five years ago for $ 17,500, but both the auction description and the annotated text preserved in Jefferson’s papers provide only barebones information about Elwyn. That gap is filled by these three letters, particularly by the first letter, a rambling, revealing 2700-word manuscript, the virtual autobiography of a 29-year-old egocentric who would die prematurely ten years later, never fulfilling the glorious destiny he foresaw for himself in his adopted country.

            “Why was I born in England?” Elwyn complains to his brother. Why was it so fashionable to be called British, rather than embracing the “united love of the American people” from this “great country” which “in a few years will be beyond all we have ever seen.” Yet Elwyn is conflicted and ambivalent about many things. He prided himself  - and his wife, daughter of the Governor of New Hampshire – on being “aristocratic” even as he extolled Jefferson’s Republicanism which “may surpass all our hopes and conquer all our fears”. Educated at Oxford, he prided himself on his “elegant” and “ingenious” writing and his popular oratory, which he thought would have brought him greater renown in a “metropolis” like London. But he admitted that he had often “underrated myself.” He proposed, like his brother, to become a lawyer and possibly to go into politics, as many local officeholders would “resign” in his favor. With his “mental and corporeal stamina,” he might have gone into diplomacy, able, with his family connections, to advise the British Government on American affairs – of course, “honorably and openly”, not stooping to any “traitorous policy” or revealing “state secrets”. As a democrat, he favored “moderation” and “delicacy”, not (as he wrote to Jefferson) the extreme revolutionary fervor of the French Jacobins. He clearly lived off his wealth, having even given his father-in-law, John Langdon, the Governor, some $ 30,000. But “commerce” was, for him, “a last resort.” Perhaps, after receiving Jefferson’s letters, he hoped to be named to some high office. But that was not to be. Elwyn did become a lawyer and practice in Portsmouth for some years, living in his father-in-law’s imposing mansion, but he died before he reached the age of 40.

             There is no record of how or why Elwyn was transformed from vehement Jeffersonian in 1805 to diehard anti-Jeffersonian federalist by 1812.

             Elwyn had a problem with his health – he had an “agonizing” and “incurable” eye disease. But his wealth “increased considerably” while he was in America and after some small “jealousy” between himself and his father-in-law had “ceased”, their relations became “candid, open and unreserved between us”, and he had, in fact, been given control of Langdon’s estate, adding Langdon’s riches to his own. Nevertheless, Langdon’s close friendship with Jefferson (and Jefferson’s own acknowledgment of Elwyn’s writing) had not brought Elwyn the public office to which he had aspired, and by 1811 he had begun to think, reluctantly, about returning to England.

             His brother William had visited him in America (in 1804 or 08, the letters are unclear about the date) – Elwyn mentions that Governor Langdon was very fond of him – but had then returned to England. Three years later, at the end of 1811, Elwyn writes his brother – with whom he apparently had a falling out – that he might return to England, although he was not “ready to abandon all blessing bestowed on him in U.S., to plunge dagger in breast of best of friends, to bring down misery on my poor children, to blast every hope of the poor Governor [Langdon], to render contemplation of all the fruits of industry and economy of long life – to join the man who would have despised me and hated me for my crime”. Still mentions “all my hopes and idle dreams” and the possibility of “new connections” in America. He invites his brother to again visit him in America. He talks about his “abandonment of England” being “a case of fate and necessity more than of choice”. But he is not eager to go back. In America he was still “abundantly rich”. Can I think without pain of the probable necessity of eventually abandoning my possessions here and embarking “myself” and his family “on an ocean of uncertainty, expense and uneasiness and all for what, that they may sit down in a worse house, in poverty, meanness, neglect.” There was another possibility – that his brother might leave England and move permanently to America.

             But everything changed in 1812 as war approached between England and the United States.

