Alexander Hamilton Papers

Conversation with George Hammond, [15–16 April 1794]

Conversation with George Hammond1

[Philadelphia, April 15–16, 1794]

The project of appointing a special commissioner to Great Britain having been … for some time in contemplation, I have necessarily been solicitous to obtain some precise knowledge of the objects of the negociation which will be committed to him.2 I therefore took occasion from the receipt of your Lordship’s last dispatches3 and in the course of one or two days afterwards to have some conversation with Mr. Hamilton on the subject of them, and I flattered myself that from communicating to him confidentially and informally the very conciliatory explanations, with which your Lordship furnished me, of the instructions of the 6th of November and of the modifications of them on the 8th of January,4 I might derive the right of requiring an equal confidential communication on his part with relation to the special commission in question. I was however much surprized at perceiving that he did not receive those explanations with the cordiality I expected, but entered into a pretty copious recital of the injuries which the commerce of this country had suffered from British cruizers, and into a defense of the consequent claim which the American citizens had on their government to vindicate their rights. At the same time he added that it was the wish of the government to avoid proceeding to extremities and previously to attempt any mode of amicable negociation: that for this purpose a person would be sent to the West Indies with a view of instituting appeals in every case of prize which would admit of them,5 and that, for those cases wherein either from a defect of the law or from any other obstacle of a like nature, (such as the necessity of commencing appeals within a limited time) that process could not be followed, this government would expect from his Majesty’s government an ample compensation for any loss that American citizens might have sustained from the interpretation put on the instruction of the 6th of November by the Judges of the Courts of Admiralty in the West Indies. And that for the accomplishment of this last mentioned object, either himself, Mr. King, or Mr. Jay6 would be deputed to Great Britain. This language appearing to me so closely to resemble a doctrine professed in the house of representatives, I was determined to obtain a satisfactory explanation of the view of this administration on this essential point: I therefore desired him to inform me expressly, whether I was to understand from what he had advanced, that as an indispensable condition of an amicable arrangement the Gentleman who might be employed in this negotiation would be instructed to require from his Majesty’s government a compensation for all vessels which might have been captured in the British West Indies, and for the recovery of which appeals could not or might not be instituted. To this he replied that the Gentleman who would be dispatched to the West Indies, would be directed to abandon all cases of prize in which the property of the cargo should be satisfactorily proved to be French:7 but that in the cases in which the proof should not have been conclusive, or for which appeals could not be instituted, this government would expect from Great Britain an indemnification for any loss resulting from the two causes last assigned as an indispensable basis of friendly adjustment. In answer to this explanation, I observed—that from my own personal knowledge I was convinced that artifices to cover property really French under the denomination of American had been practised to such an extent and under such disguises that I did not esteem the deficiency of strictly legal proofs in some instances to be presumptive of general inculpability in others, and that therefore it would require a very nice criterion to ascertain with accuracy the distinction—that the instructions of the 6th of November were definite in their import, were merely declaratory of the system which Great Britain had pursued in former wars in relation to a traffic carried on by neutral nations with her enemy in time of war, or which was not tolerated in peace, and that therefore it was little probable that any prizes could have been condemned under those instructions which would not have been condemned under the former system—that no government could presuppose either ignorance or corruption in any judges employed within its dominions, but that if accusations of this nature could be proved against any of the Judges of the Court of Admiralty in the West Indies, I doubted not that they would be immediately punished—that in every possible case his Majesty’s government would I was certain not throw any impediments in the way of appeals which might be prosecuted—but that in no case could the British Government require from the nation a pecuniary compensation to be granted for injuries sustained by the citizens of a neutral power, (if any such had been really sustained) which that government could not contemplate and which it had certainly not authorized—that in every war powers that are neutral must expect to suffer some inconveniences; but that if ever those inconveniences should not be too nicely scrutinized, they certainly should not be so in a war like the present, in which (as he had often agreed with me) all the dearest interests of society were involved, and which was a contest between government and disorder, virtue and vice, and religion and impiety—and that in the prosecution of this most just of wars the government and people of Great Britain, united as they were in a common interest beyond the precedent perhaps of any former period (as indeed the war itself was without example) could not be intimidated by any menaces from the exercises of any just principles of carrying it on, which they had found it necessary to establish, and, though they would certainly not violate the rights of neutral powers, they could as certainly not suffer those powers to derive from the existence of the war and from the distress of our enemy a commerce which, however, advantageous it might be to them, would be perhaps more beneficial to our enemy. Here Mr. Hamilton interrupted me with some degree of heat and remarked that however the government and people of Great Britain might be united against France, he doubted not that when the wrongs which the American Commerce had suffered were known in Great Britain, a very powerful party might be raised in that nation in favor of this country.8 In answer to this insinuation, I contented myself with expressing my astonishment at his indulging a belief, which however it had been entertained by the demagogues of the house of representatives, and by the uninformed mass of the American Community, I should never have ascribed to him, and thus I dropped the conversation, which thence took another turn, and we parted amicably. But as I was apprehensive of forming an erroneous opinion on the main point on which Mr. Jay’s negociations seem likely to turn, I yesterday in an accidental conversation with Mr. Hamilton renewed the inquiry, whether I had understood him rightly with respect to the demand, of an indemnification for all American vessels that had been captured by British cruizers and for which appeals could not be prosecuted, being a condition indispensable to an amicable adjustment of this difference. To this he answered in the affirmative, but added that Mr. Jay’s instructions upon this point as well as on the others which have been so long in discussion between the two countries and which he will be directed to endeavor likewise to arrange, will be couched in the most conciliatory language, and will evince the most sincere desire on the part of this government to settle all the grounds of dispute subsisting between the two countries on an amicable and permanent principle.

