Alexander Hamilton Papers

From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [25–31 January 1797]

To George Washington

[New York, January 25–31, 1797]1


The sitting of the Court2 and an uncommon pressure of business have unavoidably delayed an answer to your last favour.3 I have read with attention Mr. Pickerings letter.4 It is in the main a substantial and satisfactory paper, will in all probability do considerable good in enlightening public opinion at home—and I do not know that it contains any thing which will do harm elsewhere. It wants however in various parts that management of expression & suaviter in modo which a man more used to diplomatic5 communication could have given it and which would have been happy, if united with its other merits.

I have reflected as maturely as time has permitted on the idea of an extraordinary mission to France, and notwithstanding the objections, I rather incline to it under some shape or other. As an imitation of what was done in the case of Great Britain, it will argue to the people equal solicitude. To France it will have a similar aspect (for Pinckney will be considered there as a mere substitute in ordinary course to Mr. Monroe) and will in some degree soothe her pride. The influence on party, if a man in whom the opposition has confidence is sent, will be considerable in the event of non success. And it will be to France a bridge over which she may more easily retreat.

The best form of the thing in my view is a commission including three persons who may be called “Commissioners Plenipotentiary & extraordinary.” Two of the three should be Mr. Madison and Mr. Pinckney.6 A third may be taken from the Northern states and I know none better than Mr. Cabot7—who or any two of whom may be empowered to act.

Mr. Madison will have the confidence of the French & of the opposition. Mr. Pinkney will have something of the same advantage in an inferior degree. Mr. Cabot without being able to prevent their doing what is right will be a salutary check upon too much Gallicism, and his real Commercial knowlege will supply their want of it. Besides that he will enjoy the confidence of all the friends of the Administration. His disposition to preserve peace is ardent and unqualified.

This plan too, I think will consist with all reasonable attention to Mr Pinkneys feelings.

Or (which however I think less eligible) Mr. Madison & Mr. Pinkney only may be joint Commissioners—without a third person.

Mr. Cabot (if appointed without being consulted) will I think certainly go. If not the other two may act without him.

The power to the Commissioners will be to adjust amicably mutual compensations and the compensations which may be due by either party and to revise and remodify the political and commercial relations of the two Countries.

In the exercise of their power they must be restrained by precise instructions to do nothing inconsistent with our other existing Treaties or with the principles of construction of those with France adopted by our Executive Government as declared in its public acts and communications & nothing to extend our political relations, in respect to alliance—but to endeavour to get rid of the mutual guarantee in the Treaty8 or if that shall be impracticable to stipulate specific succours in lieu of it, as so many troops, so many ships, so much money &c, strictly confining the casus fœderis to future defensive Wars after a general & complete pacification terminating the present War, and defining offensive war to be where there is either a first declaration of War against the ally, or first commission of actual hostility on the territory or property of the ally by invasion or capture.9 As to Commerce with the above restrictions there may be full discretion. These are merely inaccurate outlines.

Unless Mr. Madison will go there is scarcely another character that will afford advantage.

Cogent motives of public utility must prevail over personal considerations. Mr. Pinckney may be told in a private letter from you that this is an unavoidable concession to the pressure of public exigency & the state of internal parties.

With true respect & Affect Attachm   I have the honor to be   Sir Yr. Very Obed servt.

A Hamilton

The President.

ALS, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

1In JCHW description begins John C. Hamilton, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1851–1856). description ends , VI, 194, HCLW description begins Henry Cabot Lodge, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1904). description ends , X, 223, and 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, 573, this letter is dated January 22, 1797.

2The January term of the New York Supreme Court began in New York City on January 17, 1797.

5In MS, “dispolatic.”

6On December 22, 1796, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney had been named United States Minister Plenipotentiary to France to succeed James Monroe (Executive Jounral, I, 217).

7George Cabot was a Massachusetts merchant and Federalist politician who had been a member of the United States Senate from March 4, 1791, to June 9, 1796, when he resigned.

8This is a reference to Article 11 of the Treaty of Alliance between France and the United States signed at Paris on February 6, 1778. In this article the United States agreed to guarantee French possessions in the New World “against all other powers,” and France guaranteed the territorial integrity and the “liberty, Sovereignty, and Independence absolute, and unlimited” of the United States (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 39–40).

9H’s discussion of the casus fœderis refers to Article 12 of the Treaty of Alliance between France and the United States. This article stipulated that “in case of a rupture between france and England,” the reciprocal guarantee of Article 11 of the treaty “shall have its full force and effect the moment such War shall break out” (Miller, Treaties, II description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America (Washington, 1931), II. description ends , 40).

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