Alexander Hamilton Papers

To Alexander Hamilton from Oliver Wolcott, Junior, 17 October 1796

From Oliver Wolcott, Junior


Philada. October 17. 1796

Dear Sir,

Permit me to ask your opinion on the following points.1

1. Ought we or ought we not to permit Sales of Prizes to French national Ships of War, as formerly, in payment of duties?

2. In case of an affirmative answer to the first question; What is to be regarded as evidence of a national Ship? Will the Certificate of a French Commissioner in the West Indies, or of a Consul or the French Minister in the United States be sufficient provided nothing appears in the Commission of the Vessel contradictory to their Certificate.

3. May we keep an Inspector of the Revenue on board a prize during her continuance in our Ports?

4th. In case a prize requires reparation, may a part of her Cargo be sold, sufficient to defray expences, on payment of duties?

5th. In case a prize Vessell is condemned, as incapable of reparation, may the Prize goods be exported in one or other Neutral Vessells as French Property?

6th. Who is to Judge when it is necessary to unlade a Vessell for the purpose of making reparations, is the suggestion of a French Prize Master or Consul sufficient?

7th. Shall the Cargoes of Prizes be sold or any part of them for the reparation of any Vessell, or the payment of any expence, not incident to the identical Vessell in which the Cargoes arrived?

8th. Who is to Judge of the quantity sufficient for making reparations, in case any Sale is lawful?

9th. If after a Vessell is condemned as incapable of reparation She should be notwithstanding repaired, is she to be permitted to depart?

10th. Is it or is it not, the right of a Collector, to treat French Prizes, in the same manner as Vessells, which report themselves as bound to a Foreign Port or which arrive in distress: See Sect. 18th. & 38th. of the Collection Law.2

The 18th. & 38th. Sections of the Collection Law appear to have provided for cases not very dissimilar from those of Prizes to Privateers, which in contemplation of Law must be considered as coming into our Ports merely for refreshments; the requiring of a Bond on their departure may not however be proper.

We shall on the subject of these Prizes be vexed with every kind of uncandid ingenuity—there is danger of loosing the Revenue, while at the same time Sales may not be prevented. You will see that not only public questions which affect our neutrality, but Revenue questions are concerned. There are too many who will not miss a good opportunity to purchase West India produce when it can be had below the market price. In every point of view the subject is embarrassing. Please to reply as soon as possible.

In haste I remain   Yrs with much respect

O. W.

Alexander Hamilton Esquire

Copy, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford; LC, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford.

1Wolcott requested this information to assist him in the preparation of a Treasury Department circular to the collectors of the customs. The circular, dated November 26, 1796, reads: “For regulating the conduct of the Officers of the Customs respecting prizes to French privateers commissioned against the subjects of Great Britain, I am directed to communicate the following instructions:

“1st. The privilege of unloading the said prize vessels when they are so damaged as to be totally incapable of reparation, is to be permitted; but in such cases the unloading and storing of the cargoes must be done with the permission and under the inspection of the proper Officers of the United States.

“2d. The cargoes of prize vessels found to be totally incapable of reparation, may be permitted to be exported in American or other vessels; but such cargoes so exported, must be described in the Manifests, Clearances, Bills of Lading, & other documents of vessels as French property.

“3d. A prize vessel being damaged and reported to be in a situation capable of and requiring reparation, may be unloaded and her cargo stored as abovementioned, and so much of her cargo may be permitted to be sold as shall be bona fide requisite to defray the expenses of necessary reparations. Upon the quantities sold, duties are to be collected as in other cases. Of the quantities and amount in value to be sold for the purpose of making necessary reparations, the Collectors are to be the sole judges—except that in doubtful cases special references may be made to this Department.

“4th. The surveys in cases of alledged damage are to be invariably made by men of reputation, to be designated by the Collectors, who are to report the condition of the prize vessels, whether they be irreparable or not & if reparable, their opinion of the expenditures which such reparations will require.

“5th. All goods or merchandize unladen from prize vessels are to be deposited in Stores, secured with two locks, one key of which is to remain with the Collector, and the other with the agent of the prize. All expenses of unlading and storage, other than the compensation of inspectors and other officers of the Customs, are to be defrayed by the agents of the prizes.