         Elwyn, Thomas, Autograph Letter Signed Portsmouth, New Hampshire, March 14-17, 1805, to his brother William, Georges Coffee House, Temple Bar, London

         Folio, 4 pages

“Dear brother,

     … Now for worldly matters your account of your northern tour I have not received. This winter has been the severest I ever saw, and a great many shipwrecks have taken place … My little work and other things have given me so much to think of lately that I have been lost … I have been for 5 weeks immersed in papers. The pamphlet of which I will try and send you a few copies attracted great attention, and has attained me exalted praise and some abuse. I did not put my name to it, but the feds. discovered the author, and everything was sought for to abuse me personally – yet the work was moderate, delicate and perhaps elegant. Not a word in it that could hurt the feelings of anyone. This performance and some others have created great amazement. To come out so suddenly was striking – there is so little field for anything of this nature on the great scale in this country without a metropolis that I shall probably stop. I have gained great attention as a speaker. The col. is presently in enraptured there in England I had the same knowledge there that I had here, I should be tempted to pursue the career. The work of five days has been the constant subject of conversation and criticizing for as many weeks. I have seen no less than thirteen articles on the work and within a short time. Who my friends and flatterers are in Boston I know not – nobody did the honors of the work … I fear everything is not yet over. The critiques are many of them well written – one I will enclose and part of another I will copy … I likewise wrote something to Casavant in French – he is now for a time with the French ambassador … it was written off hand and I have no copy of it as to the pamphlet there has not been a word said against it worth a moments notice all praise all flattery – I can form no conception who are so warmly my friends in Boston. In this town more than 100 copies have been disposed of. I should like Knox to see this article after much introductory matter in the Mondays Boston Paper this follows – A pamphlet having lately appeared, intitled “A Letter to A Federalist” it’s merits were found too great to be borne. Federalism sought out the author to blast him, if possible the more conspicuous and active his virtues and talents, the more grateful would be the sacrifice. It is cheerfully submitted to the good sense of the community, whether the most popular objection to Mr. Js. administration are not obviated by that letter and it may be asked what it contains unpalatable to any lover of his country. And there will be found a fair exposition of the principles of our government – a display of the prosperity and happiness reverting from a policy which grew out of the spirit of them, and ascriptions of praise to Mr. Jefsn  as the author of a practical government purely legitimate. But the great sin of the supposed author, Mr. Elwyn, is that he has said there – as the work is unanswerable the usual course has been taken to prejudice the public against the man. They charge him with being a fortune hunter, a seeker of office an aristocrat in principle, and secret enemy to Mr. Jef. and an Englishman etc. etc. The truth of Mr. Elwyn is that he is an Englishman of very respectable connections. He received the rudiments of a classic education under the celebrated Uries. Knox and finished it at Oxford. He came to this country wealthy and with highly respectable recommendations. He has been frequently at the seat of Gov.t and is well appointed with most of the first characters in our country … with his resources he might be chargeable with omission of duty in withholding any longer his exertions in favor of republicanism, of which he has uniformly been a professor, and to Mr. Jefn uniformly a firm friend “… some long critiques have been in the federal papers, but not timely – all misrepresentation of me individually … had the work appeared in a large metropolis I have no reason to doubt that the predictions of the book sellers would have been verified a thousand copies at least could have been sold here … the facility with which I write is amazing to myself. One of the foolish pieces of abuse advises my securing a copywrite, as my elegance of language, admirable choice of words, and great power of commanding the attention may enrich me very greatly. I have likewise written two smaller pieces in the town which have been much admired, and have not obtained a word of abuse excepting that they are attributed to the same author … this business may perfectly decide my future fortunes and perhaps not in the way you would suppose. I have not been to Boston these 3 months – all this fortune has been going to Casavant, who first made me an author, and who has added I think nobly though he says only quietly I may really conceive that had you been here to have planned and assisted the first appearance of the “Letter” it would have attracted attention far beyond all I can describe. It was really written in five days I was myself taken by surprise – could I have imagined the possibility of what has taken place, the work should have been longer and probably better – it is most artfully concise – one or two sentences I will transcribe from one among the many letters I have received it is from that amiable and fine young man Rd. Sullivan “I am of opinion you have nothing to apprehend for your character or prospects from this source (the above) which ought to give you a moments uneasiness. You are too well known personally and selectively among gentlemen in Boston to be injured by an impeachment of your motives, and where you are not know your work will defend you. The slander of your being an Englishman, a fortune hunter etc. will be answered by your friends rather as a duty than any necessity for a vindication.” Is not this very handsome? … I have not heard from the Pres.t  in answer to a long letter. Everyone must admire this administration. How nobly our squadron has acted in the Mediterranean! Tell me a single advantage I possess in this country over you – thousand in England. In May I am thirty – with a degree, I could be called to the bar at 35 – supposing I could have flattered myself with ever being or rather becoming what I now am – I had sanguine encouragement from different persons in England – particularly from Mr. Childres, Grove, and Romilly. … My work is called the Boat of Glory of the republicans – of course written for electioneering purposes, which it never was and said by both parties to have a greater effect on the Massachusetts election than anything whatever. This I cannot believe – it is addressed to gentlemen and scholars only. For yourself, remember when, how and by whom it was written – if you call it an able and ingenious plea, I shall be satisfied …

