The finest Button Gwinnett autograph that will ever be available for sale; of the 51 known examples of his signature, this is one of just eight from the year 1776, one of just four from his term of congressional service, and the closest of all to July 4, 1776.
John Ashmead was the clerk of the frigate Randolph, then building in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He was, however, also a member of a company of Quaker Light Infantry that was shortly marching to New Jersey to join the Flying Camp. Ashmead had applied for permission to leave his position on the Randolph in order to join his infantry mates, but the Marine Committee believed his service in the shipyard was of greater consequence.
"The Marine Committee having considered how necessary your attendance is in the Yard taking care of the materials, and the Frigate of which you are a Clerk; think proper to request that you will not go [o]n the proposed expedition to the Jerseys, but that you remain to do your very necessary business.
"You may shew this to your commanding officer to whom, it is hoped, it will prove a satisfactory reason for your stay."
John Ashmead had been a merchantman for many years when he joined the Revolutionary cause in January 1776. In December the Continental Congress had authorized the building of thirteen frigates, and Pennsylvania was responsible for providing four: the Randolph, Washington, Effingham, and Delaware. The Congressional marine commissioners appointed Ashmead as clerk in the Wharton and Humphreys shipyard in Southwark, where the Randolph was to be built. "His duties, along with Woolman Sutton, the superintendent, were to form a muster roll of all employees, keep time records, hire extra labor when needed, provide work for smiths and other tradesmen when wanted, and 'in short do every service and tender ... every assistance'" to the shipbuilders (Bell).
Despite being a Baptist, Ashmead enrolled in a militia company largely composed of Quakers and known as the Quaker Light Infantry. On 5 July, the company, commanded by Captain Joseph Cowperthwait, was ordered to Trenton to join the Flying Camp. Congress had provided, however, that militiamen who were employed in the manufacture of weapons or gunpowder should be exempted from active duty. As the present letter reveals, the Marine Committee believed that Ashmead's "very necessary business" in the shipyard was of more significance than his marching to Trenton.
After the Randolph was launched, Ashmead went back to sea rather than joining his infantry company. He served on many vessels for the duration of the War, both Navy ships and privateers.
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