Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from William Heth, 23 December 1793

From William Heth

Collectors Office
Bermu Hundred [Virginia] 23d Dec. 1793



At our District Court last Week, a Petition was prescribed to the Judge to be transmitted to you,1 by Gurdon Backus in the suit which I instituted on the Registry bond for the Sl. Rambler, wch I informed you in July last,2 was sold in Africa. Tho I am not calld upon specially to make any observations on this case, Yet I hope, my opinion thereon, will not be considerd by you, as an improper communication; especially when I assure you that I feel myself impelled by Duty, to tell you what I think on the subject.

Joseph Cary—decd—late Master of the Vessel, was one of those very few Men in his line, in whom I had much confidence. I do not believe he was capable of Swearing to an untruth—and, had he lived, I could never have seen him suffer in this affair, without extreme concern. But, the owner, is the Man, whom I have more than once mentioned to you, as the only Person in this District, whom, I have good reason to believe, has defrauded the revenue of the United States, by an illicit trade; and whom, I cannot help thinking, is capable of any thing in that way. The Rambler, you must know, was barterd for Natives of Africa, & who were brought to the number of 104—in Another Vessel of Mr. Backus—calld the Beaufort—D. Lovett Master—and sold in St. Castalia. Cary, himself, in conversation with me, “wished he had sold the register with the Vessel—as he was offerd either two, or four Negros for it”—observing, “that they could then have afforded to pay the penalty of the bond.”

Now tho’ I am well satisfied that Cary, was inreverent of the loss of the Register; Yet, I am as fully persuaded, that some one in Backus employment, & better calculated to obey his mandates than Cary, was instructed on leaving this Country, that in case Cary should sell the Rambler, & he could find that a valuable consideration could be had for the Register, to get possession of it, & deliver it up without the knowledge of Cary; so that he might be able with safety, to make oath on his return, to the loss of it. Lovett, for instance, might think himself Justifiable in executive such a project of his employers. And Cary confessed to me, that he had not a doubt, but the purchasers of the Vessel, were in possession of the Register. And I do not understand, that Cary has sworn, that he never found any of the articles lost at same time. There is another circumstance which gives me an unfavorable opinion of Mr Backus in this Affair. Cary, more than once complaind to me of Mr B.s intentions to make him pay—if possible—every dollar of the penalty, if recoverd—A strong proof with me, as it was with Cary—that he had not an Idea of Justice, generosity, or gratitude. To every thing which I have here stated as facts, I am willing to swear and I would also swear that, I firmly believe, what I have given as opinion only.

I am Dear sir,   most sincerely Yours

W Heth

Colo A Hamilton

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

1This petition had been presented in the Virginia District Court on December 20, 1793. It reads in part as follows: “To the Honorable Cyrus Griffin Esquire Judge of the United States for the District of Virginia, the Petition of Gurdon Backus of the Town of Peterburg Merchant and David Meade Randolph humbly sheweth: That upon the 14th. day of June, 1790 the said Gurdon Backus as Owner of a Sloop called the rambler of the burthen of sixty Tons with Joseph Carey Master of the said Sloop since deceased and David Meade Randolph as Security executed a Bond to the United States in the Office of the District of Bermuda Hundred in the Penalty of 800 Dollars for the due return of the Certificate of the Register of the said Sloop according to Law in Case the said Sloop should be destroyed Sold or lost in any foreign Port, that the said Sloop was on a Voyage to Africa sold at Sinegambea to a Foreigner by the said Joseph Carey the Master that three days after the said Sale and before the said Master had removed his baggage from on board the said Sloop, the Trunk of the said Carey was stolen, which contained the said Certificate of the register as well as other valuable Papers and Articles of the said Carey. That the said Carey made diligent Search and endeavoured by advertisement &c to recover the same but could never recover it, that after the Arrival of the said Carey at Bermuda Hundred he made report of the Circumstances aforesaid to the Collector of that Port.… That your Petitioners are advised that this is an omitted Case in the Law aforesaid and if so your Petitioners humbly pray that from the Hardship of the Case your Honor will recommend the same to Alexander Hamilton Esquire, Secretary of the Treasury for the remission of the Penalty of the Bond aforesaid …” (LC, Records of the District Court of Virginia, Archives Division, Virginia State Library, Richmond).

The inability of the ship’s master to deliver the Rambler’s register was a violation of Section 9 of “An Act for Registering and Clearing Vessels, Regulating the Coasting Trade, and for other purposes” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 57 [September 1, 1789]), which required ship captains and owners to give bond not to dispose of the certificate of registry and provided a penalty of eight hundred dollars if the ship in question was between fifty and one hundred tons burden. According to this section of the “Registering Act,” if a transfer of ownership took place in a foreign port, the ship captain was required to deliver the register to a collector of the customs within eight days after his arrival in a United States port. See also Sections 13, 14, and 15 of “An Act concerning the registering and recording of ships or vessels” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 294–95 [December 31, 1792]). No provision had been made in these laws, however, for the loss of the certificates of registry of vessels which had been sold in foreign ports.

The petition to the District Court was submitted to H under the terms of “An Act to provide for mitigating or remitting the forfeitures and penalties accruing under the revenue laws, in certain cases therein mentioned” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 122–23 [May 26, 1790]), which provided for appeal in such cases to the Secretary of the Treasury. The petition was sent to H by the court on February 3, 1794, and on March 17, 1794, H returned a statement to the court stating that it “doth not appear to my Satisfaction that the said Penalty is within the Powers of remission and Mitigation vested in me” and refusing to remit the penalties (LC, Records of the District Court of Virginia, Archives Division, Virginia State Library, Richmond).

2Letter not found.

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