     Commerce is said to be dull at present in the U. States. What must your government think of ours in the restraining of the St. Domingo trade according to their desire, and of the eagerness of our administration to act as though they have done, and of the abominable opposition of the federalists? Why is this fashion to be called British? Why must you embrace it rather the United love of the American people? Think of this – are you mad or blind? This is a great country and in a few years will be beyond all we have ever seen. France is not now a friend of freedom. I wish I could send you Commodore Preble’s letter, with the remarks of the Aurora, and the resolutions of the senate. Republicanism may surpass all our hopes and conquer all our fears. … While in this country, I shall ever be a warm friend of Mr. Jn and his administration. Why was I born in England, or why do you inhabit it? Can you not feel the difficulty of advancing without a friend, and of your own age? Had there never been jealousy or constraint between us, what might we not have done? Is it now too late – commerce must be my last recourse. I could do handsomely with the law here, and probably shall be called to the bar if I remain where I am. All is confidence and regard with the Colonel. If he should be governor, Cazeaux says I must be one of his aides and then shall bear the title of Col. myself. Pray go on with the law I envy you your chambers. … Why was I born in England? Were I with you might I not sometimes say, why have I lived so long in America? There is much to love here …”


Elwyn, Thomas, Autograph Letter Signed, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, January 25, 1812, to his brother, W. B. Elwyn, Barrister at Law, Bristol, England

