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Letter to Vice President Aaron Burr From Revolutionary War Officer and Future New York Mayor Marinus Willett re Protecting New York’s Harbor and Opposing Brooklyn Navy Yard Site (Because the Navy’s Agent Didn’t Buy Enough Land)
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Governor Clinton wanted a report from the federal government “signifying the number of troops that will be allowed to Garrison there [in New York harbor], and whether the General Government will not from a Consideration of the Importance of the safety of the port to the revenue add something to what may be expanded [sic] by the state.

Willett appeals to Vice President Aaron Burr for help from the Jefferson administration to improve New York City’s harbor defenses based upon the city’s commercial importance. He also discusses initial plans for the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

MARINUS WILLETT. Autograph Letter Signed, to Vice President Aaron Burr, January 7, 1802. 2 pp., 7¾ x 9¾ in. Docketed M. Willett, January 7, 1802.

Inventory #23067.01       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Complete Transcript

                                                                        New York 7th January 1802

Dear sir

            A few days ago I forwarded according to your directions several letters inclosed to your charge which I trust you have received and that it will not be long before I have the gratification of hearing of the success of that business. It appears to be the opinion of Governor Clinton that the president should say something respecting the size of the works for the defence of this Harbour by signifying the number of troops that will be allowed to Garrison there, and whether the General Government will not from a Consideration of the Importance of the safety of the port to the revenue add something to what may be expanded by the state. I am Inclined to think some stimulus is wanted to set these works going. after having engaged in this work it is natural to wish some progress be made and for this reason I’ll thank you for your assistance. I observe a Committe appointed by Congress to enquire on the subject of Navy yards. The objections to Mr Watsons Long Island purchase are so substantial that I conceive <2> it is only requisite that they be named in order to reprobate that place. The reserve made by Mr Jackson which when he hopes must compel the public to make a further purchase and the exposedness of the situation are of themselves so powerful obstacles that little farther evidence of the Impropriety of persevering in forming a permanent establishment there is necessary.

            The charge of the Stores at Albany I do believe may justly be commited to E. T. Willett if a person should be wanted for that purpose. J V D is at work on the portrait of Mrs W and my Little Democrat.[1] It will be a beautiful picture.

                                                                        With the most sincere esteem & regard

                                                                        I beg to subscribe myself yours

                                                                        M. Willett

A. Burr Esqr

Historical Background

Congress passed statutes between 1797 and 1799 to allow states credit for harbor fortifications against state’s debt to the U.S. In 1798, General Ebenezer Stevens provided Burr with the facts, figures, and plans he needed to convince the N.Y. legislature to appropriate funds for the fortification of the harbor and city of New York. On March 16, 1801, as Vice President, Burr agreed to review plans underway by the state to augment New York’s defenses.

The Rapelje estate in Brooklyn had been purchased by a Dutch settler from Native Americans early in the seventeenth century. In 1781, John Jackson and two of his brothers acquired at auction different parts of the estate, and established a shipbuilding facility there in the 1790s.

Federalist Benjamin Stoddert (1744-1813) became the first Secretary of the Navy in May 1798 and held the position through the remainder of John Adams’ administration, establishing the first six navy yards in the final months of his tenure, much to the annoyance of the incoming Democratic-Republican administration of Thomas Jefferson.

In 1801, Secretary Stoddert authorized the purchase of 42 acres and the old docks from Jackson by an agent for $40,000. On February 23, the property was transferred to the U.S. To encourage the development, and the building of facilities that would protect the city, Brooklyn (not merged into New York City for nearly another century) sold the waterfront rights to the Navy for $1. Jackson retained most of his property, though, and eventually developed a portion into the Vinegar Hill residential and industrial district.

Ebenezer Watson and James Watson (1750-1806) served as U.S. Navy agents for New York City from 1799 to 1801. On March 16, 1801, Vice President Aaron Burr wrote to President Thomas Jefferson that “James Watson… is, to our Citizens, the Most obnoxious.” Jefferson quickly replaced Watson with Daniel Ludlow, President of the Manhattan Company (which Burr had founded).

On May 13, 1801, Ludlow wrote to new Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith that “Messrs. Watsons have been guilty of one great oversight in the purchase, in not embracing a larger front on the water, by which error they put Government in the power of Mr. Jackson, by allowing him to retain the ground that commands the entrance to the deep water into that side of the bay.” The Navy would need another costly four acres from Jackson.

Thomas Jefferson opposed the military buildup. The Brooklyn Navy Yard did not become active for the U.S. Navy until 1806. The site remained important through the 1960s, building some of the most powerful ships deployed by the U.S. Navy, including the ironclad USS Monitor in the Civil War, and the USS Missouri in World War II.

Marinus Willett (1740-1830) served in the militia during the French and Indian War and had taken part in the expedition to Fort Ticonderoga. As a New York Son of Liberty, he helped confiscate arms from an arsenal and captured British stores at Turtle Bay in the East River. Willett was appointed captain in the Continental Army and participated in the Invasion of Canada and the Siege of Quebec. In April 1781 he was made a colonel of the New York militia and assigned to the Mohawk Valley. Most of his efforts involved fighting Loyalists and their Indian allies. In February 1783, instructed by George Washington to take Fort Ontario back from the British, Willett determined that he had lost the element of surprise and instead retreated. The fort would remain in British hands until 1796, after the signing of Jay’s Treaty. Willett maintained his political alignment with Democratic-Republican Governor George Clinton and later served in the New York State Assembly, as Sheriff of New York County (1784-1787 and 1791-1795), and as the forty-eighth Mayor of New York City (1807-1808).

Aaron Burr Jr. (1756-1836) was the third Vice President of the United States, serving during Jefferson’s first term, through March 4, 1805. He graduated from Princeton University in 1772, at age 16. His first public service was as a Continental Army officer, where he distinguished himself at the Battles of Quebec, New York, and Monmouth. He served as Attorney General of New York from 1789 to 1791, and represented New York in the U.S. Senate from 1791 to 1797. While Vice President, on July 11, 1804, Burr fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel. With his political fortunes in decline, Burr is reputed to have formed a conspiracy to establish a private army and set up an empire from portions of Mexico (then belonging to Spain) and/or Louisiana (a U.S. territory). Burr was brought to trial on August 3, 1807, with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding. He was acquitted on September 1. Following the trial, he lived in Europe in self-imposed exile for four years, then returned to New York to practice law.

[1] American artist John Vanderlyn painted a portrait of Mrs. Margaret Bancker Willett and their son Marinus Willett Jr. in 1802.