Though this conversation may be partly considered as confidential, and though I cannot pretend to accuracy in regard to particular expressions, I have esteemed it my duty to be thus circumstantial in detailing it, since your Lordship will thence be enabled to form an opinion of the nature of the negociation in which Mr. Jay will be engaged, and to appreciate the extent of the prevailing popular ferment by the operation of which the apprehensions or feelings of Mr. Hamilton, who has hitherto been uniformly the most moderate of the American Ministers, have been so much excited, as they appear to have been in the conversations I have related.

D, PRO: F.O. description begins Transcripts or photostats from the Public Record Office of Great Britain deposited in the Library of Congress. description ends , Series 5, Vol. 4.

1This conversation has been taken from Hammond to Lord Grenville, April 17, 1794, Dispatch No. 15.

2Hammond is referring to the appointment of any envoy extraordinary to Great Britain. See H to George Washington, April 14, 1794.

3Hammond is referring to the dispatches of January, 1794, which reached him in April. See Mayo, Instructions to British Ministers description begins Bernard Mayo, ed., “Instructions to the British Ministers to the United States,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1936 (Washington, 1941), III. description ends , 44–52.

4For the orders in council of November 6, 1793, and January 8, 1794, see H to Washington, March 8, 1794.

5Earlier in his letter to Grenville, Hammond had stated that the United States Government “within the last three days has dispatched a Gentleman of Philadelphia to the British West Indies for the purpose of instituting in these islands appeals in the cases of such American prizes as may appear to him to have been illegally condemned, and of securing an indemnification on the part of the United States to any individuals who may become sureties for the prosecution of such appeals.” This is a reference to the appointment of Nathaniel C. Higginson as a special agent of the Department of State to enter appeals in cases of prizes condemned under the British order in council of November 8, 1793. See H to Washington, April 2, 1794; “Cabinet Meeting. Opinion on a Request for a Passport,” April 2, 1794. Higginson’s instructions, dated April 11, 1794, may be found in RG 59, Domestic Letters of the Department of State, Vol. 6, January 2–June 26, 1794, National Archives.