“6th. The proceedings relative to the unlading, storage, and sale of any part of the cargoes of prize vessels, are to be governed as nearly as may be practicable by the rules established by the 38th Section of the collection law, for vessels arriving in distress.

“7th. During the continuance of prize vessels in the ports of the United States, they are to be subject to constant inspection at the expense of the United States, and in case goods or merchandize shall be unladen without permission, they are to be seized.

“8th. Reports are to be made to this Department of all prizes to French vessels arriving in the ports of the United States specifying their condition as requiring reparation or otherwise; of the articles composing their cargoes; of all goods unladen & stored conformably to the foregoing regulations—of all sales or any part of the said cargoes for the purpose of defraying the expense of necessary reparations, and of all shipments in neutral or other vessels, permitted in consequence of condemnations of prize vessels.

“It being the object of the foregoing regulations to protect the revenue from loss, to preserve the property of prizes from destruction, and to secure their departure from our ports, subject to the risk of recapture, the strict and impartial attention of the Collectors is specially requested.” (Copy, RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, 1790–1799, National Archives.)

2These sections of “An Act to provide more effectually for the Collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels” read: “Sec. 18. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for the said ship or vessel to proceed with any goods, wares or merchandise brought in her which shall be reported by the said master or other person having the charge or command of the said ship or vessel, to be destined for any foreign port or place from the district within which such ship or vessel shall first arrive, to such foreign port or place, without paying or securing the payment of any duties upon such of the said goods, wares or merchandise, as shall be actually re-exported in the said ship or vessel accordingly; any thing herein contained to the contrary notwithstanding. Provided always, That the said master or person having the charge or command of the said ship or vessel shall first give bond with one or more sureties, in a sum equal to the amount of the duties upon the said goods, wares and merchandise, as the same shall be estimated by the collector to whom the said report shall be made, to the satisfaction of the said collector, with condition that the said goods, wares or merchandise, or any part thereof, shall not be landed within the United States, unless due entry thereof shall have been first made, and the duties thereupon paid or secured according to law, which bond shall be cancelled in like manner as bonds herein after directed to be given for obtaining drawbacks of duties. Provided nevertheless, That such bond shall not be required in respect to the goods on board of any ship or vessel which shall have put into the United States from necessity, to be made appear in manner herein after prescribed.…

“Sec. 38. And be it further enacted, That if any ship or vessel from any foreign port or place, compelled by distress of weather or other necessity, shall put into any port or place of the United States, not being destined for the same; and if the master or person having charge or command of such ship or vessel, together with the mate or person next in command, shall, within twenty-four hours after her arrival, make protest in the usual form upon oath before a notary public, or other person duly authorized, or before the collector of the district where the said ship or vessel shall so arrive, who is hereby empowered to administer the same, setting forth the cause and circumstances of such distress or necessity, and shall within forty-eight hours after such arrival, made report to the said collector, of the said ship or vessel and her cargo as in other cases. And if it shall be made appear to the said collector, by the certificate of the wardens of the port, or other officers usually charged with, and accustomed to ascertaining the condition of ships and vessels arriving in distress, if any such there be, or by the certificate of any two reputable merchants, to be named for that purpose by the said collector, if no such wardens or other officers there be, that there is a necessity for unlading the said ship or vessel, the said collector shall grant a permit for that purpose, and shall appoint an inspector or inspectors to oversee such unlading. And all goods so unladen shall be stored under the direction of the said collector; who, upon request of the master or other person having charge or command of such ship or vessel, or of the owner thereof, shall grant a license to dispose of such part of the said cargo as may be of a perishable nature (if any there be) or as may be necessary to defray the expenses attending such ship or vessel, and her cargo; Provided, That the duties thereupon be first paid. And the said goods, or the remainder thereof, may afterwards be reladen on board the said ship or vessel, and the said ship or vessel may proceed with the same to the place of her destination, free from any other charge than for the storing and safekeeping of the said goods.” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 159–60, 167 [August 4, 1790].)

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