To William Heth
[Philadelphia] June 26, 1792
This accompanies an official letter.1 I acknowlege, I doubt the accuracy of the opinion of the Attorney General on the last point.
A law is not to be so litterally construed as to involve absurdity and oppression. The legislature might reasonably restrain its officers from future buying and selling of stock, but could not reasonably prevent their making a disposition of property, which they had previously acquired according to the laws of their country.2
At the same time for greater caution I should in my own case follow the strict interpretation.
All my property in the funds is about 800 Dollars 3 per Cents. These, at a certain period, I should have sold, had I not been unwilling to give occasion to cavil.
The restriction itself, as it respects the officers of the Treasury, and I rather think the commissioners of loans, is a wise & unexceptionable one. But the propriety of its further extension is not obvious, and I doubt whether it will be lasting.3 The act passed in a prodigious hurry.
Copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
2. Regulations concerning conflict of interest were coeval with the establishment of the Treasury Department. A change in the law, which had apparently provoked Heth’s question, was made during the spring of 1792. These regulations were changed again in March, 1793.
Section 8 of “An Act to establish the Treasury Department,” applicable only to the six major officers appointed by the act, provided in part: “That no person appointed to any office instituted by this act, shall directly or indirectly be concerned or interested in carrying on the business of trade or commerce, or be owner in whole or in part of any sea-vessel, or purchase by himself, or another in trust for him, any public lands or other public property, or be concerned in the purchase or disposal of any public securities of any State, or of the United States, or take or apply to his own use, any emolument or gain for negotiating or transacting any business in the said department, other than what shall be allowed by law; and if any person shall offend against any of the prohibitions of this act, he shall be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and forfeit to the United States the penalty of three thousand dollars, and shall upon conviction be removed from office, and forever thereafter incapable of holding any office under the United States” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 67 [September 2, 1789]).
On May 8, 1792, Section 12 of “An Act making alterations in the Treasury and War Departments” provided: “That the restriction on the clerks of the department of the treasury so far as respects the carrying on of any trade or business, other than in the funds or debts of the United States or of any state, or in any kind of public property, be abolished, and that such restriction, so far as respects the funds or debts of the United States, or of any state, or any public property of either, be extended to the commissioner of the revenue, to the several commissioners of loans, and to all persons employed in their respective offices, and to all officers of the United States concerned in the collection or disbursement of the revenues thereof, under the penalties prescribed in the eighth section of the act, intitled ‘An act to establish the treasury department,’ and the provisions relative to the officers of the treasury department, contained in the ‘Act to establish the post-office and post roads,’ shall be and hereby are extended and applied to the commissioner of the revenue” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 281).
3. H’s doubts concerning the permanence of this provision of the 1792 act proved to be justified. Section 6 of “An Act supplementary to the act, entitled, ‘An act to provide more effectually for the collection of the Duties imposed by law on Goods, Wares and Merchandise, imported into the United States, and on the Tonnage of Ships or Vessels’” repealed that part of the 1792 provision which prohibited the revenue officers of the Treasury Department from selling Federal and state securities (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 337 [March 2, 1793]).