Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Question of Alienage

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Question of Alienage

Article excerpt

Having long anticipated the death of their wealthy relative, members of the Coxe family lost little time in projecting their distributable shares in Rebecca Coxe's estate. She died on a Saturday, and on Monday following, Daniel Coxe's father-in-law, Dr. John Redman, his son, Dr. John Redman Coxe, and the British consul in Philadelphia, Phineas Bond, filed of public record a caveat "against any paper purporting to be last will and testament of said Rebecca Coxe, or against granting any letters of administration until we shall have been first heard." Letters of administration were, however, granted three days later on March 25, 1802, to William Coxe, of the City of Burlington, Tench Coxe's younger brother.1

For Tench Coxe, his aunt's death and the money he expected to receive from her estate appeared a welcome gift from providence. He had incurred both mounting debts and his elderly father's increasing impatience and displeasure with his son's profligate ways. In 1800, Tench Coxe made a general assignment of his property to trustees in an attempt to safeguard his lands against the claims of creditors. William Coxe, Sr., Tench's father, died in October 1801, six months before his sister; he provided in his will for outright distribution to his children other than Tench Coxe, whose share he placed in trust.2 Given his straitened condition, one may appreciate the letter Tench Coxe received shortly after his aunt's death from his good friend and lawyer, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (Figure 2): "I congratulate you," wrote Du Ponceau, "on your late accession of fortune, & more so in the use which you intend to make of it, which I hope will prove as advantageous to you as it is honorable."3

How much an "accession of fortune" this might amount to depended on the resolution of a legal issue concerning Daniel Coxe's status under New Jersey law, which governed the distribution of Rebecca Coxe's estate. During the course of the last twenty years in England, and indeed previously while in this country, Daniel Coxe had identified himself time and again as a loyal British subject. Had he, therefore, completely shed his American identity, making him under New Jersey law an "alien"?

The common law held that a person not born within the dominions of the king of England was an alien and, with limited exceptions, prohibited from acquiring title to real estate by purchase or inheritance. In contrast, that prohibition did not prevent aliens from inheriting personal property-furniture, jewelry, bonds, cash, and the like.4

Following the Revolution, many of the former colonies adopted these commonlaw rules and applied them to the distribution of the estates of those dying without a will. New Jersey was one such jurisdiction doing so. If, as a matter of law, Daniel Coxe was classified an alien, he would have been excluded from taking any part of his late aunt's landed estate, all of which would have then belonged to Tench Coxe and his siblings. To determine Daniel Coxe's status, however, required dealing with the American Revolution's disruptive influence on established relations and on the concept of allegiance.

Over the years of his residence abroad, Daniel Coxe had developed a close relationship with Margaret Shippen Arnorld, Benedict Arnold's wife and the daughter of Edward Shippen, Jr., of Philadelphia. Coxe had performed any number of services for Peggy Arnold, for which she expressed her gratitude in letters to her father. Shortly after Rebecca Coxe's death, Edward Shippen, then Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, wrote his daughter in I^ondon: "I feel very grateful to Mr. Coxe for his very kind exertions in your behalf: if it should ever be in my power to show my sense of them, I shall immediately demonstrate it more than by words. I am glad to find by the death of his Aunt Rebecca Coxe that he will probably come in for a part of her Estate which I am told in land & money will amount to the value of near two Hundred thousand Dollars. …

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