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Declaration Signer George Ross Gets Promissory Note for First Treason Trial in Pennsylvania
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GEORGE ROSS. Document Signed in text in Docketing. Promissory note of Joseph Malin to George Ross, September 16, 1778. 2 pp.

Inventory #24194.02       Price: $1,250

From September 14-19, 1778, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas McKean (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), Judge William A. Atlee and Judge John Evans held a session acting as the Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery for Chester County. Among the cases they heard was an indictment of wheelwright Joseph Malin for high treason.[1]

Declaration of Independence signers George Ross and James Wilson had served as members of the Continental Congress committee to “prepare an effectual plan for suppressing the internal enemies of America, and preventing a communication of intelligence to our other enemies.” Yet in this court session, they represented the defendant, Malin, who had tried to join what he thought were British troops, though his attempt failed because the troops turned out to be Americans. 

The Pennsylvania Assembly had repealed all provisions of English law related to high treason, but had not passed any replacement legislation. Ross and Wilson began with a motion to provide defendants with a copy of the indictment, a list of prosecution witnesses, and the names of the panel from whom the jury would be drawn at least five days before the trial. They invoked history reaching back to a 1696 statute. The court allowed the defendant to have the indictment and panel of jurors list one day before the trial but ruled he was not entitled to the witness list.

Attorney General Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant (1746-1793) sought to introduce words that Malin had spoken to indicate his intent, but Ross and Wilson objected, insisting that “words did not amount to treason,” and that though treason was clearly a crime, attempted treason was not. The court agreed in part, but allowed the words to be used to explain the motives of the defendant, who was seen with the enemy at another time. When the Attorney General sought to call a witness who had seen Malin parading with the enemy in Philadelphia, Ross and Wilson objected that the evidence was inadmissible because overt acts of treason had to be tried in the county where they had taken place. The Attorney General argued that once an overt act had been proven in Chester County, “corroborative evidence may be given of overt acts committed in any other county,” and the court agreed.

After serving for twenty hours in the trial and deliberations, the jury found Malin not guilty. However, the court made him give security for his good behavior during the war.

Given a shortage of currency and uncertain banking, promissory notes and bills of exchange often served as a substitute. Joseph Malin gave this promissory note to George Ross for representing him. William Lewis witnessed the transaction. George Ross wrote the docketing on the reverse.

Complete Transcript
I promise to pay to George Ross Esquire or order twenty Twenty pound on demand for Value received. Witness my Hand September 16th 1778   /              Joseph Malin

Test:    Wm Lewis

<2> [Docketing in Ross’ hand:] 1778 Note / Joseph Maline to Geo: Ross / £20 on Demand

George Ross (1730-1779) was born in Delaware and educated at home. He gained admission to the bar in Philadelphia in 1750, and established a law practice in Lancaster. Initially a Tory, he served as Crown Prosecutor for twelve years. Ross served in the Pennsylvania provincial legislature from 1768 to 1776, and represented the colony in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1777, when he resigned due to poor health. He was a signer of the Continental Association and was the last of the Pennsylvania delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence. He also served as a colonel in the Continental Army in 1776.

Joseph Malin (1753-1826) was born in Pennsylvania into a Quaker family and became a wheelwright in Chester County. His obituary declared that he “lived respected, and died lamented.”

William Lewis(1750-1819) was born in Pennsylvania into a Quaker family, read law in 1773, and entered private practice in Philadelphia. In 1778, he assisted George Ross and James Wilson in defending some persons accused of high treason, though apparently not in the Malin case. Lewis served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1787 to 1789 and as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Pennsylvania from 1789 to 1791. In July 1791, President George Washington appointed Lewis as judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Pennsylvania. Lewis resigned in January 1792, to resume private practice in Philadelphia, specializing in defending persons charged with treason. He was also active in efforts to abolish slavery, and served as an adviser to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton regarding a national bank.

[1]Respublica v. Malin (September 1778), in Alexander J. Dallas, Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged in the Several Courts of Pennsylvania, Before and Since the Revolution, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: P. Byrne, 1806), 1:33-35; Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), September 22, 1778, 3:1;  Carlton F. W. Larson, The Trials of Allegiance: Treason, Juries, and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 117-21.

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