Loyal Citizen or Lying Cheat?

April 17th, 2013

When his 1798 claim for a reward of ten dollars for capturing and returning a deserter was denied by the Accountant of the War Department, Hugh McAlister appealed the decision by writing directly to the President of the United States. McAlister argued that he was a “well known friend to the Constitution” and that William Simmons, the Accountant, had only denied the claim because of a preexisting prejudice.

He was right that Simmons was prejudiced against him. Simmons remembered that McAlister had been implicated in a case of forgery in 1797. Joseph Humprheys, one of the witnesses in the case, had alleged that McAlister was part of a scheme to forge to forge soldier’s powers of attorney and thereby take their pay or land. If nothing else, McAlister was the Notary Public who had certified as true the forged powers of attorney, and while he was not convicted, Simmons and others believed him to have been guilty.

However, Simmons did not mention McAlister’s history in his denial of the claim, instead pointing out that the deserter McAlister claimed to have returned did not appear in any Muster Roll, nor had the army advertised for a deserter by that name or appearance.  The “deserter” may never have been in the Army at all! Usually, civilian captures of deserters took place after the War Department advertised in newspapers with the name and description of the deserter, which they only did once a military attempt to retrieve the deserter had failed. The fact that there was no soldier by that name in Muster Rolls, no account of a military attempt to recover the man, nor any advertising may have suggested to Simmons that McAlister was trying a new form of fraud.

President John Adams referred the matter to Secretary of War James McHenry, who wrote to William Simmons for clarification. Simmons defended his decision in letters to McHenry and the President. In his letter to Adams, Simmons pointed out not only the lack of evidence for McAlister’s claim but the man’s history of fraud. His shorter reply to McHenry, however, only mentioned the lack of evidence, and McHenry apparently felt that Simmons was not answering his questions appropriately. In a letter dated October 25, McHenry asked Adams whether he thought that Simmons’ behavior in the matter amounted to insubordination.

There does not seem to be any indication that McAlister’s claim was every paid. Whether or not McAlister was trying to defraud the War Department, and whether he’d committed fraud before, his letter of complaint to the President for a $10 reward caused a great deal of drama in the War Department offices.