6Rufus King and John Jay. King wrote the following account of a meeting he held with Hammond on April 7, 1794: “Not having met Mr. Hammond the English Minister for some weeks in public, and the debates of the House of Representatives, as well as the popular conversations being angry on the Subject of the capture of our Vessels by the English Privateers I concluded to make him a visit—he appeared to be pleased with the attention, and expressed his regrets that others whom he called his Friends had forborn to visit him for some time past. We soon fell into conversation relative to the Situation of the two Countries. I expressed to him my opinion of the injustice of his Country in seizing our Vessels, and observed that the order of the 6th of November 1793, the Speech of Lord Dorchester to the Canada Indians, and other circumstances, led me to apprehend, that England had actually meditated a war with us. But that either a more mature examination, the reverses of the Campaign, or some other Cause, seemed to have suspended if not changed her intentions. He replied with apparent Candour; by observing that he would admit what he had not been willing should be supposed to be the Fact that Dorchesters Speech was genuine—that he had hoped it would not have found its way to the Public, since he would tell me in confidence that Dorchester was not authorized to have made the Speech—that with regard to the Order of the 6th. November when we should Know the unworthy, and prevalent practices of our Merchants in covering with their names and our Flag French property, it would appear less extraordinary that the order in question should have been issued—that the subsequent Instruction of the 8th. January revoked it, and that Lord Granville had declared, that unless the Vessels would have been liable to condemnation independent of the existance of that order, that no condemnation could be had under, or in virtue of it. That by our own principals we had no ground of complaint ’till we had pursued our claim to the highest judiciary Tribunals of the English Nation—that there was no doubt that every facility would be given on the subject of appeals, and that all irregularities would be corrected, in their Court of Appeals.

“I remarked that the generality, and peculiar nature of these Cases, took them out of this Rule, and that where distribution had been already made, the remedy would prove ineffectual—that therefore upon the principle of the last, or revoking instruction, the Nations would be bound to give us compensation.

“He said he did not believe that this would be done—that difficulties would exist of such a nature, as would prevent compensation—that no money would be paid unless by consent of Parliament, and that the personal embarrassments to which the Ministry would be liable by pursuing this course, would forbid an expectation that it would be adopted.

“I remarked that these were small considerations, that indeed, there seemed to be a series of difficulties of the like size, which had, and which I feared would, in future prevent that good understanding between the two Countries which their respective interests so evidently required. That the Subject of British Debts, the payment for the Negroes, and the Posts, were all of no value or consequence to Great Britain—that the two former were really of small consideration to us—but that our Nation was young, that we were Still new in the management of national affairs and that it was not easy with us, as with them, to decide questions of this nature, especially when they mingle with their private interest, and political prejudice. That the loss of the whole Debt was nothing, when compared with the loss of a good understanding between the two Nations. He replied that we did not differ materially in our Opinions, and said that it was difficult to write with that Freedom, with which we could speak, but that he believed if he could return to England that he could effect a Settlement of all points between the Countries. That the Merchants in England were very troublesome to the Ministry, that their representations, and complaints, had proved pernicious; but that he was of Opinion that they ought not to be so much attended to.…” (Rufus King’s notes, March 10–May 6, 1794 [D, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.])

7Samuel Flagg Bemis maintains that by this statement H indicated that he “expressly acquiesced in the Rule of the War of 1756” (Bemis, Jay’s Treaty description begins Samuel Flagg Bemis, Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (Reprinted: New Haven, 1962). description ends , 274–75). In the light, however, of the fact that the Rule of War of 1756 held that “all trade was forbidden to neutrals in time of war that was not open to them in time of peace” (Moore, International Adjudications, IV description begins John Bassett Moore, ed., International Adjudications: Ancient and Modern, History and Documents, Together with Mediatorial Reports, Advisory Opinions, and the Decisions of Domestic Commissions, on International Claims (New York, 1931), IV. description ends , 18), this interpretation appears untenable. Rather, H appears to be acquiescing in the British denial of the principle that free ships make free goods.

8This view had also been expressed in Congress. On April 14, 1794, in the course of the debate on the proposed Non-Intercourse Bill, Representative Zephaniah Swift of Connecticut commented that “if we conducted a negotiation without giving offence, it was probable we should obtain influence of the British subjects in our favor. If, when the American merchants in London, discovered the order of the 6th of November, they were alarmed, and immediately demanded an explanation of the Court, this shows that there is a powerful interest in that country in favor of a commercial connexion with this. If we do nothing to wound their pride this influence will be exerted to preserve the connexion” (Annals of Congress description begins The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , IV, 578).

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