Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from Robert Cowper, 16 April 1796

From Robert Cowper1

Suffolk Virginia Apl. 16 1796


About three weeks past I Recd two letters, one from the post Master of Philadelphia Coining one bearing the Signature of A. Hamilton True Copy of which I now Send you with the Deposistion of Caleb Haskins who Recd the letters at Suffolk and dld. them to Robert Patton post master Philadelphia. Also Send you Copys two others which Came at the Same time and was Conveyed to Philadelphia and back to Suffolk in the Same manner as those above) directed to Doctor Stephen Graham his letters as you See is Sign’d Wm. E. Van Allen from which you will Sufficiently Comprehend the Infamous procedure.2 Attempts to injure Charecters in this manner must Excite the Execrations of men of all parties and Descriptions and whatever difference of Sentiments may Exist upon great political Subjects there Can be but one Sentiment upon a business of this nature, that is that it becomes a duty Incumbent in my opinion on all Concern’d, to unite their Exertions in bringing to Justice men So Maliciously Inclined. This man Bradford, as you will See by the Deposistion of Haskins was accompanied by a tall Genteel man Dressed in a mix’d Coloured Coat who took the letters from his pocket and did them to Sd. Bradford who deld them to Haskins with the Charge. Now sir permit me to observe as to the proof against Bradford the papers here Inclos’d will I hope bear Sufficient Testimony and with reference to his Companion I shall here observe, that the Description Haskins gives of the man, and from a Similitude of handwriting of the letter Signd A. Hamilton with that of a Certain Gentleman who is the Intimate friend and acquaintance of Bradford—with other Strong Circumstances such as asking one or two of his acquaintances on post days the Questions, have you been to the post office—are there no large Packets from the north—upon being Answer’d no he Express’d his Surprise and upon the arrival of those letters this Gentlemen finding the Transaction was like to take a Serious Turn was frequently Seen in Close Conversation with Sd. Bradford. I must here observe that Some Eighteen months ago there was Several letters of a Similar nature Recd. by many Gentlemen in Norfolk and this place. Doctor Graham and myself at that time was favour’d with two Each. Doctor Grahams was in the Same Stile of his last—mine was on a different Subject, but upon Shewing those last letters to the Gentlemen Generally, who Recd the first it was Concluded that their was a Great Likeness in the hand writing. Upon this the parties met together and Sent for Doctor Bradford and upon asking him Questions Respecting those letters he declared and Said he was willing to make oath that he Knew nothing of the first letters—Laying Great Stress on the words first letters—and did not positively deny the last nor would he own or acknowlede them—during this Examination a Gentleman answering the description of that, Haskins Gave of the one in Company with Bradford when the letters was deliver’d without being Call’d upon or Even told by any of the parties Concernd that he was Suspected Solicited an Interview with one of the Gentlemen who had Recd. Two of the first letters they accordingly met when this Gentleman observed I Know the nature of your meeting today and I know I am Suspected of writing those letters when he observd much as Bradford had done as to the first I declare I Know nothing about them and will make oath to it not denying or owning the last, the Gentleman Eluded to is of Consequence in this County (Nansemond) and Shall be made Known to you or your attorney if you think proper to prosecute in this Case and for this I pledge my honour. The Signatures of the letter in your name; there are Gentlemen who is well acquainted with the Hand writing of this nameless Gentleman) of Respectibility, that I believe would Swear to it if required at least they have tolled me they would. Now Sir you will I make no doubt agree with me and Say that Conduct like this merits punishment—you therefore perceive I have Instituted a prosecution against Bradford for the purpose above mentioned—Wheather you or myself are most injured or attempted to be injured I Know not. Shall Therefore make you a Tender of my Services on this oration and will with a Singular Satisfaction afford all the aid within the Compass of my power to any person who you may Charge with a prosecution on your behalf. The whole design of these letters I have not as yet been Enabled to develope but have a Conviction that a Sufficient degree of malignity is Discovered to Call for punishment for it Such practices are permitted to pass with impunity, the power of Society is ever exposed to the assaults of every person thus disposed. I was Desired by Doctor Graham who is Called to No Carolina on Business to forward you Copys of his letters as your name is therein involved and that you are at Liberty to use them but he requests that Mr. Van Allen and Mr. Baily3 may also have the Use or Recourse to them—that if they think proper to take any Steps in this Infamous Transaction they may be assisted thereby. The Originals I Shall take Care of which will be at all times Subject to you and your attorneys Inspection your determination on this business I will thank you to Communicate as Soon as may be Convenient as I have determined to have them publish’d Should you not be disposed to take any Steps therein otherwise I Shall be Governd by you; Haskins is a Seafaring man and Hath a family liveing in Broadway New york and at present sails with a Capt. Decker4 who will deliver you this. Decker lives on Staten Island and is Imployd. in the Shingle Trade between this and New york. The Circumstances attending this Transaction hath made me lenthy which I hope will plead an Excuse. This man Bradford is of Sufficient Consideration to merit punishment, as is also the other with whome you are more Imediately Concernd. If the fact Can be Established of this time and Circumstances will determine the practice is an Infamous one and ought to be noticed.

