To George Washington
[New York, June 16, 1796]1
I have received information this morning of a nature which I think you ought to receive without delay. A Mr. Le Guen, a Frenchman, a client of mine and in whom I have inspired confidence, and who is apparently a discreet and decent man, called on me this morning to consult me on the expediency of his becoming naturalized, in order that certain events between France and the U States might not prejudice him in a suit which I am directed to bring for him for a value of 160,000 Dollars.2 I asked him what the events to which he alluded were. He made me the following reply under the strictest injunctions of confidence. “I have seen a letter from St Thonax3 to Mr. Labagarde4 of this City informing him that a plan was adopted to seize all American vessels carrying to any English Port provisions of any kind to conduct them into some French Port, if found to be British property to condemn them, if American, to take them on the accountability of the Government—adding that he must not thence infer that it was the intention to make war upon the U States—but it was with a view to retaliate the conduct of Great Britain, to keep supplies from her, and to obtain them for themselves, and was also bottomed on some political motives not necessary to be explained. That it was also in contemplation when Admiral Richery arrived, if the Ships could be spared to send five sail of the line to this Country.”5 Fearing he said that this might produce a rupture between the two Countries he had called to consult me on the subject &c.6
I asked his permission to make the communication to you. He gave me leave to do it, but with the absolute condition that the knowlege of names was on no account to go beyond you and myself. I must therefore request Sir that this condition be exactly observed. He has promised me further information.
I believe the information, as well because the source of it under all the circumstances engages my confidence, as because the thing appears in itself probable. France wants supplies and she has not the means of paying & our Merchants have done creditting.
It becomes very material that the real situation should as soon as possible be ascertained & that the Merchants should know on what they have to depend. They expect that the Government will ask an explanation of Mr Adet7 & that in some proper way the result will be made known.
It seems to become more and more urgent that the U States should have some faithful organ near the French Government to explain their real views and ascertain those of the French. It is all important that the people should be satisfied that the Government has made every exertion to avert Rupture as early as possible.8
Most respectfully & Affect I have the honor to be Sir Yr. Obed serv
The President of the U States
ALS, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress; copy, in the handwriting of Washington, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress; copy, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
1. Washington endorsed this letter: “without date But recd. the 23. June 1796.” At the bottom of the copy which Washington made of this letter, he wrote: “This letter has no date; but came by the Post of Wednesday, to Alexandria, under cover from The Secretary of the Treasury.” For evidence that H wrote this letter on June 16, 1796, see Oliver Wolcott, Jr., to H, June 17, 1796.
In Hamilton, History description begins John C. Hamilton, Life of Alexander Hamilton, a History of the Republic of the United States (Boston, 1879). description ends , VI, 466, this letter is dated June 26, 1796. In JCHW description begins John C. Hamilton, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1851–1856). description ends , VI, 133, and HCLW description begins Henry Cabot Lodge, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1904). description ends , X, 177, it is dated June, 1796.
2. Louis Le Guen was a merchant in New York City. The suit to which H is referring was one of a series of cases in which H served as Le Guen’s attorney. For these cases, see Goebel, Law Practice description begins Julius Goebel, Jr., ed., The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton: Documents and Commentary (New York and London, 1964– ). description ends , II, 48–164.
3. In the margin opposite “St. Thonax,” H wrote “Santhonax.” The reference is to Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, one of the French commissioners appointed in the spring of 1792 to govern Santo Domingo.
4. This is apparently a reference to Peter Delabigarre, a native of France and a New York City merchant, who owned land at Red Hook, New York, and was a protégé of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston. Delabigarre also knew Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet, former French Minister to the United States, for on June 30, 1794, he wrote to Livingston: “Notre envoy est enfin parti et fauchet m’a promis devenir passer quelques jours à Redhook …” (ALS, New-York Historical Society, New York City). Delabigarre, who took up various schemes, including a papermaking venture with Livingston and the foundation of a colony at Tivoli, New York, went bankrupt in 1800 and eventually moved to New Orleans.
5. Although a squadron commanded by Admiral Joseph de Richery conducted a successful campaign against the British fisheries in the North Atlantic in the summer of 1796, the rumor that he would send part of his squadron to the United States was unfounded.
6. A somewhat fuller version and a covering letter by “A Citizen” were printed in the [Philadelphia] Gazette of the United States, June 20, 1796. They read as follows: “Mr. [John] Fenno, I send you the substance of a letter from a man in public office under the French Republic at the Cape, to another Frenchman in this country, which was read by a confidential friend of his, and the particulars from memory communicated to me. It is very material that our merchants should be generally apprized of the plan, and as I have no doubt of the authenticity of the intelligence, I think it my duty to publish it thro the channel of the press. The manner in which it comes to me, does not permit me to disclose the source—but you who know your author will not I am sure, scruple to vouch for the goodness of the authority.
“‘It is determined to seize and bring in all American vessels laden with provisions which shall be met with bound to any English port. These will undergo a severe examination, & when the property appears to be British, it will be confiscated; where it is clearly and without suspicion American it will be detained, but paid for, according as the means in our power furnish. For this conduct we have several motives—to keep the supplies from our enemies, to obtain them for ourselves. The embarassed state of the finances of the republic has much narrowed the means of paying for what is wanted from abroad, and after what has happened, we cannot expect much future succour from our credit with the American merchants. Besides we have some political reasons. It is well the merchants who have so zealously supported the treaty with Great Britain should see that there are two sides to the question, and that by temporizing with our enemy, they will not enjoy that full exemption from the inconveniences of war which they have promised themselves. It is also essential that we should support our friends in America, by fulfilling their predictions of evil from the treaty. Perhaps you may shortly see a French fleet on your coast.
“‘But do not imagine that there will be war with America. This will not happen. The republic has no disposition to a final rupture with that country, and we have no fears that it will come to an open breach with us. Notwithstanding the coalition between Pitt and Washington, we are well assured by our confidential friends that the attachment of the American people to the French nation will oblige the government to be passive, that if its folly should prompt it to a rupture with us, there will be more to put on the tri-coloured cockade, than to join the standard of the hypocritical Washington.’”
This letter was reprinted in the [Philadelphia] Aurora: General Advertiser, June 21, 1796.
7. Pierre Auguste Adet.