To George Washington1
[New York, July 15, 1790]2
In my second interview with Major Beckwith which was on Thursday the 22d.3 instant I spoke to him nearly as follows
I have made the proper use of what you said to me at our last interview.4
As to what regards the objects of a general nature mentioned by you, though your authority for the purpose from Lord Dorchester is out of question, and though I presume from his Lordship’s station & character and the knowlege he appears to have of what is passing on the other side of the water with regard to Mr. Morris,5 that the Step he has taken through you is conformable to the views of your Cabinet and not without its sanction; yet you are no doubt sensible that the business presents itself in a shape, which does not give the proper authenticity to that fact, and is wholly without formality. You must also be sensible that there is a material difference between your situation and that of Mr. Morris. His Credentials though not formal proceed from the proper source. Your’s are neither formal nor authoritative.6
This state of things will of course operate in what I am going to say on the subject.
As to what relates to friendship between Great Britain and the United States, I conceive myself warranted in declaring that there is in this country a sincere disposition to concur in obviating with candor and fairness all ground of misunderstanding which may now exist, in reference to the execution of the late Treaty of Peace and in laying the foundation of future good understanding by establishing liberal terms of commercial intercourse.
As to alliance; this opens a wide field. The thing is susceptible of a vast variety of forms. ’Tis not possible to judge what would be proper or what could be done unless points were brought into view. If you are in condition to mention particulars, it may afford better ground of conversation.
I stopped here for an answer.
Major Beckwith replied that he could say nothing more particular than he had already done.
That being the case (continued I) I can only say that the thing is in too general a form to admit of a judgment of what may be eventually admissible or practicable. If the subject shall hereafter present itself to discussion in an authentic and proper shape, I have no doubt we shall be ready to converse freely upon it: And you will naturally conclude that we shall be disposed to pursue whatever shall appear under all circumstances to be our interest as far as may consist with our honor. At present I would not mean either to raise or repress expectation.
Major Beckwith seemed to admi⟨t⟩ that as things were circumstanced nothing explicit could be expected and went on to make some observations which I understood as having for object to sound whether there existed any connection between Spain and us and whether the questions with regard to the Mississippie were settled.
Perceiving this I thought it better in a matter which was no secret to avoid an appearance of Mystery and to declare without hesitation, as I did—
“That there was no particular connection between Spain and the U States within my knowlege, and that it was matter of public notoriety that the questions alluded to were still unadjusted.”
The rest of our conversation consisted chiefly of assurances on my part that the menaces which had been mentioned by him as having been thrown out by some individuals with regard to the Western posts were unauthorised, proceeding probably from a degree of irritation, which the detention of the posts had produced in the minds of many—and of a repetition on his part of the assurances which he had before given of Lord Dorchesters disposition to discourage Indian Outrages.
Something was said respecting the probable course of military operations in case of war between Britain & Spain which Major Beckwith supposed would be directed towards South America alleging however that this was mere conjecture on his part. I hinted cautiously our dislike of an enterprise on New Orleans.7
AL, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress; ADf, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
1. On the back of the last sheet of the draft, H wrote the following note:
“Note. Mr. Jefferson was privy to this transaction. The views of the Government were to discard suspision that any engagements with Spain or intentions hostile to Great Britain existed—to leave the ground in other respects vague & open, so as that in case of Rupture between G B & S—the U States might be in the best situation to turn it to account in reference to the Disputes between them & G B on the one hand & Spain on the other.”
This conversation resulted from instructions given to H by Washington after H had reported to the President his conversation with Beckwith on July 8. After Washington had heard, or read, H’s report of that date, he made the following comment in his diary:
“The aspect of this business in the moment of its communication to me, appeared simply, and no other than this;—We did not incline to give any satisfactory answer to Mr. Morris, who was officially commissioned to ascertain our intentions with respect to the evacuation of the Western Posts within the territory of the United States and other matters into which he was empowered to enquire until by this unauthenticated mode we can discover whether you will enter into an alliance with us and make Common cause against Spain. In that case we will enter into a Commercial Treaty with you and promise perhaps to fulfil what they already stand engaged to perform. However, I requested Mr. Jefferson and Colo. Hamilton, as I intended to do the Vice President, Chief Justice and Secretary at War, to revolve this matter in all its relations in their minds that they may be the better prepared to give me their opinions thereon in the course of 2 or three days.” (Fitzpatrick, Diaries of George Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Diaries of George Washington (Boston, 1925). description ends , IV, 139.)
On Wednesday, July 14, Washington again took up the question of the proper treatment to be accorded Beckwith. After a conversation with H and John Jay, the Chief Justice, Washington directed that in his conversations with Beckwith H should:
“treat his communications very civilly—to intimate, delicately, that they carried no marks official or authentic, nor in speaking of Alliance, did they convey any definite meaning by which the precise object of the British Cabinet could be discovered. In a word, that the Secretary of the Treasury was to extract as much as he could from Major Beckwith and to report to me, without committing, by any assurances whatever, the Government of the U. States, leaving it entirely free to pursue, unreproached, such a line of conduct in the dispute as her interest (and honour) shall dictate.” (Fitzpatrick, Diaries of George Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Diaries of George Washington (Boston, 1925). description ends , IV, 143.)
2. In the first sentence of this letter, H stated that the interview with Beckwith was held “on Thursday the 22d instant.” Beckwith, on the other hand, stated that the conversation was held on July 15. (See “Conversation with George Beckwith,” August 7–12, 1790). It is, of course, not possible to determine which of the two men was correct, but as it seems unlikely that H would have waited eight days before carrying out the plan of action agreed upon with Washington (see note 1), July 15 has been accepted as the more likely date.
3. See note 2.
5. Gouverneur Morris.
6. The question of the extent to which Beckwith, an unofficial representative, could speak for the British Ministry and the question of Morris’s credentials had been discussed by H and Beckwith on July 8, 1790 (see H to Washington, July 8, 1790).
7. The conversation reported by H also was reported by George Beckwith to Lord Dorchester. Beckwith’s account reads as follows:
“I have communicated to the President, the subjects, on which we have conversed; however authoritative they may be on your part, in so far as respects Lord Dorchester, and however evident it is to me that His Lordship is apprized by Your Cabinet of Mr. Morris’s Agency, yet You must be sensible, that official formality is wanting, but it is conceived that His Lordship would not have gone the lengths he has, without being acquainted with the general views of your administration, as they respect this country. Having premised this, I feel warranted to assure You, that there is the most sincere good disposition on the part of the government here to go into the consideration of all matters unsettled between us and Great Britain, in order to effect a perfect understanding between the two countries, and to lay the foundation for future amity; this, particularly as it respects commercial objects, we view as conducive to our interest.
“In the present stage of this business it is difficult to say much on the subject of a Treaty of Alliance; Your rupture with Spain, if it shall take place, opens a very wide political field; thus much I can say, we are perfectly unconnected with Spain, have even some points unadjusted with that Court, and are prepared to go into the consideration of the subject.
“The speeches or declarations of any persons whatever in the Indian Country or to the westward, suggesting hostile ideas respecting the forts, are not authorized by this government.
“Lord Dorchester’s conduct with respect to the Indians is held by us to be a strong proof of His Lordship’s dispositions to promote harmony and friendship.
“It appears to me that, from the nature of our Government, it would be mutually advantageous, if this negotiation could be carried on at our seat of government, as it would produce dispatch and obviate misconception.” (Dorchester to William Wyndham Grenville, September 25, 1790, Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario; PRO: C.O. description begins Transcripts or photostats from the Public Records Office of Great Britain deposited in the Library of Congress. description ends , 42/69 f. 16-25.)