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May 2 1812: Paul Cuffe meets the President


"James, I have been put to much trouble and have been abused," Paul Cuffe addresses the President of the United States on May 2, 1812. Cuffe was meeting the President to discuss the seizure of his brig, The Traveller, by Newport custom officers. The brig had been seized on April 19, 1812 on its return from Sierra Leone and Great Britain. The 109 ton brig was carrying British woolen goods and cargo from Africa. This was illegal under the Non-Importation Act of 1811. Cuffe's entire cargo was impounded for trading with the British.  


Cuffe was not the type of man that would let this stand. Cuffe had been dealing with, and overcoming unfair circumstances, all his life. Cuffee was a Quaker. He was also the son of an African-American slave and Wampanoaga Indian mother. Against great odds, he had succeed in becoming the captain of his own ships and a successful merchant in Massachusetts. In short, Cuffe was an extraordinary American. Simon Schama writes:
Cuffe was an American success: The owner of land, gristmills, whaling boats. But he was also a Quaker, and reading of Thomas Clarkson's History [of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament] had made him an ardent abolitionist. He felt keenly the plight of slaves in the United States, but also the severe disabilities of his own free people in those states, including Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, which had abolished the institution.
Four years earlier, in 1808, Cuffe had become involved in the movement to return former African American slaves to Africa. Cuffe had just returned from his first trip to the British colony of Sierra Leone where he had gone personally to investigate the colony. He had helped establish, with Quakers and abolitionists in Britain, an organization called the "Friendly Society" to promote the recolonization of former slaves to colonies in Africa and to encourage trade with these colonies.  After his trip to Sierra Leone, Cuffe had gone to Britain where he had been lionized by many British abolitionists. 

It was on his return to America, in April of 1812, that his brig had been impounded. Cuffe  proceeded to obtain letters of introduction from prominent individuals in New England, mostly Federalists, and went to Washington to make his case directly to the President.  He was able to meet with the President. They had a very civil conversation. Cuffe discussed his plans to colonize Sierra Leone with freed African slaves. The President told Cuffee that he supported his efforts. The President also accepted that Cuffe was not aware of the law against importing foreign goods.  Later, on May 4, the Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin, wrote to Cuffe to tell him of the President's decision and this cargo would be released. 

Simon Schama ends his little biography of Cuffe by telling a story that is so perfect that I cannot help but repeat it:
On his way back to Massachusetts from the Capital, Cuffe was brusquely aware he was not in Britain, much less Freetown. He was dealt with roughly in the stagecoaches by white passengers who were incredulous that a black should presume to share carriage space with them. They attempted to evict him, Cuffe, a dignified old gentleman in his flop-brimmed Quaker hat, stayed put. 

Notes
The information in this entry is taken from Simon Schama's extraordinary book Rough Crossings: Britain, The Slaves and the American Revolution  (Viking Canada, 2005), pages 403-410

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