“My dear Brother,

     You will in pity to me pardon whatever may be disagreeable to you in this Sheet. I write under the influence of most painful sensations derived too from more than one cause. The acknowledgement that may when at best in the meridian of life be obliged to being once more, to abandon all I have done, all I have procured and all my hopes and projects in which I have for some years indulged. Added to this the dread of your disappointment, if not of your anger – the destruction too of my fond hopes of soon embracing an only and most beloved Brother – I will not speak of the possibility of pain, of misery to my wife and children and get what transports what this have they not enjoyed at the more hope of seeing you, a hope I fear I must blast. Before I tell you what I may individually do, or what I could wish from you let me tell you what I will not do. I will never under any circumstances I can possibly imagine take my family from this place whilst Mr. Langdon lives. They shall at least stay to assuage the pains and enliven the last dull scenes of his life. My quitting America therefore must at least involve a separation from my wife and most of my children – a mot melancholy necessity to me. I did not receive till last Saturday your packet by the Salem enclosing your beautiful and affecting lines. These we have read over and over again. As a mere composition they are almost faultless – but I will not change a most feeling Brother and Uncle into a cold censorious critic. They have charmed us. And do you think I can cease to long for a country that gave birth to and still contains the friend that wrote them? I cannot and never shall. But you have almost decidedly offered me the means of reunion with you. This I will consider apprising you at the same time that I could not long for England were you here. I could not but be happy in America, could I see my Brother so. But I cannot flatter myself I have enough to offer you to destroy your regrets of England. Myself, my family and friends you would have. But would not these to cease to please you if not to interest you, when the novelty was no more. As a single man you must be elevated so far above necessity that the mere provision for yourself would be as nothing to you. you have the means of many enjoyments you could not look for here and for heaven’s sake let me not deprive you of them. Let me then decidedly tell you, I am afraid I encounter the responsibility of bringing you here. Do not emigrate. I would sooner consent to sending you any one of my children. John and almost the only Cecilia. In this deciding I pass the doom of wretched disappointment to myself, my family and to no one more than to Mr. Langdon who really loves you as a Son. Be assured however I do not speak from any fear of your examining for yourself all my causes of private happiness which I am inclined to think you have heard rather a brilliant description of. Taking even the pioius [sic] Cowper’s last lines of the Task – to no one can they apply more than to your Brother – Read from “He is a happy man”. But this is not a happiness that can be imparted to you. Beyond my walls, or at least beyond the hospital mansions of two or three friends all I fear would be a desert of misery, of disgust to you. My reasons for saying so are founded solely on the political state of the country. This is very singular. No talk but of war within the walls of Congress. An act already past for raising 25,000 additional regulars. Another nearly so far embodying 50,000 volunteers. 1,900,000 appropriated for the purchases of munitions of war. The President speaking of nothing but resistance to the hostility of Britain. Yet no one alarmed – not a though of war in the minds of anyone but Congress. Vessels insured by the most cautious calculating men for a twelve month’s voyage without the smallest advance of premium. The cursed Nonintercourse Act expected to be modified in many important points. Not a word of France and Buonaparte but from two or three Madmen but of honor and detestation. When I reason I expect war, when I speculate, it is for peace. My instinct, my superstition tell me there cannot be war. A most singular change is now the assumed tone of our Administration and of the public – owing in some degree to Pinckney who has turned democrat since he came from England. England when you were here at her last breath, fighting for her existence, is now the most powerful renowned nation of the world, great in wealth, in population, in military no less than naval power and prowess. And yet the same men speak only of war with here. I do not individually as if expected war. Our funds are high as usual, exchange still 15 or 16 percent under par. But I would not wish you to encounter the hazard of a storm, which may never break, but which at all events I would wish alone to feel the force of. This at least I will say. No Englishman should emigrate here at this period, give up such a thought. I will cease to look for in this capacity. Having said this, I will at the same time way I should be rendered most happy by a visit from you. were you now here you might assist me in forming conclusions on which might depend the future happiness of myself and family. Should you advise it, I would return to England with you and with a part of my family. The misery of every one here would be diminished if such a step were taken with your concurrence. Even poor Eliza would feel less. Good God! That felicity such as mine, with virtue, piety, ever thing good should fall a sacrifice to Jefferson and your stupid Orders in Council. How little can these Devils feel for their fellow creatures. One thing I have forgotten to mention to you. I am not only a federalist, but although I enjoy great private consideration and regard I have nothing to do with American public life. This I have determined to abandon for some time, if not forever. I tell you this because I am afraid you have attached some importance to the contrary. As to all you might bring here in addition to my own Stocks, much as I admire and value these things I wish for nothing. Let everything of that kind stand. From all I have said, you must gather that I offer you nothing without the walls of my own house. I have formed an agreeable intercourse with a few pleasant friends in this town and we have often visitors from other quarter. In these respects I have all I can desire and when I abandon it, shall never hope for the like again. But this is my all. John who is a very fine boy is a more determined Englishman than I was at his age. His principles are fixed. His abilities great and his knowledge far beyond his age. I mention this solely because I wish to understand that he is every thing you could wish from an English boy and he is the only child I have old enough to feel any influence from my immediate conduct in life. … Notwithstanding all you say, I should not fear to encounter England with 40,000 of fortune. I have experienced so many of the conceived comforts of wealth in this country that I may be allowed to say they do not weigh one ounce in the scale of my happiness. In many respects 80000L would give me less than I have enjoyed for some time past and above all, every atom of anxiety for providing my family. After this letter may I not hope to welcome my Brother as a visitor, though not as an Emigrant. If not, we cannot meet but in England expecting you should be as willing to assume the responsibility of coming here, as I would that of going to you. I remember however that if you could be happy here, I should be blessed indeed. But are you prepared for encountering Allen and his society. How would you feel after a days abuse of everything in America! Could you sing the songs of war in a strange land? I can, with double delight when I think not of war between the two countries. We are right on some questions in our dispute with you but I do not wish to fight against England abstractly wrong, nor will I live [with?] family anywhere in alliance with France. These are my politics as to England. Could they be yours and yet you happy here? Never. I want to live where I love every thing – as a Father – as a husband – blind to the faults of his children and wife or loving them. This is what a man ought to feel for his country. This I do not and never can feel for America and if my children do not, they will be no happier than their Father. I am therefore now brought to the point where I would to heaven I had ever been and thus may my residence in America conduce to my future comfort in England.

