One of the more rewarding aspects of working with archival collections is the experience of coming across a unique find—a particularly rare or valuable item that turns up in the course of cataloging the collections. Among the tens of thousands of records which comprise the Chester County Archives, many which are similar in appearance, there are those whose significance does not become apparent until they are examined in detail.
While working with nineteenth-century criminal court records in the Archives, former Archivist Jack McCarthy once discovered an important document signed by James Monroe, fifth president of the United States (1817-1825). The document was issued during the War of 1812, while Monroe served as Secretary of State. It related to the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts passed by President John Adams in 1798.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws concerning immigrant surveillance and the naturalization process. Federalists like Adams and former President George Washington supported these measures to defend against French and British nationals living inside the United States. Strong opposition to the laws helped elect President Thomas Jefferson and a Congressional Democratic-Republican majority in 1800. Once in office, the Democratic-Republicans quickly repealed two of the four acts.
The Alien Enemies Act, however, remains in effect today and has been enforced various times in the country’s history. The act gives the president power to imprison or deport citizens of a hostile nation during times of war.
During the War of 1812, President James Madison and his administration used the Alien Enemies Act to check British loyalists. It was common for British citizens living inside the U.S. to show their neutrality by registering with a local court. In New York, for example, approximately 1,500 British citizens registered with the district marshal including a 58-year-old British man who had been living in the U.S. for 35 years. (1)
Samuel F.B. Morse 1819 portrait of James Madison. Image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.
Very often, the most challenging aspect of finding an important item is tracing its provenance—its history of ownership or custody. This is often difficult and sometimes impossible. Since the Monroe document was not created by the Chester County Government, we can only speculate how it wound up in the Chester County Archives.
Jack McCarthy theorized that the document came into the collection through the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office. As the state's top law enforcement officer, it is likely that the Attorney General received a copy of Secretary Monroe's notice to register foreign nationals. Prior to the establishment of the office of county District Attorney in 1850, the Attorney General or his deputy prosecuted criminal cases out of the Chester County Courthouse. It is possible that the Attorney General or one of his clerks left the document behind after prosecuting a case. The document was likely left behind in the Clerk of Court’s office where a county clerk used the back of the document to list the names of the county’s sheriffs and the years they first served.
The autograph is now part of the Chester County Historical Society’s
Autograph Collection, which contains documents signed by famous statesmen, military figures, literary figures, and other noted persons. The autograph file is particularly strong in signatures of United States presidents and Pennsylvania governors, containing documents signed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, among many others.
1) See "'Aliens' in America: British Citizens During the War of 1812," New York Historical Society, 3 April 2012.