• Adams, Franklin, Jay Sought Release of Massachusetts Merchant Held Prisoner In Spanish Inquisition

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    THE SPANISH INQUISITION, 1478-1834, was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy and identify heretics among those who converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism. It is often cited in popular literature and history as an example of religious intolerance and repression, although some historians believe the intolerance charges were exaggerated.  Still, it remains one of the deadliest inquisitions in history and involved horrific torture.


    The 1 ¼ pp, 7 ½ x 12 ½, ALS, offered here and written by JETHRO PUTNAM in 1783 is part of a fascinating account seeking the release of JONAS HARTWELL, an American merchant from Massachusetts who converted from Catholicism to Protestant, infuriating the Inquisition and leading to his imprisonment in Spain and the confiscation of his property.  Putnam asked his father to use his influence with the minister of Spain to secure Hartwell’s release.


    Research (included) shows that JOHN ADAMS, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN and JOHN JAY, who had just negotiated the Treaty of Paris in September 1783, officially ending the Revolutionary War with Britain, got involved.   


    WILHEM and JAN WILLINK, friends of Hartwell, wrote to John Adams in 1784, providing further details of Hartwell’s arrest. Adams sent a letter to the Willinks thanking them for the information and said he expected Hartwell’s release soon. Adams further remarked, “It is to be hoped that his example will deter other Americans from rash conversions and then they will be in no danger of the indignation of the Inquisition for Supposed Apostacies.”


    In our letter, written on December 13, 1783, Putnam, who commanded the Danvers, MA, Regiment during the Revolutionary War, writes to his father COL. ENOCH PUTNAM, who responded to the Lexington Alarm in 1775 and continued in the Continental Army.  Putnam’s letter, filled with creative spelling, begins with details of his health and family matters. He then discusses the plight of Hartwell.  “Danvers [MA] Dec. 13, 1783 N.B. I would petition to you to yous [use] your influens [influence] with the minester of Spain in favor of my friend Jonas Hartwell who is in a distrest [distressed] situation and if alive it seam he was taken by the Coart of Enquisition and cant receive no releaf from his friends…Hs [he’s] a friend of mine & a gentleman…& beg you would yous your influence in power.  I can’t write you’re the particulars at present as I hant [haven’t] got them.”


    Here are the particulars.  Hartwell was an American merchant who had resided in Spain and France and was arrested by the Inquisition at Bilbao, imprisoned and stripped of his property, including $30,000 from the sale of tobacco for speaking contemporaneously of Catholicism.  Benjamin Franklin wrote to William Carmichael on behalf of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and himself to ask the American charge d’ affaires at Madrid to intercede to gain Hartwell’s release and the restoration of his property.  Carmichael pressed the matter for months but the inquisition was not to be rushed.  Hartwell died early in the Spring of 1785 while still in prison.


    Light toning. Fold edges reinforced with archival tape. One small piece missing at the bottom, apparently from a seal tear, affecting a couple of words.  This is an incredible letter, the subject of which involved the highest levels of the American government, seeking an American’s release from one of the deadliest inquisitions in world history. 


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