Jan. 29 I finish this at the house of Mr. Allen in Boston. He agrees with me in every point but things a visit might conduce to your comfort as it certainly would to my happiness. Nothing new here but I cannot persuade myself into war. Remember I am aware of the plague of the voyage and that you might dislike to look forward to a return. I am very happy privately and could make you so but I cannot beat the thought of your regrets at leaving England. You know this country well and I will say nothing about it, more than I have done. Allen justly observes everything must depend on your on your own feelings. Were the case reversed I should not hesitate as to the course I would take – leave my legacy h. in status quo. Has Capper said anything about my dividend on the 3rd ought I not to have it. … Adieu my beloved Brother. … “

    War broke out six months later, in June 1812. Six months after that, Elwyn wrote again:


Elwyn, Thomas, Autograph Letter Signed, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Dec. 10, 1812 to his brother W. B. Elwyn, Barrister at Law, Bristol, England

Quarto, 4 pages,   

My dear Brother,

      I have received several letters from you and confess myself extremely in your debt but you must not be angry. There are so many difficulties in the way of writing in the present unhappy relations of our two countries, that I shall beg you to do towards me as I shall towards you – write whenever you have an opportunity, always think of me with affection and confidence in my regard and let us flatter ourselves that we all continue in good health and shall one day be recompensed for the painful alienation we suffer.  Al our public events you will hear of by the papers – the new and formidable enemy your marine would find in this country, had the government of it the smallest energy or spirit. Already you lost more ships in fair fight than in 20 years war with France. The Guerriere, Macedonian and Alert were taken by superior vessels, the Frolick by one with fewer years, though rather more men. I have visited all our public ships and you may depend on their acquitting themselves honourably on all occasions.

     Do not suppose that in any of the Northern States there is the smallest animosity against you. Both parties equally desire peace, and I live here as quietly as ever I did in my life. Some valuable prizes have been brot. Into this town and I have had the means of shewing kindness and attention to English prisoners, which of course I shall always do. My property is not severely injured by the accursed war – some diminution of income and some anxiety that is all. Mr. Langdon as usual. Mrs. L. unwell and both growing old. My children also well, Cecelia taller than her mother. My health extraordinarily good, eyes better but by no means benefited by Ware’s lotion. I received the Bristol Gazettes by Parker. They entertained me very much - … abide by your country, as I must do by this. The more you advance in respectability, wealth and honour, the more happy I shall feel in reflecting on you. God, who brot. me hither will I trust protect me and mine from severe misery and give me patience under small afflictions. My feeling at the war you may easily conceive, but I keep my spirits tolerably well for the most part. The federalists act nobly, but they love their country, put no confidence in reports of insurrections etc. etc. England has behaved admirably in most respects since the war began. Prejudice and passion subside every day. As manly a war as you will on the drumbeaters in Canada – no sniveling, pitiful submission, no contempt, but for heaven’s sake, no burnings, no wanton destruction and cruelty. This would unite all parties against you. We will pray for Boney’s annihilation … and rejoice as much as ever in Ld. Welling[ton’s] successes. Pray try to send me a power for my 4 pr. cent stock. The low price of bills may tempt me to send some money to Eng.d & I may be interested in a cargo of rice to Cadiz – the proceeds of which  will go to a house called Palsford & Co., London – friends of Mr. James Sheafe & others here – I write in great haste and am doubtful of your ever receiving my letter. I wish I could make you a visit for a few months. Clinton has all the votes of New England, but 8 in Vermont. All Jersey, New York, Delaware, 5 in Maryland; but Madison will be reelected by the Southern and Western States. N.B. this, we behave on both sides with honour, humanity and respect to Prisoners – you act nobly and probably set the example. Remember one thing however – Despise this country no more, if you were ever so ridiculous – love the federalists, but respect them. Recollect we are a free country and the reluctance of a great portion of our people to engage at all in the war. This will account for the ridiculous management of our Canada expeditions. Your worst enemies are original British Subjects. Mostly Irish, some Englishmen and a very few Scotchmen. Pray for peace. Remember us, love us. I almost wish my dear John were with you. He continues a noble boy. Believe me ever yours with sincere affection. Mention me to your friends. I wish I would visit you for a few weeks.”

     Unfortunately, there may be no other existing letters from the War period to indicate how Elwyn felt about the War after the British burning of the Capitol. He himself died less than a year after the end of the war.