With Every Sentiment of Respect   I am Sir   Yr. mo. Ob Hume Serv

Robert Cowper

ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.

1Cowper apparently lived in the Upper Parish of Nansemond County, Virginia, from before 1790 until his death on March 23, 1812. The report of his death refers to him as “Captain” (Virginia Magazine of History and Biography [October, 1899], VII, 213; [July, 1955], LXIII, 335).

Accompanying this letter are five enclosures, all of which are copies in Cowper’s handwriting and all of which are located in the Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress. These enclosures are William E. Van Allen to Stephen Graham, February 6, 1796; H to Cowper, March 3, 1796; Robert Patton to Cowper, March 14, 1796; Deposition of Caleb Haskins, April 9, 1796; Cowper to Patton, April 17, 1796.

This letter concerns two letters (Van Allen to Graham, February 6, 1796, and H to Cowper, March 3, 1796) which were forged to discredit H. The letter to Graham contains a report that H had told the writer that he was planning to run for the Presidency in 1796. The letter to Cowper purports to be “a Discussion and Vindication” of H’s “political Sentiments and official Conduct” and concludes: “In my next I will be more particular.… The president resigns next June—my Countrymen are Solicitous that I Should become a Candidate for office—this I should at least have been persuaded to do but wished first to Know the Sentiments of the Southern states—will you give me some information on the Subject you may rely on it I shall not be ungrateful.”

In April, 1796, the two recipients of the forged letters instituted a suit in the Suffolk District Court against Dr. Richard H. Bradford of Suffolk as the alleged author of the forgeries. The records of this court were destroyed by fire in 1866, but the deposition of Haskins throws some light on how the forged letters were mailed and discovered. This deposition reads in part: “… This deponant … Saith that on the Second day of March last … Doctor Richard H. Bradford accompanyed by a man unknown to this Deponant Came to this deponant in the Street of Suffolk and gave him a Packett of Letters directed to the post office Philadelphia which packet the Said Bradford requested this deponant to Take Charge of, and there to deliver them Safely Stating that they were letters of Great Importance. this deponant further Saith that he received the Said packet of Said Bradford and promised him that he would do as was requested, and … on his arrival at Philadelphia he took the Same Packet which was Sealed and on the 14th. day of the Same month delivered, the said packet in post office at Philadelphia to Robert Patton the post master.

“This deponant Saith that Patton the post master after opening the Said Packet ask’d this deponant where he got them from this Deponant answered from Suffolk. Said Patton then asked this deponant who it was that Gave them to him and this deponant told him that Doctor Bradford gave them to him and desired him to be particularly Carefull of them which he had been. this deponant being ask’d by Robert Cowper if he was personally acquainted with Doctor Bradford answered in the affirmative …

“… this deponant Saith that the man who accompanied Bradford was a tall genteel man dressed in a mixed Coloured Coat and that the Said man Took the Packet out of his Pocket and Gave it to the Said Bradford who deliverd it to this deponant with the Charge aforesaid.…” (AD, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.)

On the same day on which Haskins delivered the forged letters to the Philadelphia post office, Patton wrote to Cowper, described what had happened, and stated that he was “apprehensive there is some trick intended.” On April 17, 1796, Cowper wrote to Patton thanking him for his letter of March 14, and describing the contents of the forged letters.

2The forger made a mistake in signing the letter “William” E. Van Allen. He intended the letter to appear to come from John Evert Van Allen (Alen), a member of the House of Representatives from Rensselaer County, New York.

3Theodorus Bailey, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Dutchess County, New York. The part of the forged letter which Van Allen was supposed to have written to Graham referring to Bailey and H reads: “… I must in the first Place inform you that your Cousin Theodorus Bailey is reelected a member of Congress, his Election is the more pleasing as I am Satisfied he will help his old Friends all he Can and may procure us Some lucrative post under the Government. But to Come at once to the main Subject of my letter. I must relate to you a Conversation I yesterday had with our best friend A Hamilton I waited on him Early yesterday morning on motives entirely of friendship, to enquire of his and family’s welfare &c. I had marked on my entrance his Brow clouded and rivetted into Some uncommonly important reflections as Soon as we were alone he unbosomed himself thus ‘I have Certain information that the president will resign in the progression of the next Summer and that Jefferson will be thrust into his place—this as you must be well aware Does not Coincide with my System and must by Some mean or other be averted, that Cool Casuistic Frenchified fellow will in a little time undo what I have been so many years labouring to accomplish I have Come to the resolution of offering myself a Candidate for that place. I hold it (says he) as a principle that when the object we have in view is a good one, we may take any measure whatever to obtain it to this end you may well imagine that the dollars I have heapd together whilst handling the governments Cash will not be without their use. You understand me: write to your Friends disclose my intentions and hint to them that they shall not loose by their attachment to me I understand your Cousin Stephen Graham has Settled very advantageously in Virginia his Connexions are probably Extensive and influential write him, assure him, his purse Shall not be lighter for his Good wishes.’ …”

4Isaac Decker, a resident of Port Richmond, Staten Island, was a Loyalist during the American Revolution. After the war, he moved to Shelburne, Nova Scotia. He subsequently returned to Staten Island and remained there until shortly before his death.

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