Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to Jedidiah Morse, [4 January 1796]

To Jedidiah Morse1

[New York, January 4, 1796]2


You will confer a favour upon me by permitting me to render you the little service which may be in my power on the present occasion & without compensation. Be assured it will give real pleasure & let that be my recompence.

Mr. Kent & I have conferred on your affair.3 It is necessary for us to see the book in question in order to a safe opinion. Can one be had?

With respect & esteem   Sir   Your obed serv

A Hamilton

ALS, Free Library of Philadelphia; copy, New-York Historical Society, New York City.

1Morse, the famous geographer, was minister of the First Congregational Church, Charlestown, Massachusetts.

2H mistakenly dated this letter “1795.”

3Morse had requested H’s aid in a case of plagiarism. William Winterbotham, in An Historical, Geographical, Commercial and Philosophical View of the United States of America and of the European Settlements in the West Indies (4 Vols., New York: Printed by Tiebout and O’Brien, 1796; and London: Printed by J. Ridgway, 1795), had copied from one of the several editions of Morse’s The American Geography; or, A View of the Present Situation of the United States of America (1st ed., Elizabethtown, 1789). Morse described the plagiarism in the following letter which he wrote to James Kent on January 21–25, 1796: “Agreeably to my engagement I forward to you & Mr Hamilton, 21 numbers of Winterbotham’s History of America, being all that have yet been printed in this country. I have marked with a pencil, what he has taken from my Work, referring to the pages from whh he has copied, so that in a short-time you can now examine for yourselves—by one taking the copy of Winterbotham whh I send & the other a copy of the last Editn. of the Geogy. Vol. I.—& I should be glad you wd. compare them that you might see the nature of the work & how artfully, in many instances, he has transposed paragraphs & sentences, apparently with a view to deceive the reader. In some instances the transposition of the matter of the Work has benefitted it—in more, it has in my opinion been altogether immaterial, & in not a few, it has injured the Work.

“You will easily perceive by a comparison of the titles & plans of the two works that they very nearly resemble each other. Winterbotham’s title is a nearer imitation of the title of the first than of the last editn. of the Geogy. Wish you wd. have at hand the Old Editn when you make the comparison. You told me I think yt. you had it. It appears to me that Winterboth⟨am’s⟩ Work may not improperly be styled ‘an ⟨en⟩largement of mine, on the same plan.’ We both begin our Works with a ‘history of the Discovery of America.’ Instead of my summary he has given it at length—by inserting in connection, & verbatim 165 pages (the whole of Ch. 2d.) from the first Vol. of Robertson’s America. We next proceed to give a ‘General description of America.’ Mine is pretty lengthy but his varied in matter, (though similar in arrangement,) by copious extracts from Clavigero, Franklin, &c. &c. We next give a Summary account of the Discovery & settlement of N. America; there we perfectly agree, as you will see, he having copied from me verbatim the whole of this Article & also the two next, viz. the general Description & Divisions of N. America. Then, instead of proceeding (as I have thought) in natural order, he passes over the particular Descriptions of the British Dominions & proceeds to the General Acct. of the U. States & leaves the forementioned Dominions to be described after the U.S. where he introduces my acc’t of the British Dominions almost verbatim. In our general Acct of the U.S. you will see we also exactly agree for a great number of pages. He leaves out however, the Natural history, in what I conceive to be its proper place, but he inserts it verbatim in future numbers not yet printed in N. York. It is proper that you shd. know that I have the English Editn. of this Work complete, & that the N.Y. edit. has hitherto been taken p. for p. from it. You will notice his various enlargements on the Constitution, trade manufactures &c. of the U.S.—particularly that he has taken the whole of Mr. Hamilton’s report on Manufactures, instead of an Abstract as I have done. In the history of the Revolution he has greatly enlarged having taken about 170 pages from Dr. Ramsay, in addition to what he has copied from mine. We then travel together through all the States & you will see that we very well agree. He has indeed, inserted the Constitutions, (two or three instances excepted) at large & also the census of the several states, where I have only given Abstracts. He has also made some additions to the History & many transpositions. And the Descriptions of N. Hamp Virginia & Kentuckey, he has almost entirely copied, from Belknap, Jefferson, & Imlay & Filson—from the former he has taken, in different parts of the Work about 230 pages & whh is nearly the Whole of his 3d. Vol. But I need not add the work will speak for itself. I have sd. thus much, merely to save you the trouble of a critical examination of the Work—or rather to assist you in it.

“After going over the Work with care & a great deal of labour, I have estimated that nearly a third part of the whole of Winterbothams work, has been copied verbatim from my work, or about 600 pages out of about 2000. In the 21 Nos. I send you, I make, of what is marked as from my Work, about 485 pages—& from the other 12, not yet printed about 114. The 4 Vols of Winterbotham contains 2023 pages. The first vol of my Geogy. contains 696 pages exclusive of yr Introduction, whh makes 62 pages—somewhat larger indeed than Winterbotham’s, so that Winterbotham was not far from the Truth when he sd. that the whole of M’s Geogy. was contained in his Work.

“Jany. 25th On running over this rough sketch of a Letter I find it contains some things not mentioned in the other—mixed with some that are. It may be of some use & I enclose it.” (ADfS, Yale University Library.)

The books to which Morse is referring are: William Robertson, The History of America (London: Printed for W. Strahan; T. Cadell, in the Strand; and J. Balfour, at Edinburgh, 1777); Abbé D. Francesco Saverio Clavigero, The History of Mexico (trans. [from Italian] by Charles Cullen, 2 Vols., London: G. G. J. & J. Robinson, 1787); Benjamin Franklin, Two Tracts: Information to those who would remove to America. And, Remarks concerning the Savages of North America (London: John Stockdale, 1784); David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution (2 Vols., Philadelphia: R. Atken & Son, 1789); Jeremy Belknap, The History of New-Hampshire (3 Vols.: Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Printed for the Author by Robert Atkin, 1784; Vol. 2, Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer T. Andrews, 1791; Vol. 3, Boston: Belknap and Young, 1792); Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Philadelphia: Prichard and Hall, 1788); Gilbert Imlay, A Topographical description of the Western Territory of North America; containing a succinct account of its Climate, Natural History, Population, Agriculture, Manners and Customs (New York: Samuel Campbell, 1793); John Filson, The Discovery, Settlement And present state of Kentucke: and An Essay towards the Topography, and Natural History of that important Country … (Wilmington: Printed by James Adams, 1784).

The case of Jedidiah Morse v John Reid was tried in the United States Circuit Court for the District of New York with H as Morse’s attorney. In April, 1798, the Court ordered Reid, a New York City bookseller who in 1796 had reprinted Tiebout and O’Brien’s edition of Winterbotham’s book, "to desist and refrain from the further reprinting and publishing... of the Book entitled ’A Geographical Commercial and Philosophical view of the present situation of the United States of America’..." and to pay Morse $262.50 (RG 21, United States Circuit Court for New York, Old Equity Case Files, 1792-1827, Box 5, National Archives; RG 21, MS Minutes, United States Circuit Court for the District of New York, 1790-1808, under the dates of September 5, 1796, April 8, September 5, 1797, April 2, 4, 6, 1798, National